Using cannabis is unlikely to cause acne. However, the chemicals in cannabis, like THC, bind throughout the body and alter the amount of the body’s natural chemicals. Hormones seem to be affected by THC use, which may affect levels of acne.
What Causes Acne?
Pores naturally excrete an oily substance, called sebum, to lubricate your skin and hair. Interestingly, this is the same pathway that THC is excreted through, gets absorbed in hair follicles, and can be found on drug tests. While THC and other chemicals do not cause acne through this excretion pathway, debris– like dead skin cells or bacteria– can clog the pore and cause a build up of oil.
Likewise, there are some bacteria that colonize in the skin and consume sebum. The main bacteria within the pores is named Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), and when sebum increases due to diet or hormonal changes, P. acnes will proliferate, expand and clog the pores.
Once a pore is clogged, more dead cells or miscellaneous debris will accumulate under the skin and the immune system will try to clear this blockage by initiating inflammation and sending white blood cells to this area. However, this immune response causes the redness and white puss of a pimple.
When acne grows or if it is squeezed, that force can break the skin underneath the surface and cause acne scars. While shallow acne scars often go away quickly, they prolong acne blemishes long after the pimple itself is cured. Unfortunately picking or scratching these spots will only further damage the skin. Perhaps the best recommendations that dermatologists give is to wash and moisturize areas of acne scars, but to more-or-less leave these areas alone, because more damage will cause more prominent scars.
The presence and severity of acne can be caused by several factors such as diet, amount of exercise, or hormones. All of these factors are affected by cannabis use.
How Does Cannabis Affect Hormones?
The main psychoactive compound found in cannabis is THC, which produces its effects through the endocannabinoid system (ECS) by binding the CB1 and CB2 receptors. THC, like many small molecules, binds different receptors found on cells which will produce different effects depending on the location of the cell.
The ECS is found throughout the body including the pancreas, sex organs, and various brain domains such as the hypothalamus and pineal. THC binding in the brain affects hormone levels and balance because THC and various hormones will compete with the CB1 and CB2 receptors causing dysregulation in hormone production.
Testosterone, specifically, is among many of the hormones that can be affected by THC. While testosterone is commonly thought of as a biologically-male hormone, all humans produce some basal level which affects certain characteristics, like acne.
While there have been varying results for testosterone-production and marijuana use, the most recent and widely looked at study showed THC decreases the total amount of testosterone for a short period after use. This means that people who use cannabis are likely to experience fluctuations in testosterone levels which can in turn affect sebum amounts and, potentially, levels of existing acne.
However, there are many caveats to this story. Current studies were conducted in biological males since they produce naturally higher levels making changes easier to see. However, for this research to be understood throughout the entire population, there needs to be more trials. Furthermore, hormonal changes affect everyone differently, so simply connecting testosterone to acne is not as easy as it seems.
Can Cannabis Use Indirectly Cause Acne?
Unfortunately, the high sensation produced by cannabis may cause behaviors that promote acne. If you have used cannabis before you have likely experienced being red-eyed, lethargic and scanning the kitchen cabinet for a snack to suffice your endless hunger. Perhaps the best snacks to silence your stomach are soul-foods and sugary treats, but from the perspective of acne, diet is one of its leading causes. Therefore, it may not be the cannabis itself that is causing acne outbreaks, but it could be the indirect result of its effects like eating fatty foods, or not being too active.
Can Cannabis Help Treat Acne?
While THC does change hormone concentrations which can potentially impact levels of acne, cannabis is made of thousands of different compounds, many of which have anti-oil and anti-inflammatory effects. Among these compounds is cannabidiol (CBD) which is a non-psychotropic compound commonly used as a muscle relaxant and anti-anxiety. CBD is present in cannabis and hemp, and has recently been shown to help treat acne.
CBD is a natural anti-inflammatory which means it helps alleviate swelling and redness caused by injury or infection. CBD, also, directly interacts with the ECS of skin cells to counteract sebum production and decrease the number of sebocytes– sebum producing cells. Together, these effects of CBD help decrease the amount of inflammation surrounding acne, and inhibit the number of cells that often clog pores.
While this may help treat acne, there is currently no strong scientific support for acne scar treatment by CBD. However, moisturization and hydration of acne scarring areas have been shown to decrease darkness and severity of these regions which many of these creams will provide.
Are There Any Side-Effects of CBD as an Acne Treatment?
Scientists categorize CBD as a “favorably safe” chemical profile due to its lack of psychotropic or harmful long-term effects.
Users that consume CBD in high-levels may experience nausea and fatigue, but the vast majority of CBD acne treatments are topical; therefore, users are unlikely to have any of these effects.
If you apply CBD and you have any unwanted effects– itchiness, skin reddening or irritation– then wash off the treatment because you may be having an allergic reaction. If this occurs stop use, and place a cold wash-clothe to alleviate irritation.
Some CBD Acne Products Available:
Many companies have begun infusing CBD into many of their moisturizers to decrease inflammation and provide a rejuvenating look while treating acne:
Acne Treatment Medicated Cream ($30) by Charlotte’s Web uses hemp derived CBD to alleviate and help prevent acne outbreaks.
Skin Dope 100mg CBD Recovery Face Moisturizer ($68) by Sephora offers a CBD rich facial cream that helps alleviate inflammation and acne.
Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil Herbal Concentrate Face Oil ($52) by Kiehl’s has extracted CBD rich oil from cannabis seeds and combined it with moisturizing cream to help treat acne-prone skin.