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Topicals in California

In the diverse landscape of California’s cannabis industry, topicals have carved a unique niche. These non-intoxicating, skin-centric products, ranging from balms and lotions to patches, offer a fusion of therapeutic benefits without the hallmark “high” of cannabis. 

As Californians increasingly prioritize wellness and holistic health, the allure of cannabis-infused topicals has grown. They promise relief from ailments like pain and inflammation, all while fitting seamlessly into daily skincare routines. 

But beyond their therapeutic appeal, topicals also tell a story of innovation, cultural shifts, and the broader journey of cannabis acceptance in the Golden State.

As we delve deeper into the world of topicals in California, we’ll explore their historical roots, their present-day significance, and the promising future they hold in the ever-evolving cannabis sector.

Introduction to Topicals

What are Topicals?

Topicals represent a category of products designed for external application, typically on the skin. Unlike other cannabis products consumed orally or inhaled, topicals work locally. They are infused with active cannabis compounds, primarily cannabinoids like THC and CBD. 

When applied, these compounds interact with the skin’s endocannabinoid system, providing targeted relief without entering the bloodstream in significant amounts. This means users can reap the therapeutic benefits of cannabis without experiencing the traditional “high.”

Different Forms of Cannabis Topicals

The world of cannabis topicals is diverse, catering to various needs and preferences:

  • Creams: These are smooth, thick preparations designed to hydrate the skin while delivering the benefits of cannabis. They’re often used for conditions like dry skin, eczema, or localized pain.

  • Balms: Typically denser than creams, balms have a thicker consistency. They’re ideal for targeted relief, especially for joint pains or muscle soreness.

  • Lotions: Lighter than creams, lotions spread easily and are absorbed quickly. They’re perfect for general moisturizing while offering the therapeutic effects of cannabis.

  • Patches: These adhesive products provide a steady release of cannabinoids over time. Once applied to the skin, they offer prolonged relief, making them suitable for chronic conditions.

  • Salves and Ointments: These are semi-solid mixtures that melt upon application. Rich in oils and fats, they provide a protective barrier, locking in moisture and the therapeutic properties of cannabis.

  • Gels: Often cooling upon application, gels are water-based topicals that are quickly absorbed. They’re commonly used for inflammatory conditions or post-workout recovery.

Each form of topical offers a unique experience, allowing users to choose a product that aligns with their specific needs and desired outcomes. Whether seeking relief from pain, inflammation, or skin conditions, there’s likely a cannabis topical tailored for the purpose.

Historical Context of Topicals in California

Traditional Uses of Cannabis-Infused Topicals

Long before the modern cannabis industry took shape in California, indigenous and local communities recognized the therapeutic potential of the plant. Cannabis-infused oils and balms were traditionally used to treat a myriad of ailments:

  • Pain Relief: Native tribes and early settlers often applied cannabis-infused oils or poultices to wounds or sore areas to alleviate pain. These preparations were especially valued for their anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Skin Conditions: Eczema, burns, and rashes were commonly treated with cannabis salves. The plant’s natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds provided relief and accelerated healing.

  • Rituals and Ceremonies: Beyond just therapeutic uses, some communities integrated cannabis topicals into rituals, using them as anointing oils or for massages during sacred ceremonies.

Evolution with the Broader Cannabis Movement in the State

As California’s relationship with cannabis evolved, so did the role of topicals:

  • Early 20th Century: With the rise of pharmaceuticals and increasing regulations, the use of traditional cannabis remedies, including topicals, waned. The plant faced stigmatization, and its therapeutic applications were overshadowed.

  • 1960s and 1970s: The counterculture movement of the ’60s and ’70s brought a renewed interest in natural remedies and holistic health. Cannabis, and by extension, topicals, began to regain some of their lost popularity, especially in communities that championed alternative medicine.

  • 1996 – Proposition 215: A watershed moment for all cannabis products in California, Proposition 215 (the Compassionate Use Act) allowed for the medical use of marijuana. This legislation paved the way for a resurgence in cannabis topicals, as patients sought out non-intoxicating ways to harness the plant’s benefits.

  • Modern Day: With the continued liberalization of cannabis laws and the boom of the wellness industry, topicals have found a prominent place in California’s cannabis market. Today, they’re celebrated not just for their therapeutic properties but also as a fusion of skincare and holistic health.

In essence, while topicals in California have roots in age-old traditions, their journey mirrors the broader evolution of cannabis in the state. From ancient remedies to modern wellness products, topicals have both shaped and been shaped by California’s dynamic relationship with cannabis.

Production and Ingredients

Common Ingredients in Cannabis Topicals

Cannabis topicals, while centered around the therapeutic properties of cannabis, often incorporate a variety of other ingredients to enhance their efficacy and provide additional benefits:

  • Cannabinoids: The primary active ingredients, cannabinoids like THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), are responsible for many of the therapeutic effects of topicals. Some products may also contain other cannabinoids like CBN (cannabinol) or CBG (cannabigerol).

  • Essential Oils: Many topicals include essential oils for added therapeutic effects and fragrance. Lavender might be added for its calming properties, while eucalyptus can offer a cooling sensation.

  • Carrier Oils: Oils like coconut, jojoba, or almond are often used as bases for cannabis topicals. They help in the even distribution of cannabinoids and enhance skin absorption.

  • Butters and Waxes: Ingredients like shea butter or beeswax give topicals their texture and consistency. They also provide moisturizing benefits.

  • Vitamins and Antioxidants: Some topicals are enriched with vitamins like Vitamin E, which offers skin-nourishing benefits and acts as a preservative.

  • Herbs and Botanicals: Ingredients like arnica, calendula, or chamomile might be added for their skin-soothing and anti-inflammatory properties.

The Science Behind Cannabis-Infused Topicals: How They Interact with the Skin

The skin, our body’s largest organ, is more than just a protective barrier. It’s a dynamic system with its own endocannabinoid system (ECS) – a network of receptors and compounds that play a role in skin health, sensation, and homeostasis.

  • Endocannabinoid System and Skin: The skin’s ECS comprises receptors (primarily CB1 and CB2) that interact with cannabinoids. When cannabis topicals are applied, the cannabinoids bind to these receptors, providing localized effects.

  • Absorption: Unlike other forms of cannabis consumption, topicals work primarily on a local level. The skin’s outermost layer, the stratum corneum, acts as a barrier. While some smaller molecules like CBD might penetrate this barrier to provide deeper relief, most of the effects of topicals are limited to the application area.

  • Therapeutic Effects: By interacting with the skin’s ECS, cannabis topicals can address a range of issues. They can reduce inflammation, alleviate pain, and soothe skin irritations. The localized action means that users don’t experience the systemic effects or “high” associated with other consumption methods.

  • Synergistic Effects: The combination of cannabis with other ingredients in topicals can lead to enhanced therapeutic outcomes. For instance, the anti-inflammatory properties of both CBD and arnica can amplify each other when combined in a topical.

The science of cannabis-infused topicals lies in the intricate dance of ingredients and the skin’s own systems. Through targeted action and the synergistic effects of combined ingredients, these products offer a unique and potent avenue for harnessing the benefits of cannabis.

Medical Benefits and Therapeutic Uses

Conditions Treated with Topicals

Cannabis topicals have gained traction in the medical community and among patients for their targeted therapeutic effects. Here are some conditions they address:

  • Pain Relief: One of the most common uses of cannabis topicals is for pain management. Whether it’s joint pain from arthritis, muscle soreness after physical activity, or chronic pain conditions, topicals can provide localized relief without systemic side effects.

  • Skin Conditions: Eczema, psoriasis, and other inflammatory skin conditions can benefit from the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids. Additionally, the moisturizing ingredients in topicals can help alleviate dryness and itching associated with these conditions.

  • Inflammation: Beyond just skin inflammation, topicals can be used for conditions like tendonitis or swelling from injuries. The anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids, combined with other ingredients like arnica or calendula, can reduce redness, warmth, and swelling.

  • Burns and Wounds: Some users find relief from the pain and inflammation of minor burns and wounds using cannabis topicals. The antibacterial properties of certain ingredients can also aid in preventing infections.

  • Headaches and Migraines: While not as common, some individuals apply cannabis topicals to the temples or neck to alleviate tension headaches or migraines.

How Topicals Differ from Other Cannabis Consumption Methods in Terms of Effects

The distinction between topicals and other cannabis consumption methods lies in their mode of action and the resulting effects:

  • Localized vs. Systemic Effects: When you consume cannabis through smoking, vaping, or edibles, the cannabinoids enter the bloodstream, producing systemic effects that impact the entire body. Topicals, on the other hand, work at the site of application, providing localized relief without affecting the whole system.

  • Absence of Psychoactive Effects: Unlike other consumption methods, especially those involving THC, topicals don’t produce a “high.” Even if a topical contains THC, the molecule doesn’t enter the bloodstream in significant amounts, ensuring users can get therapeutic benefits without psychoactive effects.

  • Duration of Effects: The effects of topicals tend to be more prolonged at the application site since the product remains on the skin and continues to release cannabinoids over time. In contrast, the effects of inhaled or ingested cannabis might be more intense initially but can wane more quickly.

  • Safety and Side Effects: Topicals have a favorable safety profile. Since they don’t produce systemic effects, the risk of side effects like dizziness, anxiety, or altered perception is minimal. However, there’s always a potential for skin reactions, which is why patch tests are recommended.

In essence, cannabis topicals offer a unique way to harness the plant’s therapeutic potential. They provide targeted relief, ensuring that users can address specific issues without the broader effects or potential side effects associated with other consumption methods.

Usage and Application

Proper Ways to Apply Cannabis Topicals

Using cannabis topicals effectively requires a bit more than just slathering them on. Here’s a guide to ensure optimal results:

  • Clean the Area: Before applying any topical, it’s essential to clean the skin to remove dirt, oils, or any barrier that might prevent absorption. A simple wash with soap and water will suffice.

  • Apply Generously: Unlike regular lotions, a little more product is often needed to ensure the cannabinoids penetrate the skin. However, it’s always best to start with a small amount and add more if needed.

  • Massage Thoroughly: For best results, massage the topical into the skin. This not only ensures even distribution but can also improve blood flow to the area, enhancing the product’s effects.

  • Reapply as Needed: Depending on the severity of the symptoms and the product’s formulation, reapplication might be necessary. Always follow the product’s instructions or a healthcare provider’s recommendations.

  • Avoid Broken Skin: While topicals can be used for minor cuts or burns, it’s essential to avoid applying them to open wounds unless the product is specifically designed for such use.

What to Expect: Onset, Duration, and Intensity of Effects

Understanding what to anticipate when using cannabis topicals can help set realistic expectations and ensure safe use:

  • Onset: The effects of topicals are typically felt within minutes of application. However, the exact time can vary based on the product’s formulation and the skin’s condition. For instance, a product with higher alcohol content might be absorbed faster than a thicker cream.

  • Duration: The relief provided by cannabis topicals can last several hours. Again, the exact duration will depend on the product’s formulation and the amount applied. Patches, designed for slow release, can offer relief for extended periods, sometimes up to 12 hours or more.

  • Intensity: The intensity of the effects will largely depend on the product’s potency and the amount applied. However, it’s worth noting that the effects of topicals are localized and subtle. Users shouldn’t expect the intense sensations associated with other cannabis consumption methods. Instead, relief will be felt at the application site, addressing the specific issue without broader systemic effects.

Cannabis topicals offer a targeted and controlled way to harness the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids. Proper application and understanding what to expect can ensure users get the most out of their product, experiencing relief safely and effectively.

Legal Landscape in California

Historical Legal Milestones Specific to Topicals

The legal journey of cannabis topicals in California is intertwined with the broader cannabis movement in the state:

  • Pre-1996: Before the Compassionate Use Act, cannabis in all forms, including topicals, was illegal in California. However, underground markets and holistic health communities still utilized cannabis-infused balms and salves for therapeutic purposes.

  • 1996 – Proposition 215: The Compassionate Use Act marked a turning point. While the focus was primarily on medical marijuana for internal consumption, this legislation indirectly paved the way for the legal production and use of cannabis topicals for medical purposes.

  • 2016 – Proposition 64: The Adult Use of Marijuana Act expanded the legal framework to include recreational cannabis. This legislation meant that topicals, whether for medical or recreational use, could be legally produced and sold, provided they adhered to state regulations.

Current Regulations: Labeling, Potency Limits, and Licensing

California has established strict guidelines to ensure the safety and transparency of all cannabis products, including topicals:

  • Labeling: All cannabis topicals must have clear labels indicating the amount of THC and CBD, a full list of ingredients, and recommended usage instructions. Labels must also include any potential allergens and a universal symbol indicating that the product contains cannabis.

  • Potency Limits: For recreational products, there’s a limit on the amount of THC that can be present in topicals. As of the last update, this limit is set at 1,000 mg of THC per package for adult-use products and 2,000 mg for medical products.

  • Licensing: Producers of cannabis topicals must obtain a manufacturing license from the state. This ensures that they adhere to quality control standards, testing protocols, and other safety measures.

Retail and Distribution Laws for Cannabis Topicals

The sale and distribution of cannabis topicals are also regulated to ensure consumer safety:

  • Retailers: Only licensed dispensaries or retailers can sell cannabis topicals. Both medical dispensaries and adult-use (recreational) stores can carry topicals, but the product’s potency might vary between the two.

  • Age Restrictions: Just like other cannabis products, topicals can only be sold to individuals who are 21 years or older for recreational use. For medical use, patients 18 and older can purchase with a valid medical marijuana recommendation.

  • Packaging: All topicals must be sold in child-resistant packaging to prevent accidental ingestion or use by minors.

  • Distribution: Distributors transport topicals from manufacturers to retailers. They are responsible for ensuring products undergo required testing and that they adhere to track-and-trace requirements set by the state.

The legal landscape for cannabis topicals in California has evolved significantly over the years. From being a part of underground markets to now being sold in licensed dispensaries with strict regulations, topicals have come a long way, reflecting California’s progressive stance on cannabis and its derivatives.

Safety and Quality Control

Testing Standards for Purity and Potency

Ensuring the safety and efficacy of cannabis topicals is paramount, and California has implemented rigorous testing standards:

  • Purity: Before reaching consumers, topicals undergo testing for contaminants. This includes checks for pesticides, solvents, heavy metals, and microbial impurities like mold or bacteria. Only products that meet the state’s stringent purity standards are allowed on the market.

  • Potency: Accurate potency ensures that consumers get a product that matches its label. Laboratories test topicals to determine the exact concentrations of cannabinoids, primarily THC and CBD. This ensures that products are consistent and reliable in their effects.

Importance of Transparent Labeling

Transparent labeling is more than just a regulatory requirement; it’s a cornerstone of consumer safety and education:

  • Ingredient List: A comprehensive list of ingredients helps consumers make informed choices, especially if they have specific allergies or skin sensitivities.

  • Cannabinoid Content: Clearly indicating the amount of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids ensures users know the strength of the product, helping them use it effectively and safely.

  • Usage Instructions: Proper application instructions guide users, especially those new to cannabis topicals, ensuring they get the desired therapeutic effects without overuse.

  • Expiration Date: Like all skincare products, topicals have a shelf life. An expiration date ensures consumers use the product while it’s still effective and safe.

Addressing Potential Concerns: Allergies, Skin Reactions

While cannabis topicals are generally safe, it’s essential to be aware of potential concerns:

  • Allergies: Some individuals might be allergic to ingredients used in topicals, whether it’s a specific essential oil, a carrier oil, or even a particular cannabinoid. It’s always a good idea for consumers to review the ingredient list and conduct a patch test before full application.

  • Skin Reactions: Beyond allergies, some ingredients might cause skin irritations or sensitivities in certain individuals. Redness, itching, or swelling at the application site can be signs of a reaction. If this occurs, it’s advisable to discontinue use and consult a healthcare professional.

  • Interactions with Other Products: Mixing multiple skincare products can sometimes lead to reactions. Users should be cautious when combining topicals with other creams or treatments, especially if they contain strong active ingredients.

The safety and quality control measures in place for cannabis topicals in California reflect the state’s commitment to consumer protection. By adhering to testing standards, emphasizing transparent labeling, and addressing potential concerns, the industry ensures that users can confidently and safely benefit from the therapeutic properties of cannabis topicals.

Economic Impact of Topicals in California

Market Size and Growth Projections for the Topical Segment

The cannabis industry in California has witnessed exponential growth, and the topical segment is no exception. Initially overshadowed by more popular consumption methods like smoking or edibles, topicals have carved a niche for themselves, especially among consumers seeking targeted relief without psychoactive effects.

  • Current Market Size: As of recent data, the market for cannabis topicals in California has reached a significant value, driven by increasing consumer awareness and the diversification of product offerings.

  • Growth Projections: Analysts predict a steady upward trajectory for the topical segment. Factors fueling this growth include the broader acceptance of cannabis as a therapeutic agent, innovations in product formulations, and an aging population seeking alternative pain relief solutions without the side effects of traditional medications.

Major Players and Businesses in the Topical Industry

Several businesses have recognized the potential of cannabis topicals and have positioned themselves as leaders in the California market:

  • Established Cannabis Brands: Many companies that initially started with other cannabis products have expanded their product lines to include topicals, leveraging their brand reputation and distribution networks.

  • Specialized Topical Producers: Some businesses focus exclusively on topicals, emphasizing quality, innovative formulations, and targeted solutions for various conditions.

  • Collaborations with Skincare Brands: Recognizing the therapeutic potential of cannabis, several mainstream skincare brands have entered into partnerships with cannabis producers to launch co-branded topical products.

Economic Benefits: Job Creation, Tax Revenue, and More

The rise of the topical segment in California’s cannabis industry has brought about several economic advantages:

  • Job Creation: From research and development to production, marketing, and retail, the topical segment has created numerous job opportunities. This includes roles in product formulation, testing, packaging, sales, and more.

  • Tax Revenue: Sales of cannabis topicals contribute to California’s tax revenue. With the state imposing both cultivation and retail sales taxes on cannabis products, the growing topical market has added a significant amount to state coffers.

  • Boost to Ancillary Businesses: The growth of the topical industry has also benefited related sectors. Packaging companies, marketing agencies specializing in cannabis, and testing laboratories have all seen increased demand due to the topical segment’s expansion.

  • Tourism and Retail: As California cements its reputation as a cannabis-friendly state, cannabis tourism has seen a boost. Tourists, intrigued by the variety of products available, often explore topicals as a unique offering they might not find in their home state or country.

The economic impact of cannabis topicals in California extends beyond just sales figures. The segment’s growth has brought about job opportunities, increased tax revenue, and given a boost to various ancillary sectors, underlining the multifaceted benefits of this burgeoning market.

Future of Topicals in California

Predicted Trends: New Formulations, Targeted Treatments, and More

The future of cannabis topicals in California looks promising, with several trends on the horizon:

  • New Formulations: As research into cannabis and its components deepens, we can expect to see even more innovative topical formulations. This includes products with enhanced bioavailability, ensuring that more cannabinoids penetrate the skin for improved efficacy.

  • Targeted Treatments: Beyond general pain relief or skin health, the future might see topicals designed for specific conditions. For instance, topicals targeting acne, psoriasis, or even age-related skin issues could become prevalent.

  • Holistic Wellness Products: With the growing trend of holistic wellness, topicals might be formulated with other natural ingredients known for their therapeutic benefits, creating a synergy with cannabis components.

  • Eco-friendly Packaging: As sustainability becomes a priority, brands might adopt eco-friendly packaging solutions, appealing to environmentally-conscious consumers.

Potential Challenges: Market Saturation, Evolving Regulations

While the future is bright, the topical segment will face its share of challenges:

  • Market Saturation: As more players enter the market, there’s a risk of saturation. Brands will need to differentiate themselves through quality, innovation, and effective marketing to stay ahead.

  • Evolving Regulations: The cannabis industry, being relatively new, is subject to changing regulations. Companies will need to stay agile, ensuring they comply with any new rules, especially concerning product safety and labeling.

  • Consumer Education: As the variety of products grows, there’s a need for continued consumer education. Ensuring users understand the benefits, proper usage, and potential side effects of topicals will be crucial.

Technological Advancements in Topical Production and Application

Technology will play a pivotal role in the future of cannabis topicals:

  • Nanotechnology: This could revolutionize the topical segment. By reducing the size of cannabinoid molecules, nanotechnology can improve the skin penetration rate, ensuring faster and more effective relief.

  • Smart Packaging: Future topicals might come in “smart” packages that track usage, remind users to reapply, or even adjust the product’s dispensing based on user feedback or environmental factors.

  • Customization: Technological advancements might allow for personalized topical formulations. Based on individual needs, skin type, or specific conditions, consumers could get products tailored just for them.

  • Enhanced Testing: As testing technology improves, it will ensure even greater product safety and consistency. This will not only benefit consumers but also help brands establish trust and credibility.

In conclusion, the future of cannabis topicals in California is set to be dynamic and innovative. While challenges exist, the combination of research, technological advancements, and a growing market ensures that topicals will remain a significant segment in the broader cannabis industry.


The journey of cannabis topicals in California is a testament to the state’s progressive approach to cannabis and its derivatives. From their historical roots to their current prominence in the market, topicals have emerged as a preferred choice for many seeking targeted relief without systemic effects. 

As the industry continues to evolve, driven by research, technological advancements, and consumer demand, topicals are poised to play an even more significant role in the holistic wellness landscape of California. 

Challenges, undoubtedly, lie ahead, but with innovation and a commitment to quality and safety, the future for cannabis topicals in the Golden State looks brighter than ever. Whether you’re a consumer, a producer, or simply an observer, the evolution of this segment offers exciting possibilities and underscores the transformative power of cannabis in modern wellness.