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Topical Cannabinoids in Dermatology

Topical cannabinoids are increasingly utilized by dermatology patients for a range of disorders; however, the acceptance of these over-the-counter products has far outpaced scientific investigation into their safety and efficacy. Here, we review the studies of topical cannabinoids in skin conditions and assess their current place in dermatology practice.

Practice Points

  • Topical cannabinoids are advertised by companies as treatment options for numerous dermatologic conditions.
  • Despite promising data in rodent models, there have been no rigorous studies to date confirming efficacy or safety in humans.
  • Dermatologists should therefore inquire with patients about the use of any topical cannabinoid products, especially around the time of planned procedures, as they may affect treatment outcomes.
The prevalence of topical cannabinoids has risen sharply in recent years. Commercial advertisers promote their usage as a safe means to treat a multitude of skin disorders, including atopic dermatitis (AD), psoriasis, and acne. Topical compounds have garnered interest in laboratory studies, but the purchase of commercial formulations is limited to over-the-counter products from unregulated suppliers. In this article, we review the scientific evidence behind topical cannabinoids and evaluate their role in clinical dermatology.


Cannabis is designated as a Schedule I drug, according to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This listing is given to substances with no therapeutic value and a high potential for abuse. However, as of 2017, 29 states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing cannabis in some capacity. These regulations typically apply to medicinal use, though several states have now legalized recreational use.

Cannabinoids represent a broad class of chemical compounds derived from the cannabis plant. Originally, this class only comprised phytocannabinoids, cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most well-known phytocannabinoid and leads to the psychoactive effects typically associated with cannabis use. Later investigation led to the discovery of endocannabinoids, cannabinoids that are naturally produced by human and animal bodies, as well as synthetic cannabinoids.1Cannabidiol is a phytocannabinoid that has been investigated in neurologic and anti-inflammatory conditions.2-4

Cannabinoids act as agonists on 2 principal receptors— cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2)—which are both G protein–coupled receptors (Figure).5 Both have distinct distributions throughout different organ systems, to which cannabinoids (eg, THC, cannabidiol, endocannabinoids) show differential binding.6,7Importantly, the expression of CB1 and CB2 has been identified on sensory nerve fibers, inflammatory cells, and adnexal structures of human skin.8 Based on these associations, topical application of cannabinoids has become a modality of interest for dermatological disorders. These formulations aim to influence cutaneous morphology without producing psychoactive effects.

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About Dr. J. Kim

Dr Kim developed (and is continuing to develop) dermatology research news as we way from dermatologists to stay on top of the latest advances in the field of dermatology.

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