What's the deal with CBD serums & oils? - The 2023 edition

First Posted on April 3, 2023 in:decoding activesinflammationinsights & debunkssensitive skinshop like a pro

Back in fall 2019, we wrote a blog post on CBD in skincare when it was all the rage. During the early days of Covid lockdowns, it really felt like there was a new CBD miracle serum or oil every other week. Even now in spring of 2023, there are still a lot of questions and mystique around this ingredient. So it’s time to revisit CBD and see just what CBD does in skincare, if there are any new clinical studies that have come out on topical CBD, just who might benefit from CBD skincare, and how to shop for CBD serums.

But before we get started….

*disclaimer 1: this is only talking about CBD in the capacity of skincare. We won’t touch on CBD in the capacity of skin diseases, joint pain, wound healing, etc. We’ll leave that to the doctors, researchers, dispensaries, and your friendly neighborhood pot dealers to tackle that...

*disclaimer 2: the FDA has been playing catch up on the CBD industry for the past few years, busying itself tracking down the neverending list of absurd claims on CBD products. As of January 2023, they released a statement titled “FDA Concludes that Existing Regulatory Frameworks for Foods and Supplements are Not Appropriate for Cannabidiol, Will Work with Congress on a New Way Forward”. This means that more of the scrutiny will be on CBD as a ingestible supplement, and CBD skincare will continue to coast slightly below the radar a little while longer and remain the wild wild west. 

First things first. Where does CBD come from?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a molecule that can be extracted from either hemp or marijuana and is one of the non-psychoactive compounds from marijuana. Hemp is a broad term for any non-intoxicating cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3% THC. It’s important to know that this isn’t a different plant entirely, it’s still cannabis, but is a strain with significantly less THC. Also, a key thing to remember is that the cannabidiol extracted from hemp is no different than marijuana. So it doesn’t matter necessarily where the cannabidiol is extracted from, it’s simply about how much THC comes with it. Most CBD products in skincare wouldn’t contain any THC.

how CBD is sourced

Ok basics down. So what does CBD do for your skin? Is it worth putting it into your skincare? Has there been new data since 2019?

The main claims surrounding this ingredient are that it functions as an anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and sebum reducer. But, the reality is that there are plenty of existing ingredients that already hold their weight in data for these categories. So what makes CBD different?

From the skin biology side, it turns out that the skin itself has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) and cannabinoid receptors. Many in vitro and animal in vivo studies have shown that the ECS seems to play an important role in fundamental cellular pathways such as proliferation, growth, apoptosis, differentiation, etc. But don’t get too carried away with this info. All this info roughly equates to finding the corner piece of a 1000 piece puzzle, but a great first step into understanding what (if any) unique interaction this category of ingredients could have on skin.

Back in 2019 when we did this closer look at CBD in skincare, we found an in vitro study where CBD is tested on human sebocytes (cells in charge of producing sebum). They found that CBD helped with reducing sebum reduction and promoting anti-inflammatory responses. Since excess sebum production is one of the many factors that contributes to acne, and inflammation is linked to angry acne, people were pretty excited about the prospect of using CBD in acne management. Welp! Close to 4 years have come and gone… anything data on that front?

We’re still staring at this older 2015 study where researchers looked at the effects of 3% CBD (not pure CBD, seed extract form - so actual concentration of CBD is mysterious here) compared to a placebo cream. In this study, what we observed in the in vitro studies did seem to apply to human skin as well. CBD did reduce erythema and sebum production gradually over the 12-week period when compared to the placebo-treated side. This was ONE interesting study on CBD in skincare. Sadly, we haven’t found anything else worth sharing. This is especially disappointing since it seemed like all the craze for the past few years - a perfect time to dedicate some real resources to understanding the real skin benefits of CBD. But we really don’t see any new scientific evidence coming out to help us understand this ingredient better.

Why there seems to be so little data on CBD

One of the biggest issues we found with CBD ingredient sourcing was the variation in production, processing, and quality. We sifted through various CBD sourcing and found that shelf life and stability of the material itself wasn't consistent. We won't even get into stability in product formulation. Because of this, we highly recommend to look for any sort of clinical testing done by the brand to give a better idea of product performance over time.

Wait! There’s a CBG?

Before we close the books on CBD, there might be another ingredient from hemp to keep an eye out for – CBG, cannabigerol. Oh boy! It seems like before we’re even done with the full story of CBD and there’s a new CB_ on the horizon? Interestingly, CBG actually has a bit of exciting early phase data. There is a pretty comprehensive paper that looks at CBG from the in vitro phase all the way to testing in a human clinical. In in vitro assays, CBG appears to be topically active with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. The researchers then tested 0.1% CBG against a placebo cream on forearm skin irritated with SLS. Over the next 2 weeks, the cream with 0.1% CBG significantly outperformed the placebo in reducing redness and TEWL (transepidermal water loss). 

Shopping for hemp, CBD, CBG Skincare

Still interested in trying out CBD skincare? It can be confusing to wade through a sea of hemp skincare products. In fact, you can find a slew of related ingredients on your ingredient lists that may not even contain any CBD.

cbd ingredient landscape INCI

  1. Hemp Seed Oil: Hemp seed oil will contain little to no CBD but has a lovely fatty acid profile rich in linoleic and linolenic acid. It’s also VERY lightweight, which further makes this a great choice for oily skin types. 
  2. Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil: This is where it gets confusing. This may or may NOT contain CBD and we have ingredient naming registration to thank for this. While generally we expect most cannabis sativa seed oil to contain little to no CBD, we did find a couple suppliers that use this ingredient name and their oil does in fact contain CBD. Generally speaking, if a product uses this ingredient but doesn’t have a specific dosing of CBD listed, we wouldn’t rely on it to contain enough CBD.
  3. Cannabis Sativa Flower/Leaf/Stem Extract: Making the most of the plant, they extract pulp from other parts of the plant. Not really interesting as of now. The category is already complicated enough so we would pass on this ingredient.
  4. Cannabis Sativa Essential Oil: ...Let’s not.
  5. Cannabidiol (aka. CBD): The true isolated compound. This is the main focus and due to all the unknown, it’s better to look for this particular ingredient than anything else. Why? Well despite the lack of data, this is the main compound that is currently being put to the test. We should mention that with the “full spectrum/broad spectrum” CBDs there are potential benefits. These blends include other compounds found in hemp/marijuana such as CBC, CBN, CBG, and THC. But it’s way too early to go down this avenue. If you want to try CBD out for yourself, stick to cannabidiol so you can truly figure out what this ingredient does for your skin.

CBD skincare product landscape

If you’re looking for potential sebum reduction or soothing benefits, it’s best to look for the labels that say “broad-spectrum CBD” and the actual concentration of CBD on the bottle. We often see 100mg dosing but the volume of the formula is different, so keep this in mind. So far, we’ve found Lord Jones’ Royal Oil to contain the most CBD with 1000mg for 30 mL. You’ve been warned, it’ll cost you a pretty penny.

If you want to be an early adopter and try out CBG, the only product we know of that has a known concentration of this is actually Barker Wellness’s Face Serum. 

Final thoughts

This is such a classic case of the marketing train leaving the station before the tracks have been built. When we were catching up on our CBD research, we noticed so many products on “best of” lists of yester-year have already been discontinued (did you know… that Josie Maran had a CBD oil called ‘Skin Dope’?!). We didn’t see a ton of studies back in 2019… and sadly it doesn’t seem like there’s much new scientific evidence since then. Now that it seems like the marketing fervor has died down significantly, we’re not sure if there will be enough interest for companies to further study CBD or even other, perhaps more interesting, cousin molecules like CBG. For now, this category will still be on our radar for any new findings.

Did you try adding CBD to your routine? Has it become a staple in your routine?


  1. Although CBD has been linked to sebum reduction and anti-inflammatory skin benefits… the body evidence is still very small.-
  2. Currently, CBD’s cousin CBG has some interesting early data on helping restore irritated, compromised skin. It’s on our radar now.
  3. All in all, this is still a pretty mysterious category with more data to come.


Bruni, N., Della Pepa, C., Oliaro-Bosso, S., Pessione, E., Gastaldi, D., & Dosio, F. (2018). Cannabinoid delivery systems for pain and inflammation treatment. Molecules, 23(10), 2478.

Oláh, A., Tóth, B. I., Borbíró, I., Sugawara, K., Szöllõsi, A. G., Czifra, G., ... & Bíró, T. (2014). Cannabidiol exerts sebostatic and antiinflammatory effects on human sebocytes. The Journal of clinical investigation, 124(9), 3713-3724.

Ali, A., & Akhtar, N. (2015). The safety and efficacy of 3% Cannabis seeds extract cream for reduction of human cheek skin sebum and erythema content. Pakistan journal of pharmaceutical sciences, 28(4).

Perez, E., Fernandez, J. R., Fitzgerald, C., Rouzard, K., Tamura, M., & Savile, C. (2022). In Vitro and Clinical Evaluation of Cannabigerol (CBG) Produced via Yeast Biosynthesis: A Cannabinoid with a Broad Range of Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Health-Boosting Properties. Molecules, 27(2), 491.


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