Clinical Review

Topical Cannabinoids in Dermatology

Author and Disclosure Information

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.1 Cannabidiol 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.6,7 Importantly, 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.

Signaling pathways associated with cannabinoid receptor activation. CB1 indicates cannabinoid receptor type 1; CB2, cannabinoid receptor type 2; AC, adenylyl cyclase; cAMP, cyclic adenosine monophosphate; PKA, protein kinase A; MAPK, mitogen-activated protein kinase.

Topical Cannabinoids in Inflammatory Disorders

Atopic dermatitis has emerged as an active area of investigation for cannabinoid receptors and topical agonists (Table 1). In an animal model, Kim et al9 examined the effects of CB1 agonism on skin inflammation. Mice treated with topical CB1 agonists showed greater recovery of epidermal barrier function in acutely abrogated skin relative to those treated with a vehicle preparation. In addition, agonism of CB1 led to significant (P<.001) decreases in skin fold thickness among models of acute and chronic skin inflammation.9

Nam et al10 also examined the role of topical CB1 agonists in mice with induced AD-like symptoms. Relative to treatment with vehicle, CB1 agonists significantly reduced the recruitment of mast cells (P<.01) and lowered the blood concentration of histamine (P<.05). Given the noted decrease in the release of inflammatory mediators, the authors speculated that topical agonsim of CB1 may prove useful in several conditions related to mast cell activation, such as AD, contact dermatitis, and psoriasis.10

The anti-inflammatory properties of topical THC were evaluated by Gaffal et al.11 In a mouse model of allergic contact dermatitis, mice treated with topical THC showed decreases in myeloid immune cell infiltration, with these beneficial effects existing even in mice with deficient CB1 and CB2 receptors. These results support a potentially wide anti-inflammatory activity of topical THC.11

Topical Cannabinoids in Pain Management

The effects of smoked cannabis in treating pain have undergone thorough investigation over recent years. Benefits have been noted in treating neuropathic pain, particularly in human immunodeficiency virus–associated sensory neuropathy.12-15 Smoked cannabis also may provide value as a synergistic therapy with opioids, thereby allowing for lower opioid doses.16

In contrast, research into the relationship between topical application of cannabinoids and nociception remains in preliminary stages (Table 2). In a mouse model, Dogrul et al17 assessed the topical antinociceptive potential of a mixed CB1-CB2 agonist. Results showed significant (P<.01) and dose-dependent antinociceptive effects relative to treatment with a vehicle.17 In a related study, Yesilyurt et al18 evaluated whether a mixed CB1-CB2 agonist could enhance the antinociceptive effects of topical opioids. Among mice treated with the combination of a cannabinoid agonist and topical morphine, a significantly (P<.05) greater analgesic effect was demonstrated relative to topical morphine alone.18

Studies in humans have been far more limited. Phan et al19 conducted a small, nonrandomized, open-label trial of a topical cannabinoid cream in patients with facial postherpetic neuralgia. Of 8 patients treated, 5 noted a mean pain reduction of 87.8%. No comparison vehicle was used. Based on this narrow study design, it is difficult to extrapolate these positive results to a broader patient population.19


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