We’ve all seen the ever-growing selection of CBD and hemp-infused skincare products that are “taking the market by storm”, but what people may not realise is that medical cannabis may actually be beneficial for a number of real skin conditions. From acne to psoriasis, and everything in between, a growing number of studies are supporting the use of cannabis to soothe various skin-related ailments. Oh, and you can even get it on prescription!
When you think of medical cannabis, it is likely that you will immediately think of epilepsy, chronic pain, or even PTSD; however, patients are increasingly turning to the natural anti-inflammatory power of cannabis for a number of skin conditions. And this isn’t a new phenomenon.
As mentioned, hemp has been a huge player in the skincare game for decades – perhaps centuries. In fact, some records suggest that the Ancient Egyptians were pioneers in hemp skincare with some believing that Cleopatra and Pharoah Ramesses II both incorporated hemp oil into their skincare routine. The latter was even buried with hemp oils to carry with him to the afterlife!
Sounds like a cool story, right? But does any of this mean that medical cannabis can help with actual skin conditions? Well, growing evidence suggests that it can.
Our skin and the endocannabinoid system
Humans may have been using cannabis for a variety of medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes for millennia, but it was only in the 20th century that we began to understand how the plant interacts with our bodies. A receptor system – known as the Endocannabinoid system or ECS – that includes compounds (endocannabinoids) similar to the cannabinoids found in cannabis (phytocannabinoids) has been implicated in a number of important physiological processes. Many of the effects of cannabis are believed to be linked to this system.
The ECS has been found to be expressed throughout the body – including in the skin. This discovery, as well as the role of the ECS in maintaining skin homeostasis and the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids, has implicated the ECS as a potential target for the treatment of inflammatory skin conditions.
Many skin conditions occur alongside mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. As such, identifying effective treatment options is an important area for research.
Medical cannabis and Psoriasis
Psoriasis, an autoimmune inflammatory hyperproliferative skin disease, is characterised by the presence of inflamed areas of flaking skin. These lesions occur due to accelerated rates of skin cell development.
A number of phytocannabinoids (THC, CBD, CBN, and CBG) were found to inhibit cell growth, including keratinocyte (skin cell) proliferation in a 2006 in vitro study. Furthermore, a later study demonstrated that agonism of cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1R) in organ-cultured human skin decreased expression of keratins, which are upregulated in psoriatic skin.
A few clinical trials have also aimed to assess the potential of cannabinoids as a psoriasis treatment. For example, a 2019 patent demonstrated that the application of a CBD/CBG formulation led to a dose-dependent improvement in psoriasis while control subjects who used a placebo formulation showed no improvement. A 2020 case study demonstrated similar results: a 33-year-old male with psoriasis who applied cream, soap, and hair oil containing THC reported improvement within 2 days. After 7 months of use, the subject reported only needing to use the products for maintenance and that flare-ups of disease could be controlled with the treatment.
Medical cannabis and Acne
Cannabis and its derivatives may also demonstrate some therapeutic benefits for acne and escalated sebum production. While sebum is a protective substance that is naturally produced to prevent the skin from drying out, overproduction can lead to oily and inflamed skin and the development of painful spots. While there are a number of treatments available for acne, these are not always effective.
In recent years, interest in the potential role of cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system in this setting has increased. For example, a 2015 study assessed the effects of a 3% cannabis seed extract cream on human cheek skin sebum production over a 12-week period. The researchers found that treatment containing the cannabis extract was well tolerated and was associated with a significant decrease in skin sebum and erythema content.
A 2019 clinical trial assessed the potential of BTX 1503 (a topical solution containing up to 5% of CBD) compared to placebo in over 360 acne patients. After 12 weeks of treatment, researchers observed a 40% reduction in acne with no adverse effects. A number of other studies have also yielded promising results for the potential of novel cannabinoid-based treatments for acne.
Medical cannabis and Eczema
The anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis may also be useful in the management of eczema. Atopic dermatitis (the most common form of eczema) is a condition that causes skin to become dry, itchy, and cracked. It is a chronic condition that can affect people throughout their lives. Most eczema treatments focus on anti-inflammatories, including topical steroids, and barrier repair using moisturisation. However, multiple studies suggest that the skin ECS may also be a potential target for treatment.
This includes a number of clinical trials, including a 2005 study of dietary hemp seed oil and olive oil in a 20-week randomised crossover study. Twenty patients were given an oral preparation of either olive oil or hemp seed oil. Participants who were given hemp seed oil demonstrated decreased skin dryness, irritation and itchiness which was not duplicated with the consumption of olive oil.
Another study, which assessed the long-term release of hemp seed oil via patch application on a skin model and on the skin of three human volunteers showed up to a 55% increase in oil release within 6 hours and a 25% increase in moisturisation in volunteers’ skin. Maintaining skin moisturisation is a crucial consideration in the treatment of eczema, leading the researchers to conclude that the patches demonstrated high potential for the treatment of atopic dermatitis.
Other potential skincare benefits of medical cannabis
The majority of the current literature focuses on the skin conditions mentioned above; however, there is also a growing interest in the potential of medical cannabis for the treatment of pruritis (itchy skin) and allergic contact dermatitis.
Since the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018, specialist clinicians have been able to prescribe cannabis-based medicines for a wide range of conditions. The vast majority of medical cannabis prescriptions are granted through private clinics – including those for treatment-resistant skin conditions. It is now possible to receive a medical cannabis prescription for skin conditions that have not improved with the help of conventional treatments. For more information on getting a medical cannabis prescription in the UK, check out the leafie Guide.