Muscle pain and discomfort is a fact of life for everyone at some point, and topical products are often a first line of defense against it. Whether it’s caused by tension, injury, an especially intense workout, or chronic illness, many people find relief from muscle pain by using topical pain relief products. When occasional pain becomes chronic, however, it often becomes more difficult to treat. Topical CBD can help to treat chronic pain even more effectively than opioids in some patients.
Chronic muscle pain (and honestly, chronic pain in general) is especially difficult to address effectively, and many people feel forced to turn to opioid painkillers (transdermal and otherwise) and other pharmaceutical products for relief. Not only are these interventions often ineffective at curbing chronic pain, they also carry a high risk of addiction and a number of unpleasant side effects.
A growing number of chronic pain sufferers are looking to manage their symptoms without resorting to opioids, turning instead to CBD. CBD, the common name for the molecule cannabidiol, has been shown to be an effective remedy for chronic pain — more effective than opioid pain relievers. Derived from hemp (a close cousin of cannabis), CBD has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anxiolytic, antispasmodic, hypnotic, and antiemetic properties, among many others, and may be applicable to therapies for a diverse array of conditions and symptoms.
While CBD is often taken orally in the form of tinctures or softgels, its medicinal properties extend to topical application as well. This allows CBD to be used to treat pain more directly, at the site of soreness or tension, alleviating symptoms more quickly than oral delivery systems. It may also help to soothe muscle spasms and cramping when used topically.
Topical CBD products offer many different opportunities for people to manage (and even eliminate) chronic muscle pain, tension, and spasms safely and effectively, especially in combination with a systemic dose of CBD. However, topical products often contain many more supporting ingredients than oral formulas. This makes them more likely to be made with potentially inflammatory or allergenic ingredients that can reduce the effectiveness of the CBD they contain — not to mention wreak havoc on your skin.
Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the most effective supporting ingredients for topical CBD pain relief. We’ll discuss the science of CBD topicals and their role in pain management before explaining how to use temperature therapies to manipulate pain perception. Then we’ll move on to discussing topical CBD supporting ingredients in detail, from carrier oils to botanicals to additives. We’ll examine the benefits different ingredients offer, along with any risks associated with their use. Finally, we’ll close with a note about sustainable ingredients and the environmental impact of CBD topicals.
The Science of Topical CBD & Pain Management
While more research is needed, CBD is demonstrated to possess potent anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antispasmodic effects in humans. These benefits aren’t limited to oral consumption or inhalation, either — CBD acts on many of the same pathways in the skin when applied topically. This can help to alleviate pain, reduce cramps and spasms, and release tension from sore or overworked muscles.
Existing research shows CBD to be a promising ingredient in topical pain relief products, and while many of the exact mechanisms are still unclear, the results are pretty compelling. What we know so far suggests that CBD engages with endocannabinoid receptors in the skin, helping to promote circulation, relieve inflammation, reduce spasms, and alleviate pain in muscles.
Because they are applied at the site of pain, CBD topicals are quicker to provide relief than an oral dose of CBD. For this reason, it may be especially beneficial for people looking to manage symptoms that come on suddenly or rapidly spike in severity, such as cramping or muscle spasms. Topical CBD can also aid muscle relaxation and soothe tension, making it a good addition to massage oils and salt soaks as well.
Because of the wide variety of product types that can incorporate the benefits of CBD into their formulas, there are many ways to customize your CBD experience to get the most pain relief possible from your dose. Product formulation plays a major role in this (which we’ll discuss in a moment), but there’s another significant factor that can dramatically impact pain relief: temperature sensation.
Temperature & Pain Perception
There is a reason that temperature therapy is so commonplace in pain management. Ice packs, hot water bottles, warm salt soaks — even bags of frozen vegetables can help to manage pain and inflammation. If you’ve ever injured yourself, you were probably given the RICE protocol — rest, ice, compression, and elevation — to manage your pain and reduce the severity of the injury as much as possible.
These principles are often applied to pain management as well, and not without reason. It turns out, temperature affects not just the way our body processes and responds to pain, but also the way we perceive it. This means that we can manipulate temperature to help support our bodies as they heal, but it also means that we can use compounds that create the sensation of temperature change without actually subjecting our cells to extreme temperatures for prolonged periods of time..
Unlike actual temperature fluctuations, these ingredients can influence cells to reduce pain without the side effects brought on by extreme temperatures. These compounds can also help to boost the anti-inflammatory action of CBD, aiding relaxation and reducing tension by alleviating the inflammation within the muscle. Cold sensations can help to numb pain and discomfort, while warm sensations can help to facilitate muscle relaxation and alleviate cramping or spasms.
Bengay, IcyHot, Tiger Balm … each of these drugstore standbys utilizes ingredients that manipulate your sensation of temperature with the goal of reducing pain perception. Ingredients like menthol, capsaicin, cinnamon oil, ginger, and others can be combined in different proportions, yielding sensations that range from warm to sensitive to tingling to icy (and lots of places in between). When utilized correctly, these sensations can help to dull pain while addressing some of the factors (like tension, inflammation, and swelling) that contribute to pain.
While these products often work well for some, they can also be quite intense — everyone knows someone with a disastrous IcyHot story after the product found its way to a sensitive area. For some people, especially those with sensitive skin or sensory processing issues, these products may be a bit much for regular use. However, many people find that their pain perception is dulled when they use products that manipulate temperature sensation, and this effect can often be achieved without causing discomfort.
Topical CBD Carrier Ingredients for Muscle Pain
Because temperature sensation is such an important factor in relieving pain, it will also be a central feature in our discussion of carrier ingredients. This is for a couple of reasons. First, the carrier ingredients a product is made of can help to extend or mitigate the effects of any warming or cooling ingredients it contains. Secondly, the carrier oil(s) of choice can alter the way the product feels on the skin, affecting the efficacy of the product.
Finally, carrier ingredients have the most potential to cause skin problems in some people, especially those who are prone to breakouts or have allergies. If your skin is sensitive or prone to things like dryness, itching, or breakouts, it’s especially important to be mindful of the stuff you put on your skin. Remember, the goal of all this is to find what works best for you.
Topical hemp products tend to be more subject to individual variation than oral CBD because of these supporting ingredients. Even the best CBD topical could work terribly if it’s made with stuff that doesn’t agree with you, and using the wrong products could actually negate the benefits of the CBD within them. For more on the role of skin health in overall wellness (and how to use CBD to support your goals), check out our dedicated article [here].
Cooling ingredients like menthol and arnica are demonstrated to help reduce the severity and intensity of pain sensation in many people. If this is true for you, we suggest reaching for products formulated with ingredients like aloe vera gel, cetyl alcohol, mango butter, or vegetable glycerin (propylene glycol also falls in this category, and while it isn’t our favorite, it is a safe topical choice for many people).
These ingredients help to intensify the effects of cooling ingredients as they evaporate from the skin. The way it works is similar to the way sweat cools your body; heat energy is released when the product evaporates, creating a cooling sensation on the skin. While this isn’t the same mechanism by which cooling ingredients like menthol work (more on that a little later), it does contribute to the overall cooling effect, intensifying and extending it.
We like to reach for aloe vera gel wherever possible, as it’s great for the skin and possesses anti-inflammatory and healing properties of its own. Vegetable glycerin (also labeled as glycerol) is also well-tolerated by most people and will help to get the most mileage out of your CBD experience. While we generally advise avoiding most alcohols (they tend to break down the connections between skin cells, leading to dryness in some people), cetyl alcohol is a possible exception. It is a fatty alcohol derived from coconut that contains emollient compounds that may help belay the damage done by its more astringent components.
Mango butter is another good choice (and gentler on the skin) because it carries cooling properties of its own, which can help to amplify the effects of other cooling ingredients. Mango butter is an excellent choice for people who desire a cooling effect without the potential dryness often caused by alcohol and other compounds.
Warming ingredients like capsaicin and cinnamon, on the other hand, tend to be enhanced by oil-based formulas. If you’ve cooked with hot peppers or carry pepper spray on your runs, you might intuitively understand how this works. Oils work to keep warming ingredients active on the skin by making them more absorbable at the molecular level — very similarly to the way they help to improve the bioavailability of CBD. Since your skin is able to absorb and metabolize more of the warming ingredient when it’s attached to oil molecules, those soothing effects will be more pronounced.
Good carrier ingredients for warming compounds might include coconut oil, beeswax, shea or cocoa butter, carnauba wax, and oils from plants like olive, safflower, jojoba, argan, and grapeseed. With the exception of beeswax, each of these compounds are vegan, and most possess mild anti-inflammatory properties of their own. They are also more hydrating, making them better options for people with dry skin.
We prefer to stay away from petroleum-based products, partly because of their environmental impact (which we’ll talk more about later), and partly because of the link established between use of products like mineral oil and cancer. In the interest of preserving your long-term health, we strongly advise avoiding petroleum products where possible, especially for the skin.
If you prefer to avoid products that affect skin sensation entirely in favor of more neutral topicals, there are still options for you. We suggest selecting milder formulas made without ingredients that trigger sensory discomfort for you. These are likely to include compounds like capsaicin, cinnamon, menthol, and ginger, but may also extend to ingredients like clove, arnica, and lavender. Listen to your body on this one — it may take some trial and error to find your balance, but you’ll find it all the same.
If traditional topical formulas simply do not work for you (due to severe allergies, restrictions, or other reasons), you might try applying an unflavored CBD tincture to your skin instead. Since the CBD is bonded with oil in the tincture, you’ll reap its benefits without having to worry about the impact of supporting ingredients.
Topical CBD Supporting Ingredients for Muscle Pain
- Arnica – Also known colloquially as mountain daisies, arnica flowers have been used traditionally to ease pain and reduce inflammation. While the exact mechanism is not yet clear, there are studies that suggest arnica may possess anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties when applied topically. Arnica extract may help to support the actions of CBD, improving the intensity and duration of relief. However, as a member of the (beautiful and often-problematic) Asteraceae family, arnica may be cross-reactive in people allergic to ragweed and related plants.
- Basil – A staple of both spice cabinets and herb gardens alike, basil is understood to possess anti-inflammatory benefits when applied to the skin. It reduces inflammation and calms cramping, acting as an antispasmodic and analgesic. These properties make it a good option for those recovering from injury or overexertion, as well as people who suffer from spasms and severe muscle tension — and it may help to alleviate soreness after intense physical activity or a medical event like a seizure.
- Capsaicin – A fiery compound that produces severe inflammation in high doses, capsaicin is interesting in that it behaves very differently in small amounts. Capsaicin is responsible for both the kick in your chili peppers and the debilitating burn of pepper spray, but in very low concentrations it actually helps to reduce inflammation, opening blood vessels and improving circulation while oxygenating tissue. These properties can help to release muscle tension, dispel soreness, and relax away cramps and spasms. Most topical preparations that include capsaicin use very minute amounts, but even that little bit can trigger an adverse reaction in a small proportion of people. If your skin is on the sensitive side, proceed with caution.
- Chamomile – Chamomile, a small yellow flower favored for use in relaxing teas and supplements, demonstrates anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antimicrobial properties when applied to the skin. The plant’s extract has been used to reduce pain, [promote healing], and quell inflammation while easing spasms and cramping. As such, it may help to bolster the anti-inflammatory and analgesic actions of CBD, though there is a potential caveat to consider. Chamomile belongs to the same family (Asteraceae) as ragweed, a common allergen, and often cross-reacts in people with ragweed allergies. It may not be a good option for those allergic to ragweed, but it may offer an added benefit to people who are able to use it: chamomile is shown to help reduce pain perception when used for aromatherapy. Like lavender, it demonstrates a soothing effect that subjects reported helped to diminish their pain after use.
- Clove – An unsung hero of pumpkin spice season, cloves pack a surprisingly potent analgesic punch. One study found that clove oil was just as effective as benzocaine at alleviating pain during a dental procedure — the kind of acute pain that’s more intense and harder to soothe. This finding suggests that clove oil might make an extremely beneficial addition to topical CBD pain management products, especially for sharp, stinging, or burning sensations that often come on acutely (and can be very distressing).
- Lavender – Lavender flowers and the extract produced from them are perennial favorites in spheres ranging from cuisine to gardening to beverages to essential oil enthusiasts. It’s an immensely popular fragrance for body and home alike and has received attention from medical experts for its ability to ease stress and reduce pain. Studies have shown lavender oil to possess anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antimicrobial, and anxiolytic properties when applied topically, and these effects align perfectly with the properties of CBD. Lavender can help to alleviate pain and soreness, promoting muscle relaxation while easing the anxiety often associated with chronic pain. While those with a lavender allergy should avoid it, we find it very helpful at alleviating chronic pain when used in conjunction with CBD on the skin.
- Lemongrass – A hearty grass with a piquant citrus flavor, lemongrass is rich in phytochemicals and bioactive compounds that can help to bolster the effectiveness of CBD against muscle pain. The herb possesses analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties in its own right; these effects can help to support the pain-relieving action of CBD. Emerging research suggests that lemongrass may be beneficial to injured muscles, helping to support athletic recovery and recuperation after an injury.
- Magnesium – Don’t let the name fool you — transdermal magnesium isn’t some weird synthetic compound. It’s been used to treat muscle soreness, pain, and cramping in the form of Epsom salts for many years, and for a reason. Magnesium is a compound crucial for the coordination and regulation of muscle contractions (both voluntary and involuntary). It is absorbed through the skin when dissolved in water, so the best way to use it is in a [CBD salt soak] or [bath bomb]. Try to soak for at least fifteen minutes, though you’re welcome to relax as long as you need to feel relief.
- Marjoram – To us, marjoram doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Often relegated to a dusty, untouched bottle on the back of the spice rack, marjoram is a delightful herb that’s packed with bioactive compounds that can enrich the effectiveness of your topical CBD dose. Studies reveal marjoram to possess antispasmodic and analgesic properties on its own; these actions can support relaxation and pain relief, especially in combination with CBD. As a fun and unnecessary bonus, the plant also smells wonderful, complementing other common herbal ingredients like lavender and lemon balm nicely.
- Peppermint – The mother of menthol, peppermint (and other members of the mentha genus like spearmint) produce antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic effects when applied to the skin. The extract also induces a cooling sensation by sensitizing receptors in the skin to cold signals. This action, in turn, causes the nerves to relay messages to the brain saying “it’s cold over here!” The body then reacts to reduce swelling and slow activity in the area, much like it would if you were exposing it to actual cold temperatures. For this reason, we strongly advise against using mint of any kind near mucous membranes or adding it to a bath, as the potential for overstimulation of the skin is very high. With peppermint, less is definitely more.
- Tart Cherry – While research is still in its early stages, there is some evidence to support the use of tart cherry extract to treat muscle pain. One study found that tart cherry juice helped to alleviate soreness and muscle fatigue after an intense workout, and another found that compounds in tart cherry extract may help to calm inflammation and relax muscle tension, reducing pain in turn. As a stone fruit, tart cherry should be avoided by people who are allergic to peaches, nectarines, plums, and other drupes.
- Willow Bark – The herbal ancestor of aspirin, willow bark (and maritime pine bark) contains compounds that reduce inflammation, pain, swelling, and muscle tension in humans. These benefits extend to both oral and transdermal dosing, making willow bark a natural accompaniment to the analgesic and anti-inflammatory actions of CBD. While it’s relatively rare, an aspirin allergy or sensitivity could cause an adverse reaction to topical willow bark, so be aware of labeling if your body does not respond well to aspirin.
A Note on Sustainability
Our primary goal here at Key to Cannabis is to give our readers the information they need to make the best CBD purchasing decisions for their wellness and lifestyle goals. To that end, we feel it’s important to address the sustainability of different [types of ingredients] used in CBD products. As we’re collectively becoming more conscious of our relationship to our planet (and everything else on it), sustainably sourced ingredients are of huge importance to many people (ourselves included).
We want to help educate people on how to make better buying decisions while acknowledging that “better” never quite means “perfect.” It’s true that no single consumer decision is going to make or break the planet, but nevertheless, we feel that there is still value in making the best choices we are able to, both for our health and for our world.
We prefer to reach for plant-based ingredients wherever possible, especially over petroleum products (which are absolutely not sustainable, have a massive environmental impact, and have been linked to illness in humans when applied to the skin). We also prefer them over animal ingredients, though we’re not strictly opposed to their use.
It’s true that there are vegan alternatives to many things, but there are a few caveats to this. Firstly, the word “vegan” doesn’t necessarily mean that a given product is entirely plant-based. Polyester, microbeads, rayon, pleather, and other plastic products are also considered “vegan,” yet have a much greater environmental impact than their naturally-derived counterparts. We don’t mean to imply that vegan labels are a meaningless distinction, but to illustrate the idea that the meaning of the word in labeling might be different from the idea of veganism as being plant-based.
Second, the vegan alternatives available (especially for topical products) don’t necessarily work universally. Carnauba wax is an excellent example of this. Used as a vegan substitute for beeswax, carnauba wax causes an allergic reaction in some users and therefore isn’t a viable option. Finally, and most importantly, the decision whether or not to use animal products is a deeply personal one, and we don’t intend to shame people for making that choice. When they’re raised and harvested as ethically as possible, there is a valid place for animal products as part of a healthy lifestyle, which is what we’re here to support in the first place.
Topical CBD products can make a powerful addition to your muscle pain management regimen, but you’ll need the right supporting ingredients to get the most from your CBD dose. When choosing a product, consider the type of sensations (if any) that contribute to pain relief for you, then select carrier oils and ingredients that support your wellness goals. If you’re uncertain about something you see on the label, feel free to reach out to the company for clarification.