Versatility and Topically Applied Medical Marijuana

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Topically applied products may be effective for many patients due to the direct routes of administration. This typically leads to a more predictable onset and strength than oral dose products while maintaining a long duration relief and versatility when supplementing other methods of medication. For example, some enter the bloodstream while others do not. This determines how they are applied and if they may produce a psychoactive effect. Topically applied medical cannabis can be placed into two main categories; topicals and transdermals.


Topicals are products applied directly to the skin, interacting with the local endocannabinoid receptors.  “It seems that the main physiological function of the cutaneous ECS is to constitutively control the proper and well-balanced proliferation, differentiation and survival, as well as immune competence and/or tolerance, of skin cells.” (The ECS of the skin in health and disease, online). According to this study, topical products may be effective for more than pain reduction, such as regulation of immune responses and cell life cycle. This means topical products have the potential to provide relief for conditions such as arthritis and psoriasis for some patients. Because topical products do not enter the bloodstream, they will not interact with other products or create a psychoactive effect.  They must be applied directly to the area in need of relief. This can be ideal for maintaining relief during activities that prevent other methods of ingestion. Topicals usually onset within fifteen minutes, and relief can last from 30 minutes to a few hours.

Image credit to Leaf Science

Image credit to Leaf Science


Transdermal is a combination of “trans” meaning across, and “derm” referring to skin. This highlights the difference between topicals and transdermals. By crossing the layers of the dermis all the way to the capillary vessels, transdermal products enter the bloodstream. This means the cannabinoids will be circulated through your body, and may produce a psychoactive effect. Because this skips digestion, it has a very steady and reliable onset compared to capsules or other oral dose products.  Transdermal products usually onset within 15-45 minutes. The patches we see now in the Pennsylvania market are designed to time-release between 10-12 hours. Transdermal products are absorbed into the blood and circulated through the body, therefore it is not necessary to apply transdermal products directly to the affected area. In fact, the best locations are the inside of the wrist or the top of the foot as these areas have thin skin close to many veins. 

Tip: Be sure to wipe the area with rubbing alcohol before applying, as this will prevent dirt from being pushed into the skin and causing a band aid-rash.

Image Credit to Royal Queen Seeds

Image Credit to Royal Queen Seeds

Want more than “skin-deep”?

For those who want to dive deep into the mechanisms of the cutaneous endocannabinoid system, take a look at the “References and Further Reading” section below.  You can explore the essential processes of human skin, and which cannabinoid receptors are present in these processes.  

Some of you may have heard of Rick Simpson, famous for treating his cancer with topically applied cannabis.  In a future post we will explore Rick’s story and what makes his procedure and his product, RSO, unique and effective.  There is a link to Rick’s website below if you want to get a head start. We’re still discovering the potential of topically applied medical cannabis, but it’s off to a promising start!

References and Further Reading

Topical image


Transdermal image


Bíró, Tamás et al. “The endocannabinoid system of the skin in health and disease: novel perspectives and therapeutic opportunities.” Trends in pharmacological sciences vol. 30,8 (2009): 411-20. doi:10.1016/j.tips.2009.05.004

Rick Simpson, the creator of RSO.  His website explains how he used topically applied cannabis to treat his cancer.