These days, cannabis lovers have a wide variety of options for consuming the plant. You can smoke joints, blunts, bowls, or dabs. If you don’t want to smoke, you can make edibles. And if you don’t want to get high at all, you can use cannabis topicals.
Within the category of cannabis topicals, salves are one of the most popular products. A salve is simply a combination of oils and melted beeswax and does not contain water. The beeswax provides the waxy consistency that people seek out in salves, and helps boost the shelf life.
Making your own topical salves is something people have been doing for thousands of years and is fairly simple – especially if you’ve made edibles before.
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What are cannabis topicals?
Cannabis topicals includes a wide array of creams, salves, roll-ons, gels, and even personal lubricants that are made with cannabis and are meant to be applied directly to the skin.
Topical products can activate the endocannabinoid receptors in your skin, but they are not well absorbed through the skin so they’re most effective for localized treatment. If you’re looking for deeper relief, transdermal patches can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. Transdermal products typically use some sort of additional ingredient that helps cannabinoids penetrate the skin that salves do not have.
Cannabis topicals occupy a small segment of the market (less than 1%, according to Headset) but within that, salves make up nearly 75% of topical sales, along with lotions, gels, and creams.
Other types of topicals include, but are not limited to:
- Bath bombs, salts, soaks, and scrubs
- Lip balm
- Massage oils or lubricants
Do cannabis topicals work — and can they get you high?
Cannabis salves and balms don’t enter the bloodstream, so they cannot get you high. In fact, that’s one of the reasons some people are more likely to try topicals — they want the therapeutic benefits of cannabis but don’t want to get high.
Cannabis topicals can provide some relief from skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and even joint pain like arthritis, due to the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids like CBD and THC. The health benefits of CBD are well-known these days, and CBD topicals are far more common than those containing THC.
There is little data about the efficacy of cannabis topicals, and because cannabinoids are hydrophobic, they have trouble penetrating and being absorbed by the skin. Because many salves contain other natural ingredients or essential oils, some of the effects may not be entirely from cannabis. But while the data may be lacking, anecdotal evidence from cannabis consumers is rife.
Tips and common mistakes with cannabis salves
- Don’t smoke your cannabis salve. It won’t accomplish anything other than possibly hazardous throat and lung irritation.
- Read the ingredients of store-bought salves. Don’t use anything that you may be allergic to, and make sure to only use the salve externally, especially if it contains potential irritants like menthol or eucalyptus.
- Be patient. Consumers who have found success using cannabis topicals often describe it as part of a long-term, daily regimen. Don’t expect to see or feel results overnight, and try not to give up right away after you’ve come this far.
Do you need to decarboxylate weed to make a cannabis salve?
Yes. Even though you aren’t going to be smoking or eating the cannabis in your salve, you still want to decarboxylate it in order to “activate” the THC or CBD in the herb. The raw cannabis plant is abundant in acidic cannabinoids, not neutral ones. While acidic cannabinoids still have health benefits, there hasn’t been much research on using them topically just yet.
Decarboxylation simply requires heating up some cannabis in the oven for 30-40 minutes at around 220-245°F (105-120°C), making sure to check every five or 10 minutes to ensure the flowers aren’t scorched.
Alternately, because many salves call for using coconut oil as the base, if you have some cannabis-infused coconut oil on hand you can save yourself this step.
How to make a DIY cannabis salve
If you’ve checked out the CBD section at your local health store then you already know that topical cannabis products can be quite expensive. Luckily, making your own salve isn’t all that complicated — and can save you a lot of money.
This recipe from Homestead and Chill is about as easy as it gets. It makes about 2 cups of salve, but you can halve it or play around with the amounts if you’d like less (or more).
(*If you have already infused coconut oil, you can skip the first section of this recipe)
First things first, infuse your coconut oil.
- Place 1 cup of coconut oil in the top section of a double boiler and place water in the bottom.
- Stir the decarboxylated cannabis into the top section and heat on low — 130-150°F (55-65°C) — for at least one hour and up to three hours.
- If using a slow cooker, combine the cannabis and oil and cook at the same low temperature for one – three hours.
- In a saucepan, heat the oil and cannabis together at the same low temperature for one – three hours.
- Remove the oil from heat and strain through a cheesecloth, making sure to give the cheesecloth a good squeeze at the end to get out the rest of the oil.
Making cannabis salve:
- Melt ⅓ cup of beeswax in a pot or double boiler.
- Keeping it on low heat, stir in the infused coconut oil and the ⅓ cup of olive oil, as well as the optional drops of essential oil. Stir well until combined.
- Remove from heat and pour into the jar or storage container of your choosing.
As the salve cools it will harden. Make sure you use a container that’s easy to reach into so you can access all of your salve.
How to store a cannabis salve
Light and heat degrade the potency of cannabis products over time, so use a dark brown or dark green glass jar, or another airtight container. Keep your salve in a cool, dark place in your house.