Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on December 24, 2022

Cannabis use has increased in recent years, and so has the use of new cannabis products that weren’t as common, most of which were actually non-existent on the market thirty years ago. New high-THC strains for avid cannabis users, CBD oil to treat inflammation, and cannabis products like moon rocks, have all paved the road for the increasing consumption of cannabis goods.

As a result of that, we focus on informing you about various cannabis consumption methods and new cannabis products, so you can decide if some may appeal to you as a recreational or medical marijuana user. This article will be dedicated to the absorption of cannabinoids transdermally, meaning we’ll focus on cannabis topicals and how they’re absorbed through the skin.

How Does the Body Absorb Cannabinoids Like THC and CBD?

Once cannabis enters the body, the main cannabinoids delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gives users psychoactive effects, and cannabidiol (CBD), which helps with inflammation and relaxation, react with the endocannabinoid system. 

The endocannabinoid system is made up of cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) that are affected once the cannabinoids enter the body. Precisely those receptors are the ones responsible for the effects of marijuana on the nervous system and the body.  

Cannabis Consumption Methods and Cannabis Products

Cannabis can be consumed in different forms, as well as through various delivery systems. Those include consuming cannabis through:

  • Inhalation;
  • Ingestion;
  • Orally;
  • Transdermally.


This method of cannabis consumption involves inhaling combusted or vaporized cannabis by smoking a joint, or vaping a vape pen. Inhaling cannabis results in a fast onset of the effects since it takes a small amount of time for the cannabinoids to get from the lungs to the bloodstream. 

People generally use the cannabis flower for this method of consumption. They either smoke it in a joint, blunt, spliff, and vape pen, or they inhale the cannabis concentrates by using a dab rig.


The ingestion method involves the consumption of cannabinoids orally, after which the cannabinoids are absorbed in the intestinal tract and metabolized in the liver, after which the onset of the effects starts. 

This method means consuming cannabis edibles like weed brownies, cakes, cookies, etc., made with cannabutter and cannabis oil, as well as drinkables like coffee, tea, and other cannabis-infused beverages. Ingesting cannabis in solid or liquid form is very different from inhaling it, since edibles contain the THC metabolite 11-hydroxy THC that’s 5-10 times more potent than inhaled THC, and the effects last way longer. 


Oral absorption, or sublingual absorption, means that the cannabinoids are absorbed through the mucosal lining of the mouth. This method of consuming marijuana under the tongue (sublingually) results in a faster onset of the effects, compared to the absorption of cannabis with other methods like ingestion. The cannabis products used for oral absorption are cannabis tinctures made by extracting the cannabinoids with alcohol, or another solvent like isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol (ethanol).


Topical, or transdermal absorption of cannabinoids, is done through the skin. Users put marijuana infused topicals like lotions, balms, salves, and soaks on the skin, for the purpose of pain relief and reducing inflammation. Topicals may also treat skin conditions like eczema and acne, so they’ve become a popular salve to use after a heavy workout.

Can THC Be Absorbed Through the Skin?

Cannabis skin products are applied directly to the skin. Therefore, THC can be absorbed via the CB1 receptors in the skin, muscle tissues, and nerves, which results in anti-inflammatory and pain relief effects on users.

On the other hand, THC can also enter the bloodstream, interact with CB2 receptors, and get distributed throughout the body. Since it takes a long time for THC to be distributed to the blood and then to the rest of the body, it doesn’t have any psychoactive effects on users.

Types of Cannabis Skin Products

As we’ve previously stated, cannabinoid products that are applied to the skin can be absorbed with two methods: topical and transdermal.

Topical application products are creams and other cosmetic products that are intended to be applied on the outside layer of the skin (the epidermis). These products are designed to target only the skin, and don’t penetrate into the bloodstream.

Transdermal products, on the other hand, penetrate through the epidermis by using lipophilic pathways according to this 1998 paper, and are used to treat certain medical conditions. For example, transdermal CBD may be used to reduce inflammation and pain from arthritis according to a 2015 study done on rats.

Transdermal application is used as a way to bypass the cannabinoid ingestion which results in psychoactive effects in users, and get the appropriate doses of cannabinoids like THC, CBD, CBN, and others.

Transdermal vs Topical Delivery of Cannabinoids

Topical creams only treat the part of the body where they’re applied to. On the other hand,  transdermal application can provide pain relief to users similar to topical application, but it also has the ability to enter the bloodstream and reach other parts of the body.

That is generally done through commercial transdermal patches that transport the cannabinoids across the skin. They’re especially useful for long-term reduction of chronic pain. For example, applying transdermal products on the neck to relieve a migraine.

Why Are Topicals Used?

Cannabis-infused creams can be used to treat and help with:

  • Pain and inflammation – according to a 2008 study, cannabis may be better for treating pain and inflammation as opposed to opioids.
  • Skin conditions – according to a 2017 study, cannabis may be used as treatment for conditions like psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and severe itching.
  • Dyskinesias, tics, and maybe even dystonia – according to a 2015 study, cannabis may be used to treat conditions like dyskinesis, spasms, and dystonia.
  • Wounds – topically applied cannabinoids may provide pain and symptom management for healing malignant wounds, according to a 2016 study.
  • Headaches – there are some preliminary studies that show that cannabis cream may provide migraine relief.

Can Topicals Be Caught on THC Drug Tests?

Cannabis drug testing has become very common in modern workplaces, as managers and owners are aiming for better performances by their employees. Common drug tests include:

  • Urine tests;
  • Blood tests;
  • Saliva tests;
  • Hair follicle tests.

According to a study done by the University of Bonn in Germany in 2017, topically applied cannabis products didn’t result in a positive drug test in the people tested.

Side Effects of CBD or THC Creams

A lot of medical marijuana users are worried about trying marijuana as a treatment option for fear of potential psychoactive and other side effects. While ingesting, inhaling, or consuming cannabis products orally will result in significant psychoactive effects, the effects of topicals are very different. 

CBD and THCA-based products aren’t known to cause side effects. However, THC-based products may cause mild euphoric effects. These effects are in no way similar to the effects of smoking weed, although they may happen. So, topicals are a great option for people who don’t like to consume marijuana, but are looking for the pain-relief benefits it offers.

Final Thoughts on Cannabis Absorption Through the Skin

Cannabis-infused creams and salves are a great option for getting the benefits of cannabinoids like THC and CBD, without experiencing the psychoactive effects. Medical marijuana users should remember some key information before trying out cannabis topicals.

  • Cannabis topicals start affecting users rather fast when applied locally.
  • Cannabis topicals can be combined with OTC anti-inflammatories in order for the pain relief effects to have a faster onset.
  • Cannabis topicals shouldn’t be applied to an open wound without consulting a licensed physician.
  • Cannabis topicals should be bought from licensed dispensaries or reputable online markets.

If you do decide to try out topicals, make sure you do it responsibly, and apply the recommended doses.

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


The information presented on this page is provided as a public service to aid in education and is derived from sources believed to be reliable. Readers are responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed here. In no event shall Leaf Nation be held reliable for any injury, loss or damage that could happen if using or abusing drugs.