Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail

Part of Cannabis and consumers

The beauty world loves a hot new ingredient. Walk into your local Sephora and you’ll see signs for categories of products containing things such as rose, soy and various types of tea, each boasting its own unique self-care cachet. In 2018, nothing has more buzz in the beauty world than cannabis. The provocative plant has infiltrated skin care, cosmetics and fragrance, making bold promises of curing everything from inflammation to acne.

But are there really benefits behind the hype? You don’t have to wait for recreational legalization to find out. While impending changes to cannabis laws in Canada will no doubt increase interest in the beautifying nature of cannabis, its use in makeup, skin care and fragrance is already showing signs of growth. As the lingering social stigma surrounding cannabis use goes up in smoke, savvy beauty marketers are getting their customers high on the hype, while some experts are calling “puff puff bluff” on the lack of evidence of its effectiveness.

Open this photo in gallery:

Eve Lom Radiance Face Oil, $104 at Murale.

Part of the apothecary appeal of cannabis has to do with the growing popularity of the clean-beauty movement, says Amy Chung, beauty-industry analyst at market-research firm NPD Group. According to their Canadian research, facial skin-care products that focus solely on plant- or flower-based ingredients make up about 15 per cent of sales. Sales in this category were also up 15 per cent in the 12 months ending April, 2018. Chung sees this particular botanical as a niche ingredient that is undergoing a high-end makeover. “Now that natural beauty and clean beauty and green beauty is so cool and on the rise, you have these companies that are really capitalizing on that. They’re taking a concept that’s been done before and elevating it, repackaging it, making it a lot prettier and reintroducing it to the market.”

Like any newly trendy ingredient, cannabis’s efficacy in those types of products depends on who you ask – and how you’re using it. Broadly speaking, cannabis beauty products fall into two categories: those made with hemp-seed oil, a botanical extract rich in essential fatty acids, and those containing cannabidiol. Commonly referred to as CBD, cannabidiol is one of the many non-psychoactive sisters of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that imparts the high (the Cannabis sativa plant has more than 100 different cannabinoids, chemicals that are also produced by the human body’s endocannabinoid system, which helps modulate functions including sleep and appetite).

CBD is said to have anti-inflammatory properties that can ease various skin conditions, and its applications for makeup and fragrance vary. It can be applied topically or sublingually, where the substance is absorbed by membranes under the tongue. Hemp and CBD oil in skin-care products available in Canada are legally sourced from hemp plants bred specifically to contain negligible amounts of THC (less than 0.3 per cent), meaning that it won’t get you high and it won’t show up on a drug test.

Open this photo in gallery:

Milk Makeup Kush High Volume Mascara, $29 at Sephora.

In makeup, hemp oil brings its vegan-friendly conditioning properties to millennial-focused brands. Earlier this year, New York-based Milk Makeup launched Kush High Volume Mascara. Its name is a cutesy double-entendre (“Kush” being a name for a strain of Cannabis indica) for a product that uses CBD-rich oil as a thickening substitute for beeswax.

While smokers of cannabis have been known to go to great lengths to camouflage its unmistakably musky sillage, some perfumers are emphasizing the plant’s herbaceous aroma. Balenciaga’s Florabotanica contains a “formula of psychosensory plants,” while By Kilian’s Smoke for the Soul is described by the brand as a “forbidden flirtation with bitter psychotropic tobacco.”

But it’s the skin-care segment that has been the most eager to adopt cannabis into its formulas. “Hemp is a really interesting plant because it’s been grown as a source of seed oil and fibre for a really, really long time,” says Jennifer Hirsch, the global beauty botanist for The Body Shop, the Britain-based, botanically focused skin-care brand that launched its own hemp-based creams back in 1998. Hirsch says the benefits of using hemp oil – and plant oils in general – in skin care is that they have a similar makeup to the sebum, the oils and moisturizing factors that our skin naturally produces. “Basically, in augmenting the barrier system, it helps to reduce trans-epidermal water loss, and that leaves your skin better hydrated, and hydrated skin functions more optimally,” she says. “We see that when you look at your skin as smoother, more supple skin.”

Open this photo in gallery:

The Body Shop Hemp Hard-Working Hand Protector, $30 at The Body Shop.

But dermatologist Dr. Gurbir Dhadwal says that not been enough studies or trials have been done to indicate the effectiveness of cannabis to treat any medical skin conditions. “There may be components that are helpful, but we just don’t know yet,” he says. At Guildford Dermatology where he practises in Surrey, B.C., Dhadwal sees patients from a wide range of backgrounds who are inquiring about and using skin care that contains cannabis-derived ingredients to treat the symptoms of everything from rashes to skin cancer. “Using it for skin cancer to me seems quite frightening because what happens if it gets worse and we don’t know? If someone is using it for a rash and their rash gets worse, well, that’s unfortunate but it’s typically not going to take their life.”

Using hemp oil to tend to skin is nothing new. The Body Shop’s Hirsch posits that it’s likely been used on skin for several millennia in much the same way olive oil has. What is new to the current market is the addition of CBD. In the United States, where recreational cannabis consumption is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, indie skin-care brands are marketing CBD-enhanced topical products in luxe, minimalist packaging.

At the forefront is Lord Jones, a California-based maker of CBD-infused candies, tinctures and skin-care products. The brand has a high-profile following that includes Canadian stylist Karla Welch, who uses its body lotion on her A-List clients’ feet before red-carpet appearances. Actor and talk-show host Whoopi Goldberg is one half of Whoopi & Maya, a line of female-focused soaks, rubs, tinctures and edibles that contain both THC and CBD. Celebrity makeup artist Bobbi Brown, meanwhile, told The New York Times she prefers Theramu, a brand of wellness-focused tinctures, balms and bath crystals made with CBD and emu oils.

Open this photo in gallery:

Malin+Goetz Cannabis Eau de Parfum, US$165 through

Even with these celebrity endorsements and the changing legal landscape around cannabis consumption, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the United States’ topical CBD brands, and you won’t find any mention of Theramu’s key ingredient on its website or packaging. “One of the things that has plagued the industry here in the U.S. is banking and credit-card processing,” Theramu’s CEO Joel Greengrass says. “Every company that I know, including us, has lost both their banking and credit-card processing many times.”

The payment-processing issue is a roadblock that illustrates the continuing confusion surrounding the legality of cannabis at all levels, and part of the reason why the evidence of its health and wellness benefits is mostly anecdotal. A client before joining Theramu, Greengrass uses his company’s products to manage his symptoms of multiple sclerosis, taking an elixir twice daily and applying the topical balm nightly on his legs and the base of his neck. “We have a lot of nerves that come into one area there,” he says. “And then every morning, I put it on the bottom of my feet before I put my socks on because that’s where I get a lot of cramping. My feet are like baby feet right now because of the side effect of it being such an amazing moisturizer.”

Blazing the CBD trail in Canada is Calyx Wellness Centre, which bills itself as the country’s first CBD boutique, located in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. In 2016, Danielle Blair opened Calyx after her husband used CBD to recover from severe headaches as a result of a brain tumour. In addition to CBD products for people and their pets, Calyx offers reiki treatments, crystal healing and education.

Open this photo in gallery:

Marley Natural Hemp Seed Lip Balm, $6.50 through

This spring, however, Blair stopped carrying topical CBD products, mainly because she believes sublingual application is more reliable and effective in terms of both cost and benefit. “Topical is great for pain management as an anti-inflammatory but, if you’re looking at something like a beauty skin-care product because you have acne or rosacea or eczema or something like that, I would always suggest sublingual because it works from the inside out,” she says. With topical skin care, “it’s almost like you’re paying just because it’s a cool additive rather than because it’s something that’s effective.”

According to Dhadwal, the dermatologist, the lack of scientific proof is partially owing to medical cannabis occupying an unregulated space for so long. “It’s sort of hard to give people clear advice because there is no clear advice,” he says. “In general, the problem is that the research is super-inconclusive and there’s not a lot of it.”

Visit to sign up for the Globe Style e-newsletter, your weekly digital guide to the players and trends influencing fashion, design and entertaining, plus shopping tips and inspiration for living well. And follow Globe Style on Instagram @globestyle.

Interact with The Globe