Take a stroll down Queen Street West in downtown Toronto and you’d never guess that selling cannabis was ever a criminal act. Three years into recreational cannabis legalization, Canada is drowning in pot. In markets such as Toronto, the retail landscape is oversaturated, with massive store closings predicted for 2022. Overproduction of the plant has left millions of kilos of kush stockpiled in storage.
But when it comes to cannabis as an ingredient in skin care, the industry is just getting started. In 2018, with legalization on the horizon in Canada, the beauty industry was, in many ways, ahead of the game when it came to normalizing cannabis use, with major beauty brands such as the Body Shop having already been using cannabis-sourced ingredients such as hemp seed oil for decades. Three years later, it still has a long way to go, especially when it comes to backing up claims of how cannabis extracts cannabidiol (CBD) and psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) enhance skin care and helping consumers differentiate between high and low-quality products.
CBD and THC are added to skin-care products for benefits such as anti-inflammation and pain relief. Whether it was the novelty, the mystique or word-of-mouth recommendations, the past few years have seen a growing interest in cannabis skin care as it’s popped up in creams, serums, bath soaks and even mascara. According to market research from Euromonitor International, the retail sales of adult-use topicals for non-medical purposes in Canada surged from $3.18-million in 2020 to $26.02-million in 2021, and is forecasted to jump to $37.05-million next year. Evaluating the efficacy of these products is still a work in progress, as cannabis’s evolving legal status means clinical studies largely lag consumer demand. The result is lingering confusion about what actually works.
“The market became flooded with so many beauty brands rushing to use cannabis in their formulations that many brands started formulating solely to jump on a trend,” says Elena Severin, senior director of merchandising at the Detox Market, which is based in Los Angeles and has stores in Toronto and ships across Canada. Severin and her team settled on a handful of products from brands including Prima, Muri Lelu and Plant People to sell at their U.S. locations but they’ve had to hold off on making them available to Canadian customers. “The main hurdles are the legal challenges,” Severin says.
In Canada, adding cannabis extracts to a jar of lotion means that the product falls under the same regulations as, say, a jar of Maui Wowie flower. These regulations vary from province to province. In Ontario, brands such as Calyx Wellness and Sensitiva operate storefronts where they sell topical products containing CBD derived from hemp, a strain of the plant with very little THC, while any skin-care products with CBD sourced from cannabis plants are available through the Ontario Cannabis Store. In Quebec, Apprenti Ôr’ganik founder Alexandrine Pierre says she’s not able to include CBD in any of her skin-care products, even if it’s sourced from hemp plants, unless she sells them through the Société Québécoise du Cannabis.
Some skin-care professionals question why beauty consumers are being funnelled to stores specializing in recreational cannabis, where it’s unlikely that the other aspects of skin-care regimens will be taken into consideration by a salesperson. Dr. Renée A. Beach, a dermatologist, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Toronto and founder of DermAtelier on Avenue in Toronto, says that professional advice is lacking in these situations. “Where’s the holistic approach?” she says.
Until regulations shift away from looking at cannabis exclusively through a psychoactive lens, Pierre believes that we’ll be missing out on the full therapeutic potential of the plant.
Shauna Levy launched her Toronto-based cannabis product company Madge and Mercer in August. While experiencing chronic pain a few years ago, she became interested in exploring the healing benefits of cannabis but didn’t necessarily want to experience the psychoactive effects. Levy hopes to share these benefits with women over 40, a demographic that she says is often ignored by the health and wellness industry.
Madge and Mercer’s offerings were developed in consultation with medical experts, including dermatologist and skin allergy expert Dr. Sandy Skotnicki. Her role was formulating a facial serum using ingredients that are anti-inflammatory, rich in antioxidants and pleasing to use (Skotnicki added orange peel oil to mask any weedy aromas) to improve redness, puffiness and dryness, conditions that are more common in mature skin. The decision to include THC in the Madge and Mercer serum means that it can only be sold through licensed cannabis sellers, but it’s something that Levy says is critical to the formulation. “You do require a little bit of THC and terpenes to help activate the CBD and allow it to do what it needs to do,” she says. “Without that, it’s healthy but it doesn’t have the same therapeutic benefits.”
It’s likely only a matter of time before the science catches up to the hype. Beach says once there are more clinical studies in humans, dermatologists will really know how cannabidiol products stack up against existing treatments. “I don’t think we’re there yet to say that this option supersedes what we have medically available,” she says. “It’s an alternative, that’s great, we’re always looking for alternatives, but I don’t think this is the case yet.”
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