text: Jacob Muselmann / photography: Viet Nguyen & Blake Brown
published 11.28.2019

Kim was freaking out. Her second surrogate child was on the way, and she craved some serious chill. Thus, the idea for a CBD-themed baby shower was born.

“Let’s zen out for a Saturday,” she said, clad in breezy taupe and surrounded by yoga mats, sound bowls, and a gong. Kris, Kourtney and Paris looked on. “So everyone have a puff and put on some oil.”

Suffice it to say, CBD—used by roughly 1 in 7 Americans—has found plenty of believers. Touted as a treatment for a wide range of ailments, from anxiety and insomnia to chronic pain and inflammation, it’s predicted to rake in some $5 billion in sales by year’s end—inspiring a slew of new products that grows weirder by the day.

“There’s always gonna be, like, Carls Jr. putting CBD in burgers, and people are gonna throw it in toothpaste and mouthwash,” says Manna Molecular CEO Nial DeMena. “It’s just gonna be, ‘put it in first, ask questions later,’ and I think that attitude is the exact wrong tact to take.”

CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of more than 100 compounds found in the cannabis plant. Unlike its cousin, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it’s nonpyschoactive, meaning there’s no “high” involved. Still, its piecemeal state-by-state legal status has made it a magnet for shady players, shoddy products and dubious claims.

“I just don’t wanna see CBD go the snake oil route when there’s so much research yet to be done,” says Adam Terry, a biochemical engineer and senior manager of product development at Integrative Health Products, which develops and distributes THC and CBD products nationally.

Next time you’re in the market for CBD anything, keep these tips in mind to ensure you’re getting a quality product that’s safe.

Things to know before buying CBD:

  • Know thyself. Do some soul searching and be inquisitive with your dispensary: What do you need it to do for you? How does it affect people who are like you? How much do people normally take of this? Naturally, avoid your problem areas. (Of course, before trying CBD you should talk to your doctor, especially if you’re taking any medication.)
  • Find out where and how the plants were grown. State laws on plant cultivation vary widely—some have none at all. And looser laws in places such as China, a common supplier of CBD-producing hemp, present even more of a risk. “For all we know they’re growing hemp on radiation,” Terry says. “We’re not gonna see that in a test, because we’re not looking for it.”
  • Ask for test results. The unregulated, Wild West nature of the industry means labels can mislead, so seek out companies who have their products rigorously tested. A certificate of analysis, or COA, will tell you how much CBD and THC is in the product. (Even better: a COA done by a third party.) Be sure the COA also includes “full panel” tests for contaminants such as heavy metals, mold, mildews, pesticides, and microorganisms—especially important if it’s not a state-run or state-licensed dispensary that grows cannabis, Terry says. “The person handing it to you should be able to tell you what farm that grew on and the license number it grew under,” Terry says. “If they don’t seem like they know what they’re talking about, walk away.”

Verifying the product’s potency, isn’t just a good idea for your wallet, DeMena says. Because of CBD’s low bioavailability by default—edibles hover between 6% and 20%—users may be inclined to dose themselves many times over to get their desired effect, which is not only expensive, but floods the body with various outside agents could have long-term effects that are too early to know about.

“People think, ‘Oh, Vitamin D is good for you, so let me take 50,000mg of Vitamin D every day.’ Well, that can cause liver damage, kidney damage, and you’re pissing out 99% of that,” DeMena says, “so it is a big deal in terms of bioaccumulation and overall health.”

Consistent, extreme dosages over a period of time can also have a diminishing effect, as the body adapts by reducing the number of receptors for the drug in response. The solution, DeMena says, is to aim for products with high efficacy in the first place.

Quality aside, results will also depend on the delivery route, each of which varies in absorption rate and duration, and may act locally or throughout the body.

  • Most topicals, such as lotions, salves, and balms, will only work on the area applied—great for, say, a sore knee. As with most skincare products, this field is littered with duds, so try to finagle a sample before buying. Transdermal products, which can include patches, mean that the drug travels through the skin and is absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in higher absorption, plus you’ll feel it all over.
  • Vaping and smoking are the fastest-acting and most potent option short of a needle injection. But because high-concentrate CBD tends to crystallize, CBD vape oils are often cut with diluents to maintain a fluid consistency, some of which can be harmful. “There’s no proof by anyone that there’s anything safe to inhale that is not air,” Terry says. “So vape and smoke at your own caution.”
  • As for tinctures, whether drops or sprays, be sure to find out whether it’s meant to be swallowed or held under the tongue to be absorbed (what’s known as a sublingual, which is faster-acting). “A lot of people selling tinctures don’t specify which way, and that’s because they don’t really know,” DeMena says. “It’s because the company selling the product doesn’t even really care to think about that—they just want you to buy it.”
  • Other edibles, such as gummies, capsules and beverages, take longer to start working (30 minutes or more) and are generally less effective but last longer. The metabolization of these compounds changes their chemical formulations, and there’s not enough research yet to know the full scope of how they interact with the body.

Connoisseurs might enjoy exploring the finer points, such as whether the CBD extract is pure (isolate) or contains other compounds found in the plant (full- or broad-spectrum), which some find to complement or enhance the CBD—what’s known as the “entourage effect.” Just how much these and other aspects play a role is, for now, largely a matter of perception.

“Placebo effect can have its own benefits,” Terry says. “As long as someone thinks it’s working and feels it’s working, then, for them, it’s working.” Believe it or not, it’s a powerful thing.

The statements on Lab Notes have not been evaluated by the FDA. The products mentioned herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.