Photo: Victoria Bee Photography / Getty Images
Is there anything quite as popular as CBD in the wellness world right now? The market is exploding with what is affectionately being referred to as the "green boom," with everything from CBD bath bombs and protein powder to CBD lube being sold on every corner of the internet. No need to find a local dispensary—because CBD is legal everywhere, you can buy it online with very few restrictions.
When Buying CBD Gets Scary
But buyers beware: While there are tons of fantastic cannabis-based health and wellness products out there for purchase, CBD is still brand new and thus unregulated. Just like dietary supplements, the FDA doesn't rigorously monitor the creation and distribution of CBD—so brands aren't under strict scrutiny when it comes to how they concoct, label, and sell their cannabis creations.
"There's a lot of great innovation going on right now, but because it's a new industry, there's also the fly-by-night players looking to make a quick buck," said Joel Stanley, chairman and one of the founders of Charlotte's Web CBD oil. "In fact, the FDA conducted their own study around CBD products and found that many don't even contain CBD," he said. "Knowing what's in products is the major purchasing concern for new CBD consumers, and we believe that regulation and consumer education is so important right now."
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 2017, found that about 26 percent of the CBD products they tested contained significantly less CBD per milliliter than the label advertised, which "could negate any potential clinical response." Read: won't do sh*t for your anxiety or pain, or give you any of CBD's science-backed benefits.
NBC New York also decided to put commercially available CBD products to the test, and the results did not look good. Their investigative team tested three brands of CBD oil and four brands of gummies, purchasing five samples of each brand. They tested them at a third-party lab, and found that less than half of the samples tested actually had the stated amount of CBD inside the product, that one brand had no CBD whatsoever in their product, one brand contained a pesticide that exceeds California’s acceptable standards, and shockingly, another had four times the amount of lead (!) than is allowed by the FDA.
Because this whole space is so new, most people don't even realize that there are certain red flags or things to look for when shopping for a safe, high-quality, and pure CBD product. How do you ensure that what you're putting on or in your body is actually legit—or even safe?
First things first, don't panic. Here, some of the most credible resources within the cannabis industry lend their expertise on how to safely buy CBD—because, without regulation in place, you essentially have to do the "regulating" yourself. Here's what you should look for, what to avoid, and everything you should know while shopping for CBD.
Buy from the Right Brands
In the cannabis space, getting to know the brand legitimately matters. Fortunately, many companies are doing their part by being transparent and giving consumers the info they need.
"The key differentiator [when it comes to buying safe and reliable CBD] is getting to know the brand," said Kiana Reeves, founder of Foria Wellness (which makes some amazing cannabis products for sexual health). "When you start investigating any cannabis, CBD, or wellness company, look into how much they know, how much information they're putting out—not just transparency and ingredients, but forward-thinking [practices]."
"Look for a brand that's not just putting random isolate into a cosmetic product, but doing the research of what's the most beneficial for the customer and showing where they're getting the hemp," said Reeves. "The more you can develop that trust and efficacy, the better off you'll be."
Stanley echoed this idea, instructing CBD consumers to look into the brand and their ability to control what he calls the "farm-to-shelf" process. Foria is one of those companies—as Reeves told us, Foria staff have "deeply personal relationships with growers and manufacturers," which allows them to be more in tune with the intricacies of their production.
Get the Certificate of Analysis (COA)
"Without a lab report, the label can say anything," says chiropractor Allen Miller, D.C., director of operations at Doctors Cannabis Consulting and advisor at Calm by Wellness Co. When it comes to trust, as Reeves mentioned, you'll want to only buy from a company that provides a COA, or certificate of analysis. This little PDF is proof that a third-party, independent lab tested the product you're about to buy and found a number of things, including the following super-important ones.
Something to keep in mind: You'll want to know the batch number of the CBD product you're looking at, says to Megan Villa, co-founder of the hemp-focused website and shop Svn Space. "Ask for a COA for the batch number of the product you have, since these products are made in batches," she said. "You need to match the batch number to the COA that pertains to it."
Potency: Is there CBD in there? How much? Look for "total cannabinoids" or "total CBD" on the COA. "Potency tells you the level of cannabinoids in the product," said Villa. "If [the brand and product] are claiming 250mg of CBD, then this should match what it says on the COA." (She shared a COA for reference that ticks all the proper boxes.)
Contaminants or pesticides: Was the hemp grown in pesticide-soaked soil? Did it get into the product? Was the CBD extracted using solvents? Are they in the product? "Request batch testing [results] to make sure there's no issue of contaminants, toxins, heavy metals, etc.," says Stanley. "Every company should not only have in-house testing but also verify through credible third-party laboratories that the product has the right concentration of CBD and is free from contaminants, residual solvents, and pesticides." (Related: Why You Should ~Really~ Get a CBD Massage)
Also look for the "Microbiological Testing" section of the COA, said Villa. "This ensures there is no mold or bacteria in the hemp that was used to make your CBD product."
Safety: While there are hundreds of new CBD companies bubbling up every day, pharmacist Earl Mindell, Ph.D., at Calm by Wellness Co., urges consumers to "find a company that has been in business for more than three years." Mindell noted that it will be easier for them to show that the labs they're using are "GMP" (good manufacturing practice) as well as "certified organic and regularly inspected by the FDA."
Stanley agreed: "Is the company third-party GMP certified? Are they manufacturing in an FDA-registered facility? Are they doing high-quality testing of the product from the farm to the shelf?" These are all questions you'll want to ask before buying a product.
Buy Domestically Sourced Hemp
"You want to know the origin of the hemp used in your product," said Stanley. "Hemp is a powerful phytoremediation crop, which means it cleans the soil." (It's also referred to as a bio-accumulator.)
That means when hemp is planted, it absorbs everything that's in the soil around it—which can include toxins, heavy metals, pesticides, and nuclear fallout. You'll want to ensure the hemp in your product is grown using responsible farming practices in soil that is pre-tested for toxins, says Stanley. Reeves emphasized this too, saying the way hemp is grown is tantamount to its safety as a consumer product.
"Look for CBD products made with American-grown hemp (including from New York, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon, Vermont, Tennessee, etc.)," says Melany Dobson, chief administrative officer at Hudson Hemp, because they're generally safer than hemp grown overseas.
"Undoubtedly, California has some of the best product in the world coming out of the 'green triangle' in Humboldt County," says Miller. Ben Odell at Foria Wellness also nodded to California's market, mentioning Flow Kana, a California-based sustainable cannabis farming collective in which artisanal growers banded together.
Aim for CO2-Extracted Products
"In addition to looking at the lab reports for pesticides, how it was grown, and the metal levels, you'll especially want to know how it was extracted," says Miller. "I'm a fan of CO2 extraction because it's nontoxic." The alternates are butane- or ethanol-based extraction. Both chemicals may end up in your product. You should be able to see that in the COA.
Read the Label
Labeling for CBD is kind of a sh*t show right now because there's so much governmental gray area (and the FDA isn't exactly being helpful). But, according to Odell, if a product says "CBD" on it, that may even be a red flag. "Technically, the FDA could come down on you for printing 'CBD' on your product," says Odell. "Charlotte's Web is an example of that; they're the biggest, most reputable brand, and really the founders in the space, and they don't print 'CBD' on their stuff anymore."
Many products now say "hemp extract" thanks to pressure from the FDA and DEA—because, according to them, if a product is listed as a dietary supplement, it cannot contain CBD (see aforementioned comment about the FDA not being helpful). It may say "hemp extract" with milligrams of cannabidiol listed, but most brands have swapped labeling to be safe.
Plus, just printing "CBD" is apparently not very telling. "If it just says CBD, is it an isolate? An extract? You don't know," said Odell.
Consider Full- or Broad-Spectrum Hemp Instead of CBD Isolate
"Ask if a product is full-spectrum," says Stanley. "Hemp has many beneficial compounds beyond CBD, and all of these compounds work together, building on their individual strengths to further heighten the body's positive response to CBD."
"Isolate is incredibly cheap, and it's not as effective; broad-spectrum is balanced," adds Odell, who describes a "U-shaped dose-response curve" when it comes to CBD isolate, saying "as dosage increases, its effectiveness tapers."
Dobson also says hemp oil would be a better choice in lieu of isolate, citing research that showed the U-shaped curve and concluded that "pure CBD is not as effective in pain and inflammation management as unisolated CBD, as a full-spectrum cannabis extract." (Related: The Best CBD Oil Beauty Products)
That doesn't mean CBD isolate is bad, but you may want to opt for something that delivers a more complete plant extract. "You're not going to kill yourself by getting an isolate, but you want a whole-plant, broad-spectrum product," says Odell.
And, even if it is CBD isolate, it still may be more effective than aspirin, according to the study Dobson cited. "Both pure CBD and the full-spectrum CBD with its phytocannabinoids were more effective than aspirin in relieving both inflammation and pain," she says. (Related: I Was a Total Skeptic About CBD—but It Does Wonders for My Anxiety)
Broad-Spectrum vs. Full-Spectrum
There is, in fact, a difference between broad- and full-spectrum, says Odell. When looking at products, you'll likely want to make sure the label says "broad-spectrum."
Full-spectrum may imply that it contains THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, or the stuff in marijuana that gets you high). It would be noted on the label—and has to be under 0.3% in most cases—but you likely won't see this stuff outside a dispensary, since THC isn't legal everywhere. (See: What's the Difference Between CBD, THC, Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp?)
"If you're at the supermarket and a product says 'full-spectrum,' it starts to suggest that this isn't a reliable product," says Odell.
"The main characteristic of full-spectrum is that it's a whole plant extract—nothing is added or removed from the plant's natural chemical composition," says Dobson.
In comparison, broad-spectrum is distilled and does remove certain compounds, leaving the extract with "a majority percentage of a single cannabinoid (most commonly, CBD), with a broad-spectrum of accompanying cannabinoids and terpenes," says Dobson.
Caution: Avoid "Hemp Seed Oil"
Hemp seed oil does not equal CBD: "CBD is not derived from the seed and stalk of the hemp plant because [the compound] is not present in hemp seed, and barely any CBD is present on the stalk of the hemp plant," said Dobson.
Odell and Reeves also warned about hemp seed oil sold at big-box online stores like Amazon
. In reality, you're getting something that's closer to an olive oil than an actual medicine. (Just a heads up: You
. And honestly, given everything you just read, you shouldn't want to.)
"If you search on Amazon for CBD product, you'll see a lot of stuff that's hemp seed oil—they're trying to capture unwitting people," said Odell. "Hemp seed oil is great; it's full of omega-3s, nutritious and everything, but there's very little (if any) CBD."
Know Your Resources
Each brand you buy from should have a support team to answer questions and walk you through all the aforementioned points. Charlotte's Web has set a great precedent for this with their customer care team, which can send batch results for the exact product you purchased and provide general education on CBD—not just their products.
"Don't be afraid to contact CBD hemp oil companies directly and ask questions," says Dobson. "And if you can't reach them directly, try another brand."
In addition to communicating directly with the brand you're interested in, Dobson and Miller each recommended online resources, including Project CBD, MG Magazine, and Edibles List magazine, as reliable sources from which to discover new brands and products, as well as further educate yourself.
"The big thing to remember is that it's your body, so it's your responsibility to know what's going into it," says Miller. "Don't be afraid or anxious to ask as many questions as you need to figure the best product for you."