7 Things to Know Before You Buy and Try CBD Products

Do your due diligence before using any form of cannabidiol. Here’s how to best vet products and sellers.

by Amy Marturana Winderl Health Writer

If you’re starting to feel like the letters CBD are following you everywhere you go, you’re not imagining things.

Ever since the Hemp Farm Act passed in 2018, which legalized hemp-derived products, cannabidiol, or CBD, has become the buzziest chemical in the wellness industry. And it’s ubiquitous: You can buy CBD products in health food stores, Amazon, and even pet shops. Heck, even some cafes are serving up CBD-infused coffees and juices.

Is it really just that good? While CBD has been hailed as a drug that pretty much can do it all, from curbing anxiety to relieving chronic pain, the truth is a lot more complex.

And, given that there is little conclusive evidence on CBD’s efficacy—and even less approval for specific health claims from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—where does that leave you? You might be wondering: Should I believe all the hype? How do I know which products to use? Which ones are legit? What kind of sellers should I trust? And, most important, how do I know if these products are safe?

Before you buy and try any form of CBD, consider the following:

1. Know what CBD is and how it works in the body.

CBD is a chemical compound found in cannabis, a flowering plant with several subspecies, including marijuana and hemp. Another compound in cannabis is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol—better known as THC. That’s what is responsible for making a person feel “high” after smoking a joint or eating a pot brownie.

Not all cannabis plants can get someone stoned, however. That’s because different varieties contain differing amounts of various chemical compounds, including CBD and THC. Marijuana is a type of cannabis that naturally has a lot of THC—hence, the high. Hemp, on the other hand, naturally contains minuscule amounts of THC, but loads of CBD.

Theoretically, CBD may work to relieve all sorts of ailments because it easily interacts with an important system in the human body: the endocannabinoid system, which regulates cognition, pain sensation, appetite, memory, sleep, immune function, and mood.

It does this by releasing neurotransmitters, or chemicals that send messages throughout the body, to tell various cells, tissues, and organs what to do. CBD may influence the signals that are sent. This interaction is what some experts believe may produce CBD’s various effects on everything from mood to inflammation to pain.

2. Compare the actual research with what CBD is touted to do.

CBD has become hugely popular in recent years because a wide range of studies, loads of anecdotal evidence, and word-of-mouth phenomenon suggest it may be helpful—“may” being the key word here—in treating a slew of health conditions.

According to April Hatch, R.N., founder of Cannabis Care Team in Kansas City, MO, the cannabis compound has shown promise as:

  • A pain reliever

  • A muscle relaxant to help with muscle tension and pain

  • An anxiolytic to manage anxiety

  • An antipsychotic to prevent delusions and hallucinations

  • May lower insulin resistance

  • An antibacterial agent to treat infections

  • An anti-inflammatory to reduce inflammation throughout the body

  • A neuroprotector against conditions like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS)

  • An antioxidant promoter to help fight disease-causing free radicals from toxins, smoke, and radiation

Here’s the catch, and it’s a big one: The vast majority of these studies have been done in animals, or on cells in a petri dish in a lab, says Ziva Cooper, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative and associate professor in the Jane & Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior at UCLA. Very few on living, breathing humans. While such research is certainly intriguing, scientists like Cooper are still trying to figure out how those studies might translate to people.

As of now, there are few large, reliable studies in humans to prove or deny what CBD can do for any health condition. “In fact, there have only been about two double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that have looked at CBD alone for pain,” she says. “Which is kind of amazing when you think about how many people use CBD for pain.”

There is a single scientifically vetted, FDA-approved medication (meaning, it went through human clinical trials) to treat a few very specific seizure disorders currently on the market.

“We have what I would call a definitive evidence that CBD can help children with certain rare seizure disorders,” says Jordan Tishler, M.D., medical cannabis provider at inhaleMD in Cambridge, MA, and president of the Association of Cannabis Specialists. The drug is called Epidiolex (cannabidiol), and it works by interacting with and essentially calming down the neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain that otherwise fire out of control and trigger seizures.

Another prescription CBD, called Sativex (delta-9-tetrahydrocannibinol and cannabidiol in the EU; nabiximols in the U.S.), is approved in Canada and some European countries to treat MS-related spasticity, but it’s still going through the FDA review process here.

A lack of data doesn't mean CBD definitely isn’t helpful, Cooper notes. “It just means a lot of people are saying it works, there’s a lot in the animal literature suggesting it works—so we have to do rigorous studies to test if it works in humans, too.”

Such studies are coming: “More research comes out every day,” Hatch says. Currently, there are at least a dozen CBD clinical trials in progress.

3. Find a cannabidiol-knowledgeable doctor who can monitor dosage and drug interactions.

Even though it comes from a plant, CBD is still a drug. Which means that taking it can cause adverse effects—some of which we may not even know about yet. If you want to take CBD for its potential benefits, it’s vital to find a doctor who can help guide you so that you can do so safely.

In general, CBD seems to be pretty safe and Is well-tolerated by most people, Cooper says. “There are some adverse effects—people can get sleepy with high doses, sometimes it causes GI upset—but other drugs can be much more severe,” she says. It may also cause liver toxicity in very high doses.

The biggest safety concern experts have about CBD is how it may interact with other medications.

CBD is metabolized in the body by the same enzyme that metabolizes a large amount of other pharmaceuticals, Hatch explains. Taking CBD can mess with how the body processes and uses other drugs, causing them to be metabolized too slow or too fast. Either isn’t good. “Patients need to be aware if they are on other medications, and of course talk to their doctor before taking CBD,” Hatch says.

There’s a “laundry list” of drugs that may potentially interact with CBD, based off what we know about the main enzyme that breaks it down, Cooper adds. “We don't know yet if those interactions are clinically significant or if it actually happens in a person, but until we have those data it’s important to be cautious.” The extensive list off possible drug-drug interactions includes medications used to treat everything from seizures to asthma, cancer, GERD, and bipolar disorder.

“We also don’t know the impact of long-term CBD use,” says Cooper. Again, just another thing to keep in mind if you’re considering trying it.

If your primary care physician isn’t familiar with CBD and doesn’t feel like they can guide you, Hatch suggests searching the Society of Cannabis Clinicians to search for a knowledgeable doctor near you.

4. Educate yourself on the different types of CBD products out there.

There seems to be no shortage of ways to use CBD, whether you’re putting it on or inside of your body. You can buy body lotions, oils, and balms to slather on your muscles and joints. Or you can buy capsules or pills, gummies, oils, or tinctures (basically alcohol infused with CBD) to ingest.

The key with an edible product is that there’s also some fat in the mix, usually in the form of an oil like MCT or olive oil, says Hatch. This is because fat helps our bodies absorb CBD more readily, Hatch explains. “If there’s no fat consumed before or at the same time as CBD, so much of it is going to be wasted,” Hatch says. So any pills, gummies, oils, or tinctures you consider should definitely have some type of oil (fat) in them.

Oils and tinctures, which are meant to be dropped under the tongue, where they’re absorbed straight into the bloodstream, are usually the most potent and work the quickest, says Hatch. A pill or gummy, which both have to travel through the digestive system first, will typically take longer to work, and the amount of CBD that actually makes it to your system will likely decrease a bit.

All of these products can also contain different types of CBD, says Hatch. The three main types are:

  • Isolate: Only contains CBD and no other compounds from the cannabis plant

  • Full spectrum: Contains small amounts of other cannabis compounds, like flavonoids, terpenes, and even small amounts of THC

  • Broad spectrum: Contains small amounts of other cannabis compounds, but not THC

Hatch recommends full or broad spectrum over isolate, because CBD seems to work better when combined with other plant compounds—especially THC. “Combined, you get the most medical benefits. Full spectrum is the best medical option.” But keep in mind, she says, that full spectrum does contain THC. “I've seen people want to try CBD for health reasons and purchase full spectrum, which has less than 0.03% THC, and they test positive on a drug test. That’s something people need to be aware of.”

5. If you’re curious about CBD-infused food and drink, it's important to know a few things before indulging.

Over the last few years, cafes and bars in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver have jumped on the CBD bandwagon and started offering drinks—everything from coffee to cocktails—spiked with CBD oil. Some even have sold CBD-infused foods—brownies, chocolates, and unexpected items like tater tots and salad dressing (seriously). But it's important to keep in mind that these items are completely unregulated. In some cases, they may even be illegal.

The FDA says that THC or CBD cannot be added to food for humans or animals. A few hemp-seed ingredients are totally OK, but other than that, no other cannabis-derived products get the agency's stamp of approval.

So, how are bars and restaurants and cafes selling them? Some state laws might allow it, or local officials may just not really enforce it yet. And like everything with CBD, regulations are constantly changing—for example, the New York City Department of Health ruled in 2019 that restaurants and bars cannot sell CBD-infused products, and started to crack down on establishments that were already doing it.

The thing is, if your favorite cafe is selling CBD-infused drinks, there's really no way to know where the CBD came from, how pure it is, and if the amount in your latte is safe or even enough to impact you. Just like with CBD products in all forms, you want to be careful about any food or drink with CBD—especially if it's not packaged and doesn't have any sort of ingredient list or label saying how much is actually in it.

6. Understand that CBD does not enjoy government oversight—so there are few consumer protections.

CBD is not currently regulated by the FDA. Which means that no CBD brand is permitted to make claims that its product will treat a specific health concern, says Hatch. “They’re not even allowed to call it a supplement at this point” because of the lack of research, she adds.

No regulation means there’s no process ensuring that the ingredients going into each CBD product meet any sort of safety or purity standards. As a consumer, you’re basically left to wholeheartedly trust that the company manufacturing and packaging your CBD is at the top of its game.

Some states do regulate CBD that is sold in dispensaries, Cooper says. But keep in mind that all states have different regulations. “Depending on the state you’re in, some don’t have good quality assurance regulations for the products. It’s really hard to know,” she warns. Some states also don’t even require all dispensaries to put their products through a vetting process. When it comes to CBD, it really is the wild west.

In some cases, CBD products may not even contain CBD. “We have a series of studies that have pulled commercially available products off the shelves, and they’ve found that sometimes there’s no CBD in them at all,” says Dr. Tishler. Other random CBD products have been shown to contain THC and even dangerous contaminants like pesticides and heavy metals from the soil. “Sometimes there are even additives like benzos and opioids that aren't listed on the bottle,” Dr. Tishler adds.

7. Finally, keep this CBD shopper’s guide in mind.

If you’re game for trying a CBD product, there are countless brands out there. New ones pop up every day. In most states, you can freely buy CBD products online, in stores, and even at restaurants and cafes. So, how can you know what products are the safest and most effective?

All of the experts we spoke to for this piece warned consumers to be really careful when buying CBD.

Hatch recommends the following:

  • Buy CBD from a state-run dispensary, if you live near one. They’re likely to have knowledgeable staff who can help direct you to products that have proven themselves reputable. And even though the regulations vary a ton, there’s more of a chance that some sort of protocol is in place.

  • Ask if a product has a certificate of analysis, or COA, Hatch says. A COA basically means that the product was tested and analyzed and confirms exactly what contents are inside. “They should be able to provide that info and if they can’t, you shouldn't be buying a product from them.”

  • If you’re buying online, read the fine print. The brand should provide a ton of info about where the CBD came from, where the actual plants are grown, how they took care of them, and how it was extracted, Hatch says. Check to see if they have lab results, and maybe reach out to the company to ask for them. Websites that have zero transparency are a big red flag.

  • Make sure the product isn’t making any health claims, Hatch adds. That’s another red flag. Promises like “relieves cold and flu symptoms,” “prevents inflammation,” “reduces soreness, and “treats muscle tension,” all are considered health claims that can’t be made unless a product is FDA-approved.

  • Remember: Always consult with your doctor before trying a new CBD product, even a small dose. Yep, it’s that important.

  • Before you buy, check out projectcbd.org as a resource, adds Hatch. “They have a ton of education and have done a lot of testing themselves on products,” she says.

Whether the effects are placebo or something more, CBD is, indeed, a chemical, and it’s important to do your due diligence when introducing any sort of chemical or drug into your body.

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Amy Marturana Winderl
Meet Our Writer
Amy Marturana Winderl

Amy is a freelance journalist and certified personal trainer. She covers a wide range of health topics, including fitness, health conditions, mental health, sexual and reproductive health, nutrition, and more. Her work has appeared on SELF, Bicycling, Health, and other publications. When she's not busy writing or editing, you can find her hiking, cooking, running, or lounging on the couch watching the latest true crime show on Netflix.