We often get questions on the Leaf411 hotline about the different types of cannabis products on the market today.

The product people are most surprised to hear about? Transdermal patches or gels containing cannabis plant compounds—either cannabidiol (CBD), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), or both CBD and THC. Transdermal products may also feature other cannabinoids like CBN or THCa (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid), which is a raw, non-psychoactive form of THC.

Transdermal products can even contain other cannabinoids, terpenes, and compounds that have therapeutic benefits.

How Transdermal Products Work

What makes transdermal patches or gels different than regular topical products you put on your skin like creams or salves?

Normally, the skin acts as a barrier. While creams and salves are absorbed by the outer layers of skin, they do not make it past all the skin layers and into the bloodstream.

However, transdermal products contain specially formulated carrier agents to help medicines, including cannabinoids, to fully penetrate the skin barrier and be absorbed directly into the bloodstream.This route of administration eliminates the need for medicines to first pass through the digestive system or respiratory system (if inhaled). It also allows for more consistent dosing over longer periods of time.

Transdermal patches and gels are not unique to cannabis. In fact, you’ve probably seen transdermal patches used to deliver other medications.

Transdermal routes of administration are used for certain birth control products, smoking cessation and motion sickness. They’re also used to deliver opioids like fentanyl that are prescribed for persistent chronic pain.

Cannabis transdermal patches use the same technology. The middle of the patch contains different cannabinoids like THC, CBD, or CBN. In some cases, terpenes and other therapeutic compounds like menthol or eucalyptus are also added. Manufacturers also add carrier agents, so that the compounds will be more readily absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream.

The Advantages of Transdermal Cannabis Products

Transdermal cannabis patches and gels are a good option for people who want cannabis’s therapeutic benefits, but have health conditions or other restrictions that prevent them from either inhaling (smoking/vaping) or ingesting edibles or pill-based forms.

Finding an Effective Transdermal Product

Product quality is a big factor when choosing transdermal cannabis products. As we mentioned earlier, simply putting a cream or salve on your skin and letting it soak in does not make it “transdermal.” Many people—and even some budtenders—don’t understand this difference.

Look for products specifically labeled as “transdermal,” and make sure the manufacturer provides Certificates of Analysis (COAs) on their website with test results confirming the amount of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids.

CBD hemp-based transdermal patches and gels are federally legal (containing less than 0.3% THC). They can be found online or in retail outlets in most states.

Transdermal patches and gels containing higher amounts of THC are only legally sold at recreational or medical dispensaries.

How to Use Transdermal CBD Products

Transdermal CBD patches or gels are typically applied on a part of your body that has veins near the skin’s surface, like the inside of your wrist or on your ankle. The time of onset is rapid, sometimes within 20 minutes, and lasts for up to 12 hours. Remember that CBD is not intoxicating, so you won’t feel “high” from a transdermal CBD patch.

In some cases, transdermal patches can be applied elsewhere on the body for localized relief. For example, our supporting member Arcanum makes Sarco Skin, a CBD-infused kinesiology tape. Kinesiology tape is a favorite of athletes, and may help by supporting muscles and joints, while also having a positive impact on pain signals.

How to Use Transdermal THC Products

Transdermal products containing THC work in much the same way as those containing CBD, with relatively quick onset and an extended, consistent dose. Many people report that the intoxicating effects of THC are more subdued when using transdermal products containing THC or a 1:1 CBD:THC ratio.

When considering your dose, take into account that almost all of the cannabinoids contained in the patch are bioavailable. In other words, you don’t lose part of the dose through first-pass metabolism in your digestive system like you do with edibles.

We always suggest starting with one-fourth of the suggested dose or serving size. 

Transdermal gel can be dosed in smaller amounts. 

For transdermal cannabis patches, products like Mary’s Medicinals transdermal patches can be cut into smaller pieces to provide a lower dose. We suggest you check the manufacturer’s website to make sure the transdermal patch is designed so that it can be cut into smaller portions.

Need Help with Your Cannabis Questions?

The FREE anonymous Leaf411 hotline nurses can help with your questions, whether you’re a recreational cannabis user, patient, or a clinician wanting to learn more about plant-based medicine. Call us at 844-LEAF411 (844-532-3411).

The Leaf411 cannabis nurse hotline provides free, anonymous education and directional support to the general public about the safe use of legal cannabis. We partner with select business members who meet our rigorous standards to extend our education and outreach efforts.