Google "CBD oil" and you'll find pages and pages of articles, ads and studies. Makers claim the popular hemp extract—sold online and available in many states in health and natural food stores—may help treat a long list of health problems, from acne to anxiety, chronic pain to cancer. But is it safe, and does it work? Here's a quick guide to what you need to know.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a chemical compound naturally found in cannabis, the same plant used to make marijuana. But the two are very different.
Weed also has THC, the ingredient that causes a high. CBD—which comes in pills, oil drops, topical creams, vapes, teas, syrups and other forms—is extracted from the plant and used for medicinal purposes only, not recreation. It isn't addictive, and it can't make you high.
Related: Health Benefits of Hemp Seeds
"I think we are just beginning to understand all the uses of CBD oil," says Taz Bhatia, M.D., integrative medicine expert and author of Super Woman Rx. She recommends it in her practice to patients with certain conditions like chronic pain, epilepsy and Crohn's disease.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)'s web site, CBD "may be useful in reducing pain and inflammation, controlling epileptic seizures and possibly even treating mental illnesses and addictions."
Indeed, one recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that CBD drastically reduced seizures in children with a rare form of epilepsy, compared to children who were given a placebo.
As a treatment for many other conditions, experts say it's too soon to tell. While some animal studies using CBD sound promising, people aren't mice—and as with most treatments, what works for some people doesn't work for others. More clinical trials are needed.
CBD oil may cause tiredness, diarrhea or changes in appetite and weight. It can also interact with some prescription medicines. There may be long-term side effects too.
Shop carefully if you use CBD products—especially if you buy them online. Even though CBD has been legalized for medicinal use in many states, it's still not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A lack of government oversight means there are no guarantees a product is safe or its manufacturer's claims are true. Recently, for example, the FDA issued warnings to several companies who claimed that their CBD products could prevent or treat cancer without any proof.
Labels may be misleading as well. In a study recently published in JAMA, researchers found that nearly 70 percent of the 84 CBD products they tested—all sold online—were mislabeled, meaning the labels either over- or understated how much CBD the product contained.
"That's concerning, because people are getting either too much or too little," says Marcel Bonn-Miller, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the study.
What's more, around 20 percent of the CBD products in the study had some THC, the ingredient in marijuana that causes a high. Depending on how much you take, tainted CBD could cause negative reactions.
"CBD oil in and of itself won't cause a high," Bonn-Miller says. "But when you also have other stuff in there, that's when you might have problems."
Find out where the product is sourced, and how it's been tested, advises Bhatia.
Bonn-Miller goes even further. "I wish I could say, 'Don't buy the ones with red labels!'" Unfortunately, there's no way to tell which labels are accurate. He suggests sending the product to a lab to have it tested before you use it. (To find a reputable lab near you, check out Patient-Focused Certification at patientfocusedcertification.org.) If the results don't match what the label says, don't use it.
That may sound like a lot of work, but it's worth it, Bonn-Miller says. He adds, "If I were a parent and I had a child with an epileptic condition that was in hospice care, I'd pay the 80 bucks to have it tested before I gave it to my kid."