The next “it” ingredient in beauty products is marijuana

Vertly makes luxury beauty and wellness products with ingredients extracted from marijuana.
Vertly makes luxury beauty and wellness products with ingredients extracted from marijuana.
Image: Vertly
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When CAP Beauty launched a new dietary supplement in August, the retailer didn’t send beauty magazine editors any promotional cupcakes or cookies. Instead, they sent pot brownies.

The desserts—non-psychoactive, they didn’t get anyone high—were made with CAP’s The Daily Hit, an oil-based supplement made with the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD). CBD has been shown in pre-clinical studies to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and, unlike other popular cannabinoids (like tetrahydrocannabinol, which is psychoactive), it’s legal in all 50 US states.

As medical and recreational pot use becomes increasingly legalized in the United States, companies are beginning to experiment with the marijuana plant in the same way they would with other botanicals. Among beauty brands, CBD is becoming the next “it” ingredient incorporated into buzzy new products that hydrate skin, relieve swollen spots, and reduce under-eye bags.

Experts say it works. Robert Dellavalle, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (marijuana is legal both recreationally and medically in Colorado), points to pioneering studies out of Israel, which is currently leading the world in cannabis research.  Tel Aviv-based One Cannabis World, for example, makes a part-THC and part-CBD cream that is effective for treating psoriasis. You can buy it online because the active ingredient is palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), which binds to cannabinoid receptors but “technically isn’t a cannabinoid,” Dellavalle explains.

In the US, however, cannabis research in dermatology is still in its pre-clinical stage. Although the skin has at least two receptors for cannabinoids (and the body even makes its own cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids), cannabinoids just haven’t been clinically tested enough. “But they are safe,” Dellavalle says. “Your skin is a pretty great barrier, just in case.”

To that end, mainstream beauty brands—those you find at Sephora and department-store beauty counters—have not incorporated CBD into their products just yet. When they do use marijuana, it’s as a synthetic fragrance (see: Malin+Goetz Cannabis Hand+Body Wash), or as oil pressed from the seeds of the plant (see: The Body Shop’s bestselling Hemp collection). Cannabinoids like CBD and THC, by contrast, are extracted from the flowers of the plant.

Part of this reluctance to incorporate more cannabis ingredients has to do with the legal grey area under which CBD currently falls in the US. “It’s technically legal right now, but beauty companies don’t want to invest thousands of dollars into a product that will later get pulled from shelves,” says Sejal Shah, a private-practice dermatologist in New York. The concern for beauty companies isn’t that CBD doesn’t work—Shah notes that it’s been shown to reduce sebum production for acne patients in some studies—but that someday CBD will be classified as an FDA-regulated drug, versus another botanical ingredient.

Thanks to marijuana’s stigma, the hemp plant—just another name for the cannabis sativa plant—is also illegal in most US states, even though it is widely used for non-ingestion purposes like textiles. Products with CBD or hemp can be sold in the US, but the cannabis extract can’t come from America. (That contradiction isn’t just American, either: In South Korea, hemp has been a cultivated crop for textiles as early as 3000 BCE, but possession of marijuana can carry a prison sentence of five years.)

Consumers hoping to add a cannabinoid skincare product to their beauty routine now can check out the new luxury topical brands being sold both online (for CBD) and in posh dispensaries (for THC), such as The Apothecarium in California and Las Vegas. One standout brand, recently featured on Vogue.com, is Vertly, which was co-founded in August by former W magazine accessories and jewelry director Claudia Mata and her husband Zander Gladish. Vertly sells CBD-based lip balms in peppermint and rose scents, plus a THC counterpart called Vertly Green that is only available in medical dispensaries. Mata says she hadn’t been interested in marijuana as a New Yorker—state law still prohibits any market for luxury cannabis products—but that her perception changed after she moved to San Francisco. “There are creative people in fashion, and creative people in cannabis,” she says, “and they have more in common than they may think.”

In addition to herbalist training, Mata attended California’s Oaksterdam University, the first university dedicated to cannabis education. She characterizes Vertly as a “wellness product with beauty-product instincts” (an Instagrammable pink tint, for example), that is aimed at, ironically, her trend-conscious fashion-industry colleagues back in New York. “Ever since I moved to California and had a slower pace of life, I’ve realized that wellness is a luxury,” she says. “Everyone should have a little bit of that.”

Consumers seem to be buying into the buzz. CAP Beauty’s first batch of The Daily Hit, priced at $96 for 3.3 fluid ounces, sold out two days after launch. (Getting featured in Vogue’s September issue helped.) The Body Shop’s Hemp collection has been one of the best-selling in its 41-year-old history. And as a tongue-in-cheek marketing strategy, millennial cult favorite brand Milk Makeup recently released Roll + Blot hemp fiber papers, usable for both blotting at oily skin and rolling into joints. Because there’s no reason your skin can’t look beautiful while you’re getting high.