The current super-abundance of commercial cannabis topicals can be overwhelming—not to mention expensive. It wasn't terribly long ago that medicated salve formulations were DIY affairs only shared in the utmost confidence. And still, for every $40 jar of CBD-infused balm on store shelves, there are a dozen or more chronically ill homies who've been making topicals in their kitchen since the '90s and are more than willing to share a sample with a friend in need.
Medicated salves are a cornerstone of home remedies, but in a market flooded with both commercial and homemade products, finding the right balm is an exercise in patience.
Recently, my partner took a part-time shipping gig that is exceedingly demanding physically. Monday through Friday, he spends about five hours lifting and stacking hundreds of items, some over 100 pounds.
He's a physically fit fella, but the intensity of the gig often leaves him with saucer-sized bruises, overworked major muscle groups, and specific pain points in the hands, fingers and knees—all symptoms that should be handily remedied by the same CBD salves, lotions and curative potions sparkling from retail counters everywhere.
While my partner auditioned four popular topicals and one DIY salve over the course of a month, I took nightly data on four specific criteria: how well the topical worked as a preventative treatment in minimizing muscle fatigue when applied pre-workout; whether or not it delivered as a restorative treatment; how it performed as a targeted relief balm; and how agreeable the application was. Each product performed well across the board, but each had its own specific strengths as well. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that sometimes the best treatments aren't available for purchase at all.
Peak Extracts CBDa Rescue Rub ($35 for 2 ounces)
Good for: Nasty bruises, pre- and post-workout, massage lube
The newest addition to Peak Extracts' line of Rescue Rubs features 350 mg of full-spectrum, hemp-derived CBDa—the raw, acidic, unprocessed precursor to CBD. CBDa interacts with the endocannabinoid system by inhibiting a specific enzyme associated with post-injury inflammation. Rescue Rub's aromatic herbal formula is based on a centuries-old salve recipe meant to treat blunt-force trauma, but with the addition of CBDa, this variety was deemed useful for more than bruise control.
When used on the entirety of my partner's back before his shift, his shoulder muscles and back were elastic and responsive for the rest of the night and mostly restored after a full night's sleep. Similarly, when slathered on his knees before his extended squat session, he found he could avert midshift stiffness and late-night aches. The salve is similarly effective for targeted relief, but what Rescue Rub delivers most effectively is a panacea for the type of swampy, midnight-blue bruises my husband kept coming home with. Daily, pea-sized applications of Rescue Rub to the traumatized areas managed to evaporate even the worst of his bruising in one to three days.
As far as application, the salve's texture is a very soft solid, like stiff coconut oil left out on a warm day. Though absorption happens relatively quickly, it does require a bit of massaging. Otherwise, it's oil slick versus back sweat all night long.
Where to get it: PeakExtracts.com
Medicine Farm Botanical 1:1 Dragon Stick ($30 for a half-ounce)
Good for: Targeted relief, soothing the occasional tension headache
The Dragon Stick is another buttery herbal medley whose sum is greater than its parts—parts that include both THC and CBD as well as turmeric, angelica and arnica. Together, these herbs and spices are designed to specifically provide post-workout relief, but the user instructions suggest a hot soak before application. Applying a salve to muscles that have already enjoyed a thorough soaking seems like a bit of a cheat to me, so I spread a liberal layer of it on my hubby's back, wrists and knees both before work and after his nightly cold shower.
The aromatherapeutic qualities of this stick are pronounced, but not so much to cause sensory overload. Rather, it's the application that led to a feeling of goopy discomfort. The balm is packaged as a fun-sized stick of deodorant, with a dial that pushes the product up through the top as it's worn down. On typically cool Portland days, the stick maintains its integrity. But with warm weather like we've had lately, the balm spills from its housing like partly congealed cheese.
As a pre-workout balm, the Dragon Stick was less effective than the Rescue Rub, but for targeted relief, it quickly and completely soothed morning-after finger and hand cramping. Plus, when applied to the temples, the nape of the neck, and across the forehead, it relaxed—but did not entirely eliminate—a tension headache, which felt like a nice bonus.
Where to get it: The New Amsterdam, 2201 N Killingsworth St., 503-558-5678, thenewamsterdam.com
Empower Bodycare CBD Infused Topical Oil ($30 for a third of an ounce)
Good for: Joint stiffness, targeted relief, precise applications
That this oil is packaged in a container no larger than a tube of lipstick limits its uses, but not to a lamentable degree. Yes, it's a labor to spread it across an expanse of back flesh—manipulating the tube over a major muscle group was a bit like painting a wall mural with an eyeshadow brush—but it glides between fingers and around wrists with ergonomic ease. When applied with restraint, the oil absorbs remarkably quickly. But like most oils, too much will leave you dripping like a sweaty hot dog. The fragrance is a sharp balance of medicinal and herbal that reads as a savory assortment of woodsy floral and cutting herbal perfumes. Any notes of hemp are buried in aromatics, but the product still boasts 68 mg of CBD in an exceedingly small container.
Large muscle group application might have been a bust, but the packaging does say, "Put it where it hurts," not "Put it where it might hurt later," and for targeted relief, this oil roller stick delivered as advertised. After a particularly vigorous shift, my hubs woke up the next morning with hands so stiff he could not make a fist. About 10 minutes after applying this oil, he had regained mobility and was julienning vegetables for breakfast. By the end of the morning, his hands were all ready for another round of gripping, tossing and methodically stacking.
Where to get it: New Seasons
Bloom Farms 600 mg CBD Sport Stick ($50 for 1.5 ounces)
Good for: Pre- and post-workout, smooth application, smelling vaguely butch
The sleeper hit of this experiment was Bloom Farms' sports stick, an extra-firm balm in a container substantial enough to tackle larger expanses of flesh and compact enough to navigate tight corners behind the knees and around the feet and ankles. The product is also housed in a deodorant-style container, but the integrity of this butter is unyielding, allowing the product to glide across the skin, absorbing quickly without leaving a snail trail or dragging skin along the container's rim. The fragrance has a savory profile similar to Empower's, but the earthiness of hemp features a bit more strongly, making for a more full-bodied, less sharp perfume.
Of all the commercially produced CBD topicals, this was the product that my husband requested the most. He used it on his back, shoulders and knees before work nearly three times as often as the other commercial topicals, largely because the application was so easy. As a pre-workout salve, he reported an elastic endurance from major muscle groups in his back, chest and legs similar to the Peak Extracts Rescue Rub's effects. As a morning-after targeted balm, the stick was found to be too burly to gracefully caress the tender joints between his fingers, but otherwise it delivered, soothing inflamed major muscle groups.
Where to get it: BloomFarmsCBD.com
One Small Tupperware of Homemade Salve (free)
Good for: Pre- and post-workout, targeted relief, supporting your local kitchen witch
Several months prior to this experiment, a friend gifted my partner with two small containers, each filled with a homemade salve she'd developed for her chronic pain. The salves were the most successful of all those we collected data on over five weeks, and what set them apart was the inclusion of menthol and capsaicin, commonly found in Tiger Balm and Icy Hot. Menthol and capsaicin both work as counterirritants, not necessarily relieving pain, but disrupting pain signals. When folded into a full-spectrum, whole-plant salve, the combination seemed to prevent muscle fatigue, relieve painful morning-after inflammation, and quickly loosen stiff joints all in equal measure.
The smell and application were what one might expect from a DIY salve—messy and pungent—but the results were indisputable. It was the clear favorite, even though it smelled like a spicy nightmare and looked like lumpy pumpkin butter.
Where to get it: If you don't know, then you don't know.