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How to Shop for CBD

Thousands of the cannabis products line store shelves, but determining what’s safe is up to you

As head farmer at Veritas Farms in Pueblo, Colo., Rianna Meyer has two big concerns when growing her 100,000 hemp plants, a form of cannabis closely related to marijuana.

One is making sure that plants don’t absorb any of the potentially harmful chemicals that might be in the soil. The other is how much of the plant’s two key compounds they contain: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which gets users high, and CBD (cannabidiol), which is gaining increasing attention for its potential health benefits.

As it turns out, those are also two of the most important factors that consumers should consider when choosing among the thousands of CBD products now being sold across the country.

And those choices are soon likely to become even more confusing: The CBD market is expected to multiply at least sevenfold by 2021, to $2.15 billion, up from $292 million in 2016, according to the Brightfield Group, a market research firm that specializes in cannabis. Even Coca-Cola says it’s “closely watching” the growing interest in CBD and its potential as an ingredient in some of the company’s beverages.

Such demand keeps Meyer—vice president for operations at Veritas Farms (pictured above) as well as a retired fire captain and an Air Force veteran—on alert. For one things, she says, “If cannabis plants are stressed out by the weather, they’ll create more THC.”

That’s important to farmers like Meyer, and to consumers. When a plant contains 0.3 percent or less THC, the federal government considers it “industrial hemp,” and by Colorado’s and most states’ reckoning, can legally be formulated into oils, tinctures, topicals, and capsules, and widely sold to consumers. But if a plant has THC levels above 0.3 percent, the federal government considers it marijuana, and even states where it is legal sharply limit where the products can be sold.

In addition to THC, Meyer and consumers also need to worry about whether CBD products have contaminants. That’s because cannabis plants readily absorb heavy metals, pesticides, and other potentially harmful chemicals that may be in the soil or water, says Kyle Boyar, a cannabis scientist at Medicinal Genomics, a company that develops tests that help labs comply with state rules. To protect against that risk, cannabis plants should be tested frequently while they are growing, and finished products should be tested, using validated methods, too, Boyar says.

However, though 47 states have now legalized CBD from hemp, marijuana, or both (see map, below), many don’t require any testing. And among those that do, the details vary considerably. As a result, consumers need to take matters into their own hands and often have to rely on CBD manufacturers to self-police.

Meyer, at Veritas Farms, says consumers should learn as much as they can about CBD products they buy, including where they are grown and whether they were tested for both CBD and THC levels, as well as contaminants. “We’re trying to grow a plant that’s healthy, and healthy for you,” she says.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the factors to consider when shopping for a CBD product.

1. Decide Why You Want to Use CBD, and in What Form

Of course, the first thing to consider is why you want to take CBD. Though it’s being touted for numerous possible health benefits—and some preliminary research suggests it might help with everything from pain and anxiety to multiple sclerosis and opioid addiction—for now it’s clearly proved to help treat only two rare, but devastating, forms of epilepsy. (Read more about the safe use of CBD.)

And even less is known about which forms of CBD—pill, topical, or drop, for example—might be appropriate. Still, experts do have some advice.

For very quick relief of, say, muscle cramps or anxiety, inhaling CBD may be most effective, via either a vape pen (think e-cigarette) or cigarette-style. For effects within a few minutes, oil drops under the tongue may be useful. Topical lotions, rubbed onto the skin, vary from person to person—some may feel it right away, others not for several hours. On the other hand, CBD in food products is likely to take longer—30 minutes or more—to be absorbed into your system. Read more about the pros and cons of each form.

2. Consider How Much THC the Product Contains

This is important mainly if you want to avoid the head-high that comes with THC, something that is important to many people who are considering CBD. But knowing the THC level can be important for other reasons, too, including how effective a product might be, as well as where you can buy it.

Some research suggests that in some people, CBD may work better when it’s combined with at least a little THC, says Martin Lee, director of Project CBD, an advocacy group that supports CBD research and the author of “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, and Scientific” (Scribner, 2012). This is called the “entourage effect,” Lee says, the idea that the sum of the two chemicals, plus other related compounds in the plant, is greater than their individual parts.

To be sure, that notion is more theoretical than proven. And only a small amount of THC—as low as the 0.3 percent cutoff required for CBD products made from hemp—may be needed to enhance CBD’s therapeutic effect.

So if you want a product that probably has a little THC but not so much to get you high, look for one made from hemp. Such products have the added benefit of being widely available, including online and in retail stores. (Note that while Boyar and other experts say that CBD products should also include THC levels on their labels, many made from hemp don’t. For that, you need to check a product’s test results, if they are available; see number 4, below.)

Finding a CBD product that’s more than 0.3 percent THC could be tougher. For one thing, you’ll have to be in a state that has legalized marijuana, not just CBD. You’ll also need to go to a state-licensed dispensary to buy it and, in the 20 states that have legalized just the medical use of marijuana, you’ll also have to get a recommendation from a physician. In states that have legalized medical and recreational use—Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Washington—you don’t need to see a doctor first, but you do need to be over 21. (Maine and Vermont have legalized marijuana for recreational use but have yet to open recreational dispensaries.)

Dispensaries may sell a variety of “CBD-rich” products that are high in CBD and relatively low in THC, including oils, tinctures, topicals, and vaping liquids. They may even sell buds or flower from marijuana strains that have been bred to have very low levels of THC, says Michael Backes, author of “Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana” (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2014). For example, the strain “AC/DC” can be just 0.5 percent THC, barely above the cutoff allowed for CBD from hemp and much lower than the 20 percent or higher THC concentration typical of most marijuana strains, Backes says.

Still, Lee cautions that some people are much more sensitive to the psychoactive effects of THC than others. So if you want to avoid the head-high, it’s better to stick with CBD from hemp.

3. For Products From Hemp, Find Where It Was Grown

Many CBD products sold online and in retail stores come from hemp, not marijuana. And the source of that hemp can be important.

Most hemp used in CBD products sold in the U.S. comes from Colorado or Oregon (which have long histories with cannabis) or Kentucky (which passed a law to support hemp growers in 2013), or is imported from overseas, says Colleen Lanier, executive director of the Hemp Industry Association.

Among those sources, Lanier considers Colorado to have the most robust hemp program. The state’s agricultural program performs spot-tests of hemp plants while they are still in the field to check THC levels and will investigate the potential use of any illegal pesticides based on complaints. (Note that the 2018 Farm Bill, now in Congress, may make it easier for farmers to grow hemp and expand the number of states where it is grown and tested.)

Products made with hemp grown overseas can be even more problematic, because they are not subject to any state or federal testing, say both Lanier and Boyar. “There needs to be testing results available to consumers,” Lanier says, “and manufacturers should follow the FDA’s guidance for good manufacturing practices.”

So for CBD products from hemp, check labels to see whether they say where it was grown, and look especially for those from Colorado. Not all products, however, include that information. So in a dispensary or a retail store, ask the staff whether they know where the hemp was grown. And for products purchased online, check the companies’ website to see whether it has that information, or contact the seller to ask the same question.

4. Ask for Test Results

Always also ask to see a product’s COA, or certificate of analysis. That document shows how a product performed on tests checking for CBD and THC levels, and the presence of contaminants.

For products made with CBD from hemp, even Colorado doesn’t require testing of the finished product. So any COA for those final products comes from testing the company arranged on its own. Though not all manufacturers take that step, many do, Lanier says. That includes even some companies that use imported hemp, such as CV Sciences, which makes Plus CBD Oil from hemp grown in Holland.

If an online manufacturer or a retail store doesn’t have the information, or refuses to share it, avoid the product and the retailer.

One state, Indiana, has made it easier for consumers to find these COAs. Since July, all hemp-derived CBD products sold in stores in Indiana must include a QR code on their label that lets consumers download a product’s COA to their phone. All CBD products sold at Indiana locations of Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, a Midwest regional chain, now carry those codes, says Jonathan Lawrence, director of vitamins and body care at the chain. “It’s important for any consumer to know what’s in their product and what they’re taking,” Lawrence says.

For even more assurance about a product’s quality, Boyar recommends checking the COA to see whether it says that the lab meets “ISO 17025” standards. That suggests the lab adheres to high scientific standards. Also look to see whether a company uses testing methods validated by one of three respected national standard-setting organizations: the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC), the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), or the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).

Unlike hemp-derived CBD products, those made from marijuana must undergo testing—at least in states that permit medical and recreational use of marijuana. In some of those states, dispensary staff are supposed to have the COAs available and be willing to share them with you. If they aren’t, or the COA is not available, go to another dispensary or choose another product.

In states that have only legalized the medical, not recreational, use of marijuana, testing is less consistent, Boyar says. Several states—including Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York—do require some testing of products, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association. But others don’t, including Arizona and Michigan.

5. Look for Products That List the CBD Amount

Look for products that show how much CBD (or cannabidiol, its full name) you get not just in the whole bottle but in each dose, says Lee, from Project CBD. Dosages, which are expressed in milligrams, or mgs, vary considerably depending on the form of the product, and experts often suggest starting with products that have relatively low doses. For example, with tinctures, consider a product that has just 10 mg per dose, says Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. (Read more about the safe use of CBD.)

On the other hand, take extra care with products that list only the amount of total “cannabinoids” they contain, not specifically how much CBD is in them. Those cannabinoids could include not just CBD and THC but dozens of other related compounds. Companies may take that labeling approach because they hope it will attract less scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration, Lee says.

Some of those products, which don’t include the CBD amount on their label, market themselves as “whole plant” or “full spectrum” hemp products, or say they are rich in other compounds from the plant, such as various fatty acids. Though it’s possible that those other compounds provide additional health benefits, that’s still uncertain. In those cases, you could check the COA, if they have one, which should list how much CBD or THC they contain.

6. Know What Other Terms on the Label May Mean

CBD product labels sometimes say that they were produced with “CO2 extraction.” That can mean that the CBD and other ingredients were removed from the plant using high-pressure carbon dioxide gas, not chemical solvents. Depending on the type of CO2 extraction used, the technique might be able to extract not just CBD but other cannabinoids (see number 5) in the plant, Boyar says. However, that approach is not necessarily better, because it’s unclear whether those other compounds provide additional health benefits. And it may not be safer, either, because some forms of CO2 extraction still use solvents, Boyar says.

Some CBD products also describe themselves as including or coming from “hemp oil.” In some cases, manufacturers use that term to mean CBD oil, which is oil rich in CBD made mainly from the leaves, resin, or flowering tops of hemp plants. But “hemp oil” more often, and more properly, refers to oil made from the seeds of the plant, and contains only very small amounts of CBD, says Lanier at the Hemp Industries Association. That oil is often included in hemp-based soaps, cosmetics, and similar products.

7. Avoid Products That Make Sweeping Health Claims

Making health claims, even just the ability to treat relatively minor problems like migraines, is legal only for prescription drugs, which undergo extensive testing for effectiveness and safety. And the more dramatic the claim, such as the ability to cure cancer or heart disease, the more skeptical you should be. Since 2015, the FDA has cracked down on dozens of companies selling CBD products online for making unallowed health claims.

8. Watch Out for Vaping Products With Propylene Glycol

Vape pens produce little smoke and are easy to transport and use—plus they can easily go undetected. But the concentrated oils used in vape pens of CBD might contain a solvent called propylene glycol. When burned at high temperatures, propylene glycol can degrade into formaldehyde, a chemical that can irritate the nose and eyes and could increase the risk of asthma and cancer. To avoid this problem, consider CBD vape pens that advertise “solvent-free oils.”

What to look for when you shop for CBD products, including whether they comes from hemp or marijuana and how much THC they contain.

The Best CBD Oil Brands to Buy in 2021

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If you’re looking for the best CBD oil but don’t know where to start, we’re here to help you sort through your options.

The 2018 Farm Bill ushered in a revival of high-quality hemp extracts with low amounts of THC. As a result, cannabidiol, or CBD oil, has exploded on the wellness market.

This guide will help you find where to buy high-quality CBD, learn about the reputation of certain brands, and evaluate value. We’ll also talk about how CBD oil may offer some relief or health benefits.

Our picks were made with the help of Ashley Jordan Ferira, PhD, RDN, who is a medical advisor at Remedy Review, an independent CBD reviews site. All of the brands recommended here have been vetted through third-party lab testing for quality and safety. It’s important to keep in mind that CBD products are not regulated by the FDA.

Read on to learn more about important considerations when selecting CBD hemp products, answers to commonly asked questions surrounding usage, and an in-depth scope of how we determined our selections.

Our top 10 CBD oils:

  • Best CBD for Anxiety: CBDistillery
  • Best Potency: Spruce CBD Oil
  • Best Organic: Joy Organics
  • Best Full-Spectrum: Cornbread Hemp
  • Best THC-Free: Medterra
  • Best CBD Oil for Pain:NuLeaf Naturals
  • Best CBD Oil Spray: Plus CBD Spray
  • Best for Sleep: Charlotte’s Web
  • Best Tasting: FAB CBD
  • Best Broad-Spectrum: cbdMD

Detailed reviews for the best CBD oils

Best for Anxiety: CBDistillery Full-Spectrum Oil

Are you stressed or anxious? If so, you’re not alone. A recent survey found that a whopping 8 in 10 Americans report being afflicted by stress during their day. CBDistillery put time into asking customers whether their products are calming: In a questionnaire sent to 2,000 customers, 88% reported that CBD helped with mild or temporary anxiety, and 76% said they preferred CBD to alcohol when they needed to relax.

The brand makes several strengths, which allows people to personalize their dose and avoid drowsiness if taking CBD during the day. Buyers can choose from strengths ranging from 33 mg to 83 mg per serving, and the brand carries both full spectrum and THC-free tinctures.

CBDistillery tests all products through third-party lab Proverde, and you can find Certificates of Analysis for each product on their website.

To buy: 100 mg Full Spectrum CBD Oil, thecbdistillery.com

We rated CBDistillery as the best option for those seeking to relieve anxiety.

Strongest CBD Option: Spruce CBD Oil Tincture

Spruce has a worthy reputation in the CBD industry thanks to its third-party testing, lab-grade CBD oil, and strong relationships with its farmers and hemp suppliers. The brand focuses on small-batch CBD production, helping to achieve consistency and quality from product to product.

Spruce offers high potency, full-spectrum tinctures derived from organic hemp in two strengths: 25 mg or 80 mg per serving. It’s important to note that most people would graduate up to these doses over time. Things like body size and health impact (like the level of pain you’re trying to control) will help determine which Spruce variety is right for you. Third-party lab data from ProVerde Laboratories and ACS Laboratory is available here.

We rated Spruce as the brand with the strongest CBD oil available.

Best Organic: Joy Organics CBD Oil Tincture

Joy Organics is grounded in sustainable farming. The brand ensures each of their partners follows Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP). Also, all full spectrum tinctures include whole-plant extracts from organically-grown Colorado hemp.

There are 3 available strengths ranging from 15 mg to 45 mg per serving. The Fresh Lime tincture is a favorite, as the lime nicely offsets the natural taste of hemp. Joy Organics product line also includes gummies, softgels, topicals, and energy drinks. Joy Organics tests its products at Stillwater and Accu-Bio Labs. Lab results are accessible online.

To buy: Fresh Lime Oil Tincture, joyorganics.com

We rated Joy Organics as the Best Organic CBD oil available to consumers.

Best Full-Spectrum: Cornbread Hemp Whole Flower Oil

When it comes to whole plant therapy, it’s hard to beat Cornbread Hemp. These oils are full spectrum, and distilled only from the hemp flower. This allows the brand to produce a CBD-to-THC ratio of 22:1.

Cornbread Hemp is also USDA-certified organic and uses organic MCT coconut oil in their blends. The full spectrum “Whole Flower” oils are best for discomfort and the lighter “Distilled” oils are better for stress relief.

Cornbread Hemp shares batch-level lab reports from Kaycha Labs on the product pages.

To buy: Whole Flower USDA Organic CBD Oil, cornbreadhemp.com

We selected Cornbread Hemp as the Best Full-Spectrum CBD Oil.

Best THC-Free: Medterra CBD Oil

Looking for zero THC to avoid a failed drug test? Medterra’s CBD isolate products provide a THC-free guarantee, and they are also U.S. Hemp Authority Certified. This could be a great option for anyone who may have to undergo regular drug testing. Dosages range from 16 mg all the way up to 100 mg per serving.

Derived from Kentucky hemp, Medterra’s unflavored CBD tinctures are made with 99% pure CBD extract, as well as organic MCT oil. In addition to these CBD isolate oils, Medterra also makes broad-spectrum CBD oils, CBD capsules, topicals, and pet products. Medterra utilizes ProVerde Laboratories and Green Scientific Labs to test all of its products and provides access to these third-party lab results online.

We selected Medterra as the best THC-Free oil.

Best for Pain: NuLeaf Naturals Hemp Extract

NuLeaf Naturals packs a punch with a full spectrum of synergistic cannabinoids and terpenes in a high-potency formula. Each bottle delivers 60 mg of full-spectrum CBD per 1 mL of oil. This consistency across all of its CBD oil formulas allows you to easily find the dose that works for you. Then you can purchase the bottle size that aligns with your needs and budget—available sizes range from 300 mg to 6,000 mg of CBD per bottle. We picked NuLeaf Naturals as our best product for chronic pain relief because it is a strong, full spectrum oil.

NuLeaf Naturals’ products are made with USDA-certified organic hemp seed oil, with CO2 extraction, and they are free of additives, heavy metals, toxins, chemicals, and flavorings. The company also offers a full-spectrum pet tincture. You can find product-specific third-party lab reports from ProVerde Laboratories on Nuleaf’s website.

To Buy: 725 mg High Grade Hemp Extract, nuleafnaturals.com

We selected NuLeaf Naturals as the Best CBD Oil for Pain

Best CBD Oil Spray: Plus CBD Original Formula Spray

Plus CBD offers a great product for those new to CBD in their Original Formula CBD Oil Spray. Instead of a traditional tincture that uses a dropper, you can apply this CBD oil using a pump spray bottle for more accurate servings. This is helpful for making sure you know how much CBD you take with each serving and is less messy than a dropper.

The Plus CBD Original Formula Oil comes in multiple strengths and three different flavors, including peppermint, cafe mocha, and unflavored. It’s also non-GMO, vegetarian, and third-party lab tested. Plus CBD uses a clean and environmentally-friendly CO2 method to extract the CBD oil from the hemp plants.

To Buy: Plus CBD Original Formula CBD Oil Spray, pluscbdoil.com

We selected Plus CBD Original Formula as the Best CBD Oil Spray

Best for Sleep: Charlotte’s Web CBD Oil

Charlotte’s Web CBD oils feature whole plant extracts. This means in addition to terpenes, flavonoids, and essential fatty acids, they contain a range of cannabinoids. Users of Charlotte’s Web have said the brand’s combination of CBD, CBC, and CBG support healthy sleep cycles. The overall sense of calm and relief that its products provide are another benefit that could potentially aid in better sleep.

Our picks for the best CBD oils for pain, anxiety, and sleep. This deep dive will help you shop smarter online.