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What is the Best Way to Take CBD?

Girl sitting down using a CBD tincture

CBD is officially mainstream. Ask anyone and they've at least heard of CBD - and there is a good chance they've tried it.

This cannabis compound has had a long journey. After striking out from marijuana farms, it grew in popularity thanks to its promise as an anti-seizure medication thanks to CNN's video series 'WEED'. After striking a chord with a mainstream audience, it quickly exploded.

Today you can find 'normal' CBD offerings like capsules, tinctures, and topicals, but it's also been added to fringe products like aromatherapy diffusers, toothpicks, and even pillowcases. While industry hype is the primary cause of these 'out-there' products, at the end of the day, science determines how effective they are.

Behind the fancy packaging and marketing, each type of CBD product has a specific route of administration. Join me as we dive in and discuss different ways of consuming CBD and how they each play into the effectiveness of the product.

How CBD is Absorbed by the Body

For a product to become active in the body, it must make it to the cannabinoid receptors which make up our endocannabinoid system. This can be done by getting the CBD to the bloodstream internally or by absorbing it through the skin.

How a CBD product is consumed or applied to the body is defined as the route of administration. This has a direct effect on the uptake, distribution, and elimination of the compound. In other words how you consume a product will govern how quickly it will come on, how much of the substance becomes active in the body, and how long the effects will last.

Each product has a unique route of administration. We cover each of them below in detail and summarize them all in a handy chart at the end of the article.

When a product is used, how much of the total CBD and other cannabis compounds absorbed by the body is called bioavailability. This is expressed as a percentage of the total - i.e. 10% bioavailability means 10% of the consumed CBD became active in the body, while the other 90% was washed away as waste, unused by the body.

This is an important concept because many CBD products suffer from low bioavailability. Choosing different routes of administration and employing advanced technology in product creation can both improve bioavailability and thus improve the effectiveness of a product at a given dose.

How You Consume CBD Impacts it's Effectiveness

Below we take a look at the five primary methods of CBD administration and the related products for each. As a user, you'll want to balance your preferred method of consuming CBD with how bioavailable it is to ensure you're getting great value from the products you buy.

Oral Ingestion: Swallowing Capsules & Edibles

Girl pouring out CBD softgels into her hand

One of the most common methods of using CBD is to take a product by mouth. This means swallowing capsules or eating edibles. When CBD is swallowed, it enters the digestive system before being absorbed. The hemp extract in the product must pass through the portal vein into the liver which metabolizes the CBD and other molecules. This process is called the first-pass metabolism.

The big issue with this method of consumption is that the enzymes in the liver reduce the concentration of the CBD compounds before passing on what remains to the bloodstream. This passage through the liver reduces the efficiency of CBD absorption. One study reported that a dismal 6% bioavailability was observed when CBD was ingested directly. (R)

Solutions to the Bioavailability Issues with Oral Products

This issue of low bioavailability for oral products has driven the CBD industry to find solutions that increase the amount of a product that is absorbed by the body, reducing waste.

Carrier Oils Slightly Improve Absorption

Cannabinoids like CBD are fat-soluble. This means they break down to be stored in fat - not water. When consumed with fat, these compounds can be more effectively processed by the body. For this reason, many products utilize a fatty oil carrier that is mixed with the hemp extract.

Today, MCT oil is the most commonly used carrier. By combining CBD-rich hemp extracts with MCT, your body burns these fats and puts them and the cannabinoids they hold to use immediately. The result is a marginal increase in the overall amount of CBD and other cannabinoids absorbed by the body.

Products utilizing this method are commonly traditional oil-based formulas. They are low cost, easy to make, and have dominated the early years of the hemp market. The downside is these products don't increase bioavailability much.

Water Soluble CBD Significantly Increases Bioavailability

Significant technological improvements in the area of hemp extract processing have created a new breed of product which addresses bioavailability issues. Products often called 'water-soluble' have entered the market. These products use new technologies to break up the oil particles into tiny pieces and then suspend them in a mixture using an emulsifier.

The result is greatly increased surface area and more ready absorption by the body due to the tiny particle size. The result is anywhere from a 200-500% increase in effectiveness compared to traditional oil-based products. The only downside is the duration of the effect may be slightly shorter.

You'll find these products utilizing various technologies like liposomes and nanoemulsions. This technology has been studied over the last 20 years with positive results and is utilized in many other oral supplements and medicines.

Graphic comparing oil, liposomal microemulsion and nano-sized microemulsions

These water-soluble products are more costly to produce, but thanks to a maturing industry they are becoming widely available. Here at Big Sky Botanicals, we sell both water-soluble capsules and water-soluble tinctures. For more information on this technology, see our page on our nanoemulsified technology.

Sublingual: Holding Concentrates, Tinctures & Sprays Under the Tongue

Girl dropping a CBD tincture under her tongue

Sublingual application is when an oil-based tincture or spray is administered under the tongue. The solution is held there for 60-90 seconds before being swallowed. These products also often include a carrier oil to help absorption.

When CBD oil is held under the tongue, some of the hemp extract compounds are directly absorbed into the mucous membranes. The remaining compounds that are swallowed, then pass through the liver as any swallowed product does. The compounds absorbed by the mucous membranes absorb more rapidly and effectively, reaching the bloodstream without being broken down by the first-pass metabolism.

This method carries with it a slightly higher bioavailability than if these same compounds were added to a capsule and swallowed. Because of this, and the lack of water-soluble products during the early days of the industry, oil-based tinctures rose to great popularity and still are one of the most commonly used CBD product types around.

Inhalation: Vaporized, Smoked & Dabbing

CBD Vape Pen

Just like vaporizing or smoking marijuana, inhaling CBD carries the benefit of having a very quick time to onset and high effectiveness. Today there are a growing number of products available including CBD-specific vape products, hemp flower, and concentrates used for dabbing.

Inhaling CBD has a very high bioavailability thanks to the large, highly permeable surface of the interior of the lungs. Inhaling also has a consistently quick onset in only a few minutes with a shorter period of effectiveness.

Though this method of ingesting hemp compounds is highly effective, it still carries the same risks associated with regular vaping and may not be suitable for all users. We've put together an extensive guide for new users looking to begin vaping CBD. There are some new types of products minimalizing risks by creating filler-free options.

Topical: Applying Lotions, Balms, Salves & Patches to the Skin

Man applying CBD balm to his wrist

Administering cannabidiol directly to the skin is another popular way to utilize a hemp extract. There are a wide variety of lotions, balms, and salves available to serve this need. These products are designed to alleviate symptoms including aches and skin issues. This method of application is viable because there are cannabinoid receptors found in the skin.

One of the biggest benefits of topical CBD application is that it can be combined with internal use for a combined benefit. For more information, see our topical CBD guide.


CBD Suppository

This final application method is by far the least popular of all 5 we cover here. Your average person is going to choose to swallow or inhale medicine long before they choose a suppository. Despite this, suppositories are proven to be highly bioavailable and thus a highly effective means of using CBD.

Using a CBD suppository has the best of both worlds when it comes to onset and length of effects. These will show noticeable effects after less than 15 minutes and the effects can last for nearly 8 hours - longer than all other forms of taking CBD. These products are generally only used by those with severe issues.

Which Type of CBD Products are Most Effective?

Now that you understand the various ingestion methods available, it's time to decide which CBD product is right for you. This decision will vary from person to person based on your needs and how comfortable you are with each administration method.

For example, you may be fine with vaping but aren't happy with the short duration of the effects. Sublingual may be preferred for the quicker onset and long duration, but the taste isn't something you can handle.

No matter your situation, our advice is to try different products until you find the one for you! Use the following chart to compare the onset and duration associated with each application method:

You may scroll this table left and right to view the data.

Route of AdministrationBioavailabilityOnsetDuration
Oil-Based Oral (Capsules, Edibles)Low60-90 MinutesUp to 8 Hours
Oil-Based Sublingual (Tinctures, Sprays)Mid15-60 MinutesUp to 8 Hours
Water Soluble Oral (Capsules, Edibles)High15-45 MinutesUp to 5 Hours
Inhalation (Vape, Smoke)High2-5 MinutesUp to 3 Hours
Topical (Lotions, Balms, Patches)Mod60-90 MinutesUp to 6 Hours
SuppositoriesHigh10-15 MinutesUp to 8 Hours

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