How Safe Is Your CBD? The FDA Is Asking—And You Should, Too

There’s little doubt that CBD has become a way of life—a recent survey found that an estimated 64 million Americans have tried the chemical compound found in the cannabis plant that’s been linked to numerous wellness benefits, from reducing inflammation and sleeplessness to mitigating anxiety and acne. But similar to the supplement industry, CBD is largely unregulated. And with a wave of new cannabis cure-alls hitting the market (vape pens, skin patches, edible confections), uncertainty abounds in the search for a safe, effective product.

That might change: The FDA held its first public hearing on CBD last week, calling on experts to present research and recommendations to help shape potential regulations. Zoe Sigman, the program director for Project CBD, was among those in attendance at municipal Building 31 in Silver Spring, Maryland, to deliver comments. “It was packed,” she says of the hearing, which lasted for 10 hours and included more than a hundred speakers.

The most compelling takeaway for Sigman? “The contaminants found in CBD products, which don’t contain what they say they contain,” she says, adding that toxicologists found evidence of pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria, and other compounds in widely available products. The problem is rampant: A study from the JAMA Network journal reported that more than two-thirds of CBD products tested by researchers were mislabeled—these items actually had more CBD than listed, or none at all, or other parts from the plant, including tetrahydrocannabinol (known as THC), the main psychoactive derived from cannabis. “There are good people and not-so-good people making CBD products—and no way for consumers to know the difference,” says Sigman.

While the FDA considers how to chart a course forward—Sigman argued for forming a regulatory committee within the FDA that would allow medicinal plant claims based on scientific evidence—consumers will have to advocate for themselves to find quality products. Here, seven points to consider before selecting your next CBD drop, oil, or tincture:

Know the facts and dose gradually
Cannabidiol (CBD for short) is one of more than the reported 100 cannabinoids in cannabis, and it’s relatively safe, says Ethan Russo, MD, a neurologist, scientist, and director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute. “Cannabis is botanical medicine, and as a medical plant, it’s very versatile and offers unparalleled safety if used in proper preparations.” In super-high doses (more than 800 milligrams a day), there is risk for interactions with other drugs, as well as sedative and gastrointestinal side-effects, he says. The more likely concern is not overdosing, but under-dosing—buying a CBD product that contains very little of the ingredient, or none. (At roughly $40 per gram, the compound is pricey to dole out, says Dr. Russo.) The label should list the amount of cannabidiol in each dose (instead of the total product). With any product, “consumers often start with a low dose, about 10 milligrams, and adjust up if needed,” says Sigman.

Go for full-spectrum formulas
Many products feature CBD molecules isolated from the plant. But, Dr. Russo points out, the extract is more effective when it works in harmony with other constituents of the plant, such as terpenes and other phytocannabinoids. This synergy is called the entourage effect and can lead to better therapeutic benefits. Check the labels for brands that use the “whole-plant” or “full-spectrum” CBD.

Ask for test results
To get an accurate read on what’s in your concentrate or capsule, ask brands for a certificate of analysis (CoA), recommends Sigman, who has done this herself. A CoA should come from an independent testing facility and include an analysis of CBD and THC levels, along with screenings for any contaminants. “You also want to be sure the test batches aren’t huge,” says Sigman, noting that in states like Oregon, one batch is considered 15 pounds of cannabis flower, “and for every additional 15 pounds, you need a new test.” If you buy items in Indiana, QR codes that allow you to download CoAs to your phone are required.

Scrutinize CBD skin care carefully
Many skin-care items—creams, masks, facial oils—tout CBD in the name but do not, in fact, contain CBD. Instead, some feature cannabis sativa oil or hemp seed oil, which is derived from the seeds of the plant. CBD, on the other hand, mostly comes from the resin on flowering tops of hemp plants. It works with skin receptors to control inflammation and sebum production, and in theory, to keep your skin balanced. Hemp seed oil “has great things in it, like omega fatty acids,” says Sigman, but it’s mainly used as a moisturizing agent—good information to keep in mind when choosing what to spend your money on.

Be wary about vaping
Vaping products are “very popular” but also “very poorly regulated,” says Sigman, who explains that many of the oils and distillates in the cartridges contain thinning agents and additives that haven’t been studied when heated to high temperatures and inhaled. If you opt to vape, she advises sticking to pure, CBD-only oil formulas and avoiding those with propylene glycol (a solvent that degrades into formaldehyde at high temperatures), trendy flavors, or “anything else that’s generally not recognized as safe for inhalation.”

Purchase goods from a place you trust
Sigman buys her CBD items from Farma, a dispensary in Portland, Oregon, that sells everything from cannabis by the gram to edible CBD gumdrops, with percent concentrations listed for THC and CBD. Local dispensaries tend to be staffed by those “familiar with research and other details, like whether a product is whole-spectrum and if it’s been tested for pesticides,” says Sigman. For states where cannabis is not legalized and online is the only option, she trusts respected purveyors like Canapa (as well as forthcoming Care by Design and Treaty).

Look for certifications
“Under current U.S. regulations, cannabis products cannot claim being organic,” says Dr. Russo. But you can check if a company uses good manufacturing practices (known as GMP) and follows ISO 17025 scientific testing standards. Additionally, third-party certifications, such as those from Clean GreenCertified Kind, and Dragonfly Earth Medicine can help verify if your cannabis was sourced and cultivated with ethical growing practices. And considering the boom in CBD, Sigman says supporting regenerative agriculture methods, which ensure a healthy future for cannabis crops, will “increasingly be of interest.”