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Just One-in-Four CBD Topical Products in the US Are Accurately Labeled, Study Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jul 27, 2022   
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The majority of topical CBD products are inaccurately labeled, according to a new investigation by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The investigation, published in JAMA Network Open, found that the majority of products contained CBD in amounts that were not within 10% of the stated dose advertised on their label. Many products also failed to include any information about cannabinoid content on their packaging at all, and plenty made unsubstantiated health claims that are not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As a result of their findings, the Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers say that improvements need to be made to the regulatory oversight of these products in order to ensure good product quality and prevent unwanted drug effects.

Topical products tend to contain more CBD than advertised

To evaluate the labeling accuracy of topical cannabinoid products, the researchers purchased 105 unique products from a mixture of online sources and physical brick-and-mortar stores.

Of these 105 topicals, only 89 products carried a label detailing the product’s cannabinoid content. Analysis of the labeled products by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) revealed that just 24% of products contained a CBD dose accurate to within a 10% margin of the dose stated on the packaging.

“The variability in the chemical content and labeling found in our study highlights the need for better regulatory oversight of CBD products to ensure consumer safety,” senior study author Ryan Vandrey, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Sixteen of the 89 labeled products contained less CBD than advertised, though the majority of products (58%) contained more CBD than advertised. On average, the products purchased in-store contained around 21% more CBD and the online products 10% more CBD than stated on the label, though the labeling accuracy varied widely across products.

While CBD is non-intoxicating, its presence in higher-than-expected levels is an issue for consumers, the researchers say. In human trials of CBD-based medicines, there have been reports of adverse events including fatigue, diarrhea, and vomiting. Drug-drug interactions have also been reported, with particular concern given to prescription drugs that are metabolized in the liver, as CBD is known to potentially affect the liver enzymes.

Concerns raised over THC content and unsubstantiated health claims

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main intoxicant in cannabis, was detected in 10 out of the 45 products purchased in-store and 27 of the 60 products purchased online. However, the THC levels were all beneath the 0.3% by weight limit that defines hemp, as per the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act.

While these THC-containing products may have been within federally allowed limits, they still suffered from significant labeling inaccuracies. Despite containing THC, four of these products were specifically labeled as being “THC free”. Fourteen of the 37 THC-containing products accurately indicated that they contained less than 0.3% THC, while the remaining 19 products did not make any reference to THC on their label.

“Recent research has shown that people who use CBD products containing even small amounts of THC could potentially test positive for cannabis using a conventional drug test,” the study’s lead author, Tory Spindle, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Another labeling issue picked up on by the researcher was the prevalence of therapeutic or cosmetic claims on product packaging. The FDA has only approved one prescription CBD product, Epidiolex, which is used in treating severe forms of epilepsy.

Despite this, it was found that 29 of the 105 total products in the investigation made some form of therapeutic claim, most commonly on the theme of helping pain and inflammation. Fifteen products made claims of a more cosmetic nature, such as saying that CBD could improve the appearance of wrinkles.

Just under half (47%) of products noted on their packaging that they were not FDA-approved; the remaining products made no reference to the FDA at all.

“Misleading labels can result in people using poorly regulated and expensive CBD products instead of FDA approved products that are established as safe and effective for a given health condition,” said Spindle, who is also a faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Cannabis Science Laboratory.

“It’s important to note that the FDA has not approved CBD products to treat any of the conditions advertised on the products we tested.”

Finally, the researchers also observed that the labeled amount of CBD was usually expressed in terms of the CBD content of the entire product, such as the full bottle of lotion, rather than on a per-dose basis. This approach to labeling could cause confusion and inconsistent dosing, the researchers say, which may compound the wider problem of inaccurate labeling.

Labeling is becoming a big problem for the CBD industry

This is not the first time that labeling accuracy in the CBD sector has been called into question.

Just over a year ago, a similar investigation into CBD topical products carried out by Leafreport with independent testing by Canalysis Laboratories found that around 77% of CBD topicals did not contain the amount of CBD advertised on their packaging.

Another Leafreport investigation, this time focusing predominantly on CBD oils, found that around 27% of products were inaccurately labeled, falling outside of the 10% accuracy margin.

Testing conducted by the FDA in 2020 also came to similar conclusions. Of the 102 labeled products that the federal agency tested, just 46 products were within 20% of the amount listed on the packaging. Shockingly, 18 products were found to contain less than 80% of the advertised CBD content.


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