How to choose CBD products

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a promising remedy that supports many areas of health and wellness, such as pain, mood, and overall nervous system functioning. A growing evidence base and increasingly progressive medical cannabis laws have thrown CBD products into the mainstream. However, this product space is rife with vague terminology and inconsistent labeling practices, rendering it difficult to choose a safe and effective product. Not all CBD products are created equal. This article addresses some of the common sources of confusion around CBD products and helps you choose the highest quality CBD product.

Ultimately, the best CBD products are:

  • Produced from organic, US-grown cannabis or hemp
  • Extracted with supercritical CO2
  • Paired with small amounts of THC and other cannabis compounds
  • Lab tested for purity/cannabinoid content
  • Clearly labeled for CBD content and added ingredients

CBD: a valuable addition to the medicine cabinet

CBD is one of the major cannabinoid compounds found in Cannabis sativa. The other major cannabinoid is the infamous delta-9-THC, responsible for the plant’s characteristic intoxicating effects. These compounds are chemically very similar to one another, and one cannot be selectively extracted from cannabis without the other. The levels of CBD and THC in a cannabis plant are genetically determined. Therefore, to make a CBD-rich product, producers have to use CBD-rich cannabis strains as stock material.

CBD-rich or hemp strains were historically embraced for their sedative and pain-relieving qualities in China, India, Greece, and parts of Europe (1). However, CBD-rich strains fell out of favor in the mid to late 1900’s as THC-rich cannabis strains grew in popularity. Obeying demand, breeders selectively bred high THC strains at the expense of CBD-rich ones.

Research on cannabis and the human endocannabinoid system (ECS) began in the 1960’s as investigators aimed to characterize the mechanisms and effects of THC. Researchers soon discovered CBD, which functions as an antidote to the intoxicating effects of THC. As the evidence base evolved, researchers discovered the ECS and the independent health benefits of CBD. And CBD-rich strains soon came back into favor.

CBD, inflammation, and health applications

As a biological multi-tasker, CBD has dozens of known molecular targets in the human body. Its effects are systemic and far-reaching because CBD modulates one of the key systems in the body: the ECS. This ancient system is present in all mammals and regulates memory, mood, appetite, sleep, and inflammation—key functions of homeostasis in the body. While our body produces its own endocannabinoids, the external or exogenous cannabinoids from cannabis act as supplements to them.

CBD supports and modulates the ECS, reducing inflammation throughout the body (2). It also directly affects serotonin receptors, supporting mood and decreasing anxiety and depression symptoms. Recent research also suggests that CBD may decrease nerve pain by directly interacting with pain receptors throughout the body (3). CBD, therefore, has therapeutic applications in the gastrointestinal tract, central and peripheral nervous system, and musculoskeletal system. This renders it useful in inflammatory bowel diseases, peripheral neuropathies, arthritic conditions, insomnia, chronic pain, and anxiety and depression. CBD has been spectacularly effective for children with intractable seizures, provoking affected families to migrate to states where the remedy can be available.

Choosing CBD products

CBD isolates Full spectrum CBD
CBD, <0.03% THC CBD, THC, terpenes
Widely available Available in dispensaries/stores in legal states
Hemp-derived Cannabis-derived
Adequate efficacy Enhanced efficacy

CBD products can be categorized as hemp-derived or cannabis-derived. Hemp-derived CBD is extracted from industrial hemp, which has naturally low levels of THC and terpenes. These are also known as “CBD-only” extracts or isolates and contain <0.03% THC. These products are advantageous due to their availability. Because they contain little to no THC, these products are available online and over the counter at natural grocery and supplement stores.

Cannabis-derived CBD products contain many other constituents that contribute to the medicinal qualities of CBD, such as THC and terpenes. These are known as “full spectrum” CBD extracts. Recent research suggests that these other compounds enhance the therapeutic efficacy of CBD, a phenomenon known as the “Entourage Effect” (4). A recent meta-analysis (5) demonstrated that 46% of seizure patients responded favorably to CBD isolates in the form of reduced seizure frequency. While impressive, cannabis-derived products performed much better, improving the clinical outcomes of 71% of seizure patients. Additionally, the terpenes found in cannabis have notable therapeutic effects of their own. Terpenes like limonene (commonly found in citrus) are also anxiety-reducing. Pinene (also found in conifer trees) is anti-inflammatory, and linalool (abundant in lavender) is sedative and pain relieving (4).

While CBD is certainly effective on its own, it is enhanced when combined with other naturally occurring cannabis compounds. The difficulty is that these must be purchased in dispensaries or retail stores in states with decriminalized or legal cannabis. If you can access the full spectrum products, it’s better to do so.

Sourcing and solvents

The best creations come from the best starting materials. A tomato soup made from home garden-grown tomatoes is always superior to one made from store-bought tomatoes. Similarly, with CBD products, sourcing is key. The quality of the raw material is fundamental to the quality of the final product. Like other crops, cannabis and hemp crops are subject to mold, pests, and toxic chemical exposure. Whether you source CBD from hemp or cannabis, try to acquire a product made from organic, US-grown plants. (CBD products are frequently processed from hemp or cannabis from Kentucky, Colorado, or Washington.)

Cannabinoid extraction

Once harvested, CBD needs to be extracted from the raw material. Extracts need solvents and sometimes heat to target specific plant compounds and bring them into solution. The quality of the final product is also greatly dependent on the solvent. The amount of plant material that can be carried in an extract is dependent on the properties of the solvent, and each performs a little differently. Furthermore, solvent residues can be toxic and carry potential health and safety consequences. Common solvents include supercritical CO2, ethanol, olive oil, and the hydrocarbons propane, butane, and hexane.

Solvent Extraction quality Solvent residues
Supercritical CO2 Excellent Absent, non toxic
Ethanol Good Present, non toxic
Olive oil Adequate Present, non toxic
Propane, butane, hexane Excellent Present, toxic

CO2is a superior solvent and is typically used in its “supercritical” (both a liquid and a gas) form. With this solvent, extractions of cannabinoids and terpenes are maximized, and residues tend to be minute and harmless. CO2extractions allow for the most potent and pure final CBD product and is the most recommended solvent for optimal benefits.

Ethanol is the next preferred solvent, adequately extracting cannabinoids and terpenes. The resulting extract is often further concentrated into a thick oil or “wax.” Solvent residues, if present, are not a serious health concern. Olive oil is also used as a solvent to produce liquid CBD extracts. While the extraction is not as efficient, its inexpensive and the solvent itself is safe for consumption.

Propane, butane, and hexane are also frequently used to produce a variety of cannabis concentrates for ingesting, vaporizing, or “dabbing.” While effective at extracting cannabinoids and terpenes, solvent residues are significant problems with these products. They’re inexpensive and are often found in lower-quality CBD and cannabis products. Avoid CBD products made with propane, butane, and hexane.

Capsules vs. liquids

Dosing Absorption Added ingredients
Capsules Consistent Slowest Powder carriers
Liquids Varies Slow Oil carriers
Vapor liquids Varies Rapid Present, can be toxic

Once the extract is produced, CBD can be incorporated into a variety of materials for different delivery methods. The extract can be sprayed onto a dry powder carrier (i.e. maltodextrin) and encapsulated. These capsule products are convenient and carry a precise amount of CBD for consistent dosing.

Extracts can also be diluted with an oil carrier (i.e. MCT oil) and sold as liquid extracts. These typically come with dropper bottles, rendering dosage a little more difficult to control. However, they are digested and absorbed more quickly than capsules.

Extracts can also be mixed with a thinner or carrier liquid for use in vaporizers. While vaporizing is an effective delivery method for cannabinoids, carriers like propylene glycol are problematic and potentially toxic to lung tissue. For this reason, CBD liquids for vaporizers are not recommended.

Testing and labeling

Testing checklist

  • Cannabinoid content
  • Statement of organic production
  • Pesticide residues
  • Solvent residues
  • Mold and bacteria

There are two types of testing to consider for natural products: efficacy and safety testing. Efficacy testing includes any lab-scale or clinical trials that demonstrate the effectiveness of the product. Some CBD products have clinical trials that help elucidate their therapeutic efficacy (like the prescription drug Epidolex for seizure disorders). However, clinical trials are very expensive to administer and are uncommon in the natural products space. That said, egregious health claims without efficacy testing are a red flag for a CBD product company. Remember Carl Sagan: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!”

However, safety and purity testing is a must with any CBD product. Purity testing reveals the presence and levels of solvent and pesticide residues. Safety testing further addresses the presence of harmful microbes, such as Aspergillus molds, in cannabis flowers.

Labeling checklist

  • Manufacturer and contact information
  • Manufacturing date
  • Serving size/dose information
  • Cannabinoid content
  • Solvents
  • Other ingredients

A quality CBD product should clearly state the manufacturer and contact information. It should also display the serving size, amount of cannabinoids per serving, solvents, and any added ingredients. The manufacturer ought to be able to answer questions about product purity and safety and provide documentation supporting their statements.


  1. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 227; Dec 2018, p. 300-315.
  2. Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology, vol. 10, no. 2; June 2015, 193-203.
  3. Neurotherapeutics, vol. 12, no. 4; Oct 2015, p. 692-698.
  4. British Journal of Pharmacology, vol. 163, no. 7; Jan 2011, p. 1344-1364.
  5. Frontiers in Neurology, vol. 9; Sept 2018, no. 759.


About Author

Renée A. Davis MA RH is a designer and educator in botanical and mycological medicine. Her training began at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in New York City and concluded in biomedical sciences at the University of Washington. She currently directs research and development for a nutraceutical mushroom company in the Pacific Northwest.


  • Lesley Paterson
    April 13, 2019 at 8:15 am

    Thank you for clarifying these issues. Much appreciated and would like to stay informed.

  • Diane
    April 14, 2019 at 10:30 am

    This was an interesting read. Thank you

  • David H.
    September 7, 2019 at 2:44 am

    Thank you for this much needed info There are so many products for sale it is nice to know what look for and beware of in all herbal products.. I will be sharing this with friends.


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