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Can Cannabis Beauty Go Mass?

Marijuana’s active ingredients have been proven beneficial when applied topically, but legal limitations may prohibit beauty brands from successfully scaling the opportunity.
Source: Courtesy
  • Rachel Jacoby Zoldan

NEW YORK, United States — Ildi Pekar is always on the search for the next big beauty discovery. So when the New York-based facialist tried CBD oil — a non-psychoactive substance derived from marijuana — and saw its anti-inflammatory benefits, she began to experiment with the cannabis plant in her skincare treatments.

Pekar is not alone: the market for upscale marijuana is booming — in the US alone, it’s been predicted that legal marijuana sales will surpass $22 billion in annual revenue by 2020. So it should only seem natural that the cannabis plant (whose flower is used for both recreational and medicinal marijuana products) would be embraced by beauty brands, thanks to its proven efficacy when applied topically. But does it truly have the potential to be the industry’s next big (and profitable) trend?

The cannabis plant is made up of approximately 80 different cannabinoids, which are endorphin-like compounds similar to the human endocannabinoid system — with both a workout and a joint giving you a similar buzz, according to research published in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2015. While THC — one of those 80-plus cannabinoids — is psychoactive and gives you the mental “buzz”, others, particularly CBD, have been studied and proven to work for a variety of medical maladies, from multiple sclerosis and epilepsy to various neurodegenerative disorders.

Entirely non-psychotropic, CBD has proven anti-inflammatory benefits, along with calming and relaxing ones, all of which can help with stressed skin and minds without the “stoned” effect. While topical application of any kind of product will always result in a lower absorption rate when compared with ingestion, it still makes “the best use of a limited ingredient or one we currently have limited access to,” says Nicole Smith, one of the original co-founders of Mary’s Medicinals, a cannabis-based wellness and beauty line headquartered in Denver, Colorado.

The market for CBD is projected to reach $2.1 billion by 2020, almost ten times its value of $202 million in 2015, according to a 2016 report released by the trade publication Hemp Business Journal. About $450 million of those sales are projected to come from hemp-based sources, while the majority will be extracted from cannabis. However, it’s still difficult to legally access and monetise the use of cannabis-derived CBD on a significant scale in beauty. The CBD found in any product distributed nationwide (for example, The Body Shop’s marijuana-leaf-shaped soap) is derived from the hemp plant — not the cannabis flower, which is only used for CBD- and THC-spiked products in states where marijuana has been legalised, like Colorado and California.

According to longtime fashion editor and Sausalito, California-based Claudia Mata, a newly minted entreprenuer on the cusp of launching Vertly Balm, a luxe beauty line infused with CBD and THC, the difference between the two types of CBD is staggering. “The CBD that’s extracted from hemp doesn’t have the entourage effect that it does when extracted from the cannabis flower — and particularly used in tandem with THC,” says Mata. Hemp generally has a CBD concentration around 3.5 percent CBD, while cannabis-derived CBD has up to 20 percent, says Toronto-based physician and cannabis expert Dr. Andrew Kerklaan, who started his own line of CBD and THC wellness and beauty products earlier this summer.

In order to distribute the self-funded line on a national level, Mata and her business partner husband, Zander Gladish, are using CBD extracted from the hemp plant, grown at a farm in Kentucky, one of only three of states permitted to grow such crops. However, product slated to be sold on a separate site, solely in their home state of California is infused with CBD and THC extracted from the cannabis flower, with several SKUs having both cannabinoids.

And that’s where the legal tightrope begins: As of press time, marijuana has been legalised in some form in 28 states, with eight allowing for recreational use including Colorado, California, Washington, Massachusetts and Oregon. However, federally, marijuana is classified as a Class I illegal drug, which requires any form of the drug to stay within state confines. This limits the possibility of national distribution, which fuels further “stoner” stigmatisation of CBD-laced products.

We thought [Cannabis] would resonate with our customers, and so far it's been good — and real trippy for our portfolio.

Some may argue that marijuana has an iffy reputation at best, especially when it comes to the mass market. However, brands that are elevating the concept with chic, ganja-green-free packaging and minimal references to marijuana — which has been rebranded as cannabis by lobbyists — are seeing traction despite roadblocks.

It seems to resonate for brands both small and big to use chic, clean packaging with minimal references to the marijuana leaf: Think of it as a more subtle nod, as Claudia Mata does with Vertly Balm. And that’s if they use any at all — many companies both small and large have chosen to opt for clean, vintage-style packaging that feels luxurious and uses a limited colour palette.

Consider Mary’s Medicinals, which uses apothecary-style black-and-white fonts along with a marijuana leaf on much of its packaging. The Colorado-based brand, which launched in 2015 with a CBD-spiked transdermal patch, offers both national- and state-level legal CBD beauty products. According to a company spokesperson, the brand currently averages approximately $900,000 in sales per month.

And then there’s skincare line Malin & Goetz, which introduced its “Cannabis” candle back in 2007, that doesn’t contain any kind of marijuana or hemp, but was named in homage to the plant. “When we developed this particular scent, it brought me back to the coffee shops of Amsterdam,” says co-founder Matthew Malin. A decade later, it is the company’s top-selling candle, with candle sales making up 12 percent of its overall business and spawning a Cannabis range that includes a perfume oil and hand and body wash. “The pungent, pepper-y smell was a way for me to personally reconnect a memory while also market it on a mass scale,” says Malin.

“We thought [the Cannabis candle] would resonate with our customers, and so far it’s been good — and real trippy for our portfolio,” adds co-founder and business partner Andrew Goetz.

Of course, there is no real marijuana in the Malin & Goetz collection. In fact, it doesn’t even smell like the plant, but rather is an olfactory throwback inspired by Goetz’s six years in Amsterdam and is scented with a mix of citrus and woodsy, spicy notes such as patchouli, lemon and pepper. However, there are other cannabis beauty ranges that fully embrace the association and stand behind the ingredient’s non-psychotropic efficacy.

Pekar, for instance, is launching a CBD-laced serum for $148 per bottle in September, and will be offering CBD facials with her new dermarollers, also available for purchase. The oil — packaged in a black-and-gold glass bottle — offers no token marijuana leaf or Bob Marley vibes. And neither does Pekar. “If the focus is on the medicinal benefits of the plant, we can see more of the physical effects,” Pekar says. “But the benefits of CBD — without any mind-altering stigma — are just starting to be more openly discussed and addressed.”

Regardless of appearance, the quality of the oil will be judged harshly, especially as the amorphous greyscale continues to make it difficult to standardise the role of CBD in products. “High-quality CBD oil, manufactured from the cannabis flower, is very expensive,” says Pekar, who uses one of the only legal cannabis flower CBD oil manufacturers in New York State. “If a product with CBD has a low price tag, it’s because there’s too low of a dose or the quality of the CBD is quite poor.” And as more high-end brands enter the market, consumer understanding of what’s good — and what’s bad — will accelerate. But until the laws allow for more flexibility and the conversation of its health benefits continue on a large scale, cannabis could very well be the next secret ingredient to youthful, ageless skin.

Editor's Note: This article was revised on August 29, 2017. A previous version of this article misstated the founders of Malin & Goetz are called Andrew Malin and Matthew Goetz. This is incorrect. The company founders are called Matthew Malin and Andrew Goetz.

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