The world of ingestible CBD oils and drops is full of big claims but evidence is thin on the ground. So how do you find one that works?

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Few wellness ingredients have seen more launches than CBD over the past few years. With an attention-grabbing ‘cannabis’ backstory (“oooh, it’s like marijuana without the munchies and the spacing out”) and supposed benefits ranging from tackling inflammation to relieving  insomnia and anxiety and anything in between, the appeal is clear. Even more so with a recent celebrity ad campaign featuring Claudia Winkleman as the ‘face’ of CBD brand Cannaray. “Let’s start a CBD revolution!” she proclaims, popping some CBD drops into her mouth while relaxing on the sofa. But, strangely, there’s no mention of what it actually does. Welcome to the confusing world of CBD.

It's all because, while CBD in general has been studied and found to have a number of benefits such as improving sleep, mood, inflammation and pain relief, manufacturers can’t make any specific claims about the CBD in their product. As such, much of the information and messaging around CBD is, frankly, vague. Anecdotally, you’ll find people who swear by specific CBD oils to do all of the above. And you’ll also find those who say they’ve tried a particular one – often at considerable expense ­– and it hasn’t helped. So let us unravel some of the mysteries to help you find a CBD oil that’s right for you.

If you just want to know what to buy, skip through to our ‘best CBD oils edit’ at the end.

Quick recap: what is CBD, and will it make me high?

CBD, or cannabidiol, is an extract from hemp or marijuana plants, which are both types of cannabis. It’s entirely non-hallucinogenic, unlike THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), another cannabis extract or cannabinoid and the main psychoactive one. CBD oils that you buy over the counter are made of carrier oils infused with CBD extracted from the flowers and leaves of the plant.

Note that hemp seed oil or hemp oil is not CBD oil, but a nutritious, fatty acid-rich oil extracted from hemp seeds. Some hemp oils have claimed to be CBD oils, but unless ‘CBD’ is mentioned separately in the list of ingredients, this is a lie.

How is CBD regulated in the UK?

You’ll remember the hype a few years back when ingestible CBD broke on to the scene. It was a ‘Wild West’ period in which manufacturers of over-the-counter CBD oil could claim whatever they liked about benefits, quality and strength. In January 2019, this was tightened up, when the UK Food Standards Agency stepped in and classified CBD as a ‘Novel Food’, which restricted what makers could claim about it.

Brands can now only describe the potential benefits of their product in the most non-committal of terms: it can ‘help’ with sleep, or ‘support’ mood for example, or ‘promote’ wellbeing. By law, non-medicinal CBD oils are only allowed to contain ‘trace’ amounts of THC, although many are now entirely THC-free.

As far as dosages go, there’s no consensus either, although the FSA recommends a maximum of 70mg per day. In the US, that’s considered quite conservative, which only adds to the confusion.

If you do see terms such as ‘CBD gummies for sleep’, you’ll find the CBD is combined with things such as chamomile which can make claims as to promoting sleep. None of it helps explain the benefits of CBD.

What about medicinal CBD?

Medicinal or pharmaceutical CBD is something else entirely, however.

“Oral CBD-containing products can be either defined as medicines or as foods,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, who wrote CBD – The Essential Guide to Health and Wellness. “If someone wants to create a CBD product for medicinal purposes, it must be licensed as a medicine for it to be legal and can advertise itself with words such as ‘cure’, ‘restore’ or ‘prevent’.”

An extensive review of cannabidiol research found that pharmaceutical CBD drugs may have therapeutic benefits for conditions as varied as Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, Crohn’s, certain cancers, obesity, malaria, PTSD, and tinnitus.

Currently, medical cannabis is legal in the UK only for patients who have a qualifying medical condition, including severe epilepsy and chemotherapy nausea..

What is the scientific evidence for CBD?

While commercial CBD product manufacturers can’t make medical claims for their wares, CBD itself has been studied and found to bring down inflammation and balance adrenal function, helping to lower cortisol and stress. As such, it can have calming and pain-relieving benefits.

This is how it works: “Our endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays an important role in our central nervous system and modulates our internal balance,” says Melissa Sturgess, member of the Cannabis Research Council and CEO of medical cannabis company Ananda Developments.

“Cannabinoid receptors are present in all parts of the body, and activating them with cannabis extracts leads to reduced anxiety, improved sleep, improved mood, reduced inflammation, and so on.” Other medicinal herbs such as ginger and turmeric work on the ECS as well.

CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties are proving particularly powerful at medicinal levels, says Sturgess, “offering hope for fibromyalgia, endometriosis and rheumatoid conditions.”

Brewer says that “user surveys and clinical trials suggest that CBD can help the issues mentioned above as well as arthritis and other causes of persistent pain.” This pertains to medicinal CBD brands and dosage, but It’s easy to see why she feels over-the-counter CBD might offer a shortcut to wellness as well.

How do I know if I’m buying a good CBD?

The 2019 regulations meant that CBD brands fell away as they had to jump through hoops to stay on the UK market. “CBD companies already on the market had to submit a credible application to become a Novel Food (entailing safety testing and proving the products contain the claimed levels of CBD, among other things),” says Dr Parveen Bhatarah, chief scientific advisor at CBD wellness company Nature’s Journey.

Those who didn’t apply with sufficient data were taken off the market. Any new products also have to pass the tests. What’s left is a list of around 12,000 products pending approval.

If you are unsure of what to buy, Bhatarah recommends a quick check of the FSA public list of CBD products applying for novel food status. The expectation is that most of them will receive authorisation as they have had to submit a serious amount of credible data about batch quality, safety, toxicity and stability.

Buying certified organic can give an added level of reassurance. Registered nutritionist Charlotte Faure Green underlines the importance of this to avoid pesticide contamination.

How much CBD should I take?

As no claims can be made as to the ‘right’ dose of CBD, any guidance is just that. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommend that healthy adults do not take more than 70mg CBD per day, unless a doctor agrees more. This is about 14 drops of 10% CBD oil, or 28 drops of 5% oil, but you need to check your specific product for instructions and be aware that it’s hard to compare one with another. One might be three times the price, but be more concentrated and end up being better value.

Brewer says a typical useful dose is 10mg CBD, taken one to three times per day. Sturgess, who has developed both medicinal and non-medicinal CBD oils, reckons 20mg a day is a good start dose for overall relaxation while 40mg daily is a start dose for managing pain. “You can increase these by 5mg a week as long as you don’t go over 70mg with non-medicinal CBD,” she says.

Brewer warns that everyone responds differently “depending on the genes we’ve inherited; one in ten people appear to metabolise CBD slowly so only need a low dose.” With that in mind she recommends you start with just 6 to 10mg a day and increase on a weekly basis.

At the other end of the spectrum, “people with significant pain may need up to 70 mg CBD per day – or more under medical supervision,” says Brewer. As for some personal insight: I have tried multiple CBD oils at levels of way over 40mg of CBD daily for stress relief and as a sleep aid and noticed no effect whatsoever – so apparently there are also people who metabolise the stuff extremely fast.

Faure Green adds that “taken long-term, the benefits multiply as CBD is thought to act as an adaptogen, working on adrenal function and inflammation. But it may also be that CBD is not the solution for some as it simply doesn’t work for everyone.”

What’s the best way to take CBD?

Brewer is a fan of sublingual (under the tongue) dosing. “When drops or a spray are absorbed under the tongue (try holding it there for two minutes before swallowing) the CBD reaches the bloodstream more quickly,” she says.

If you swallow the oil or capsules straight away, she says, “some CBD is broken down by stomach acid so if you want to swallow your CBD directly and can’t be bothered to hold it under your tongue, it’s advisable to try a higher dose.

Does CBD work straight away?

“You should notice an effect with a single dose and this may be sufficient to calm your nerves when you are feeling stressed, have pain or sleep issues, for example,” says Brewer. “For a long-term problem such as chronic pain, you may need to take doses regularly. There is no evidence of a tailing-off effect with long-term use.”

What are ‘CBD isolate’ and ‘broad-spectrum’ CBD?

You’ll see these terms on packaging, but what do they mean?

Some brands use CBD isolate, a tincture containing nothing but pure CBD in a carrier oil, leading them to claim to have the highest concentrations of CBD in the market. However, many experts believe that CBD works far better in conjunction with the other plant actives naturally found in the cannabis sativa plant. This, says Brewer, is called ‘broad-spectrum CBD’. “It contains CBD plus most or all of the other natural cannabinoids, but has had all the THC content removed.” She contrasts it with ‘full-spectrum CBD’, which has all cannabinoids plus the trace amounts of THC allowed in the UK (under 1mg per pack).

“All the compounds of the cannabis plant are thought to work better in synergy – it’s known as the ‘entourage effect’,” says Faure Green. “Many people find that full spectrum works better for them than CBD isolates.”

Bhatarah points to “early literature” that suggests the entourage effect is a real thing.

What are terpenes?

In short, they are a good thing, and CBD oil with added terpenes can be an indicator that the brand has gone the extra mile. According to some, terpenes are the star of the entourage effect. “CBD on its own isn’t enough,” says Sturgess. “You ABSOLUTELY also need terpenes, the other important, non-psychoactive constituents of cannabis.”

Terpenes are molecules in herbs, plants and trees that are part of their defence mechanism, and have been found to affect the human nervous system when ingested or inhaled. One is beta caryophyllene, famed for its pain-relieving, mood-elevating, anti-stress and euphoric effects.

“There is scientific evidence for specific terpenes having specific effects and so the challenge (and it is a big one) is to pin down those that are essential for the entourage effect,” she says. “The medicinal cannabis research is working to identify which exact molecules, in which amount and which ratio, are required for this.”

For now, she adds known mood-balancing terpenes to full-spectrum CBD oils because “the current extraction methods, even gold-standard CO2 extraction, largely destroys them,” she says. “It’s therefore important to look for CBD with added terpenes.”

What are the side effects of CBD?

It’s generally thought of as well-tolerated, but listed potential side effects of CBD are dry mouth, low blood pressure, diarrhoea, reduced appetite, drowsiness and fatigue. It may also interact with medications such as blood thinners.

Is CBD safe?

According to Brewer, there are no real safety concerns about pure CBD as far as the World Health Organisation are concerned. But the Novel Food status initiated regulatory standards that had been sorely missing.

Pre-2019, many CBD products “contained less CBD than claimed on the label, and/or excessive amounts of the legally controlled THC,” says Brewer. Some contained toxic amounts of solvents while others lied about their extraction methods to those claimed. The industry cannot get away with such tricks now.

Can you take CBD while pregnant?

The American FDA strongly advises against CBD use in pregnancy, while the NHS warns that “Cannabis use in pregnancy is potentially very harmful and should be avoided.” The NHS don’t, however, say anything specifically about CBD.

The best CBD drops, gummies and capsules

Here are some options ranging from mild and fun to seriously strong

The pick-me-up: Cannabotech Uplift Drops, £89 for 30ml.*

Cannabotech’s blends combine the benefits of CBD with the benefits of functional mushrooms, with each blend formulated for a different ‘mood’ - think sleep or relaxation. This is their strongest CDB, containing 1500mg of what they call ‘premium’ CBD oil (it’s full-spectrum) plus reishi, oyster, wood ear, maitake and shiitake mushroom extracts, there are extracts of caffeine, lemon balm and chamomile as well to help you feel relaxed yet energised. It’s a 5% oil which means you need 16 drops to get 40mg of CBD

Buy now, paid partnership

For nighttime: Dreem Distillery CBD Night Drops, £75 for 10ml

At 800mg of CBD in 10ml of oil, this is an 8% oil that gives you 4mg of CBD per drop. You’ll speed through this in less than three weeks if you wanted 40mg a day, so the price is quite steep. But it is a broad-spectrum CBD with added terpenes limonene and linalool to soothe and relax, and it tastes pleasantly of peppermint.

Buy now

The good-value award-winner: Trip Orange Blossom CBD Oil, £39 for 15ml

This was Faure Green’s winner when she judged the CBD category of our Get The Gloss Wellness Awards 2023. It has 1000mg of CBD which Faure Green says is a “good strength” – although the fact that it’s contained in 15ml means you need a sizeable amount of drops to get a good dose: a 6.7% oil with 3.35mg of CBD per drop, that’s 12 drops for 40mg. But “It tastes wonderful (there’s also a Wild Mint version), is THC-free and broad spectrum,” says Faure Green. There’s soothing chamomile in there as well, and it’s a good price.

Buy now

For those who hate the taste of CBD: Healthspan CBD Oil Capsules, £16.95 for 60

Many CBD drops can taste decidedly earthy and the fact that you’re advised to hold them under your tongue can be a barrier to taking it. These capsules provide 6.4mg broad-spectrum CBD each with added vitamin D3 – the latter has authorised claims that it helps to support muscle and immune health.  They are a recommendation of Brewer’s (who is an ambassador for the brand). But obviously you can’t take them it sublingually so they won’t work as quickly.

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The really concentrated one: Unique CBD Night Drops, £144 for 10ml

A rare 20% CBD oil, giving you 10mg of CBD in a single minty drop. So strong, says GTG editorial director Victoria Woodhall, “it made me feel like lead the next morning.” This is a ‘pharma-grade CBD’ (it’s not medicinal CBD, but it lists its own unique lab reports on the website), full-spectrum (so with trace amounts of THC) with added terpenes limonene and myrcene to supercharge its effectivity.

Buy now

Tasty with added immune benefits: Manuka Pharm CBD Oil with Manuka Honey, £45 for 30ml

This isn’t very strong (5% which means 2.5mg of CBD per drop) but it’s a sizeable bottle and it has added manuka honey, one of nature’s immune-boosting and delicious-tasting wonders. It’s CBD isolate, so there’s no entourage effect, but still a good choice according to Faure Green, who awarded it Silver in our GTG Wellness Awards.

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The organic one: Jersey Hemp Premium Organic Broad Spectrum CBD Oil, £39.99 for 10ml

A 10% CBD oil requiring eight drops to get 40mg of CBD (so this is a good price), it’s Soil Association certified organic (Faure Green underlines the importance of this to avoid pesticide contamination), broad-spectrum and third-party lab tested, meaning that the end product has been independently verified as containing and doing what it says it does – not always a given!

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The fun one: Kaya CBD 10mg with 5-HTP Gummies, £25 for 30

If you want to just dip your toe into CBD, these sugar-based, bear-shaped gummies are a bit of fun. They aim to support stress with a multivitamin complex, 5-HTP tryptophan to soothe, and 10mg per gummy of ‘certified’ CBD extract, whatever that means! They don’t say whether this is an isolate or not.

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CBD products mentioned is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. We recommend that you check with your GP/doctor before starting a new dietary supplement