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CBD is where it’s at. It has tons of potential health benefits, including workout recovery and pain relief. But sadly, not all CBD products are 10/10.

To help you sift out the too-legit-to-quit from the hype, we vetted the best CBD salves for 2021 with #FitFam in mind.

Cannabidiol (aka CBD) is one of the many cannabinoids, or compounds, found in hemp and cannabis plants. Tetrahydrocannabinol (aka THC) is also one of those compounds.

But even though both compounds come from the same place, CBD by definition will never contain more than 0.3 percent THC — and some CBDs have THC removed altogether — so CBD doesn’t make you feel high.

Here are the three main types of CBD out there:

  • Full-spectrum CBD has allll the compounds (cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes) naturally found in the cannabis plant, including THC. Research suggests that keeping all these bad boys together makes them all stronger. This is known as the “entourage effect.”
  • Broad-spectrum CBD contains all the same compounds as full-spectrum CBD, but the THC is completely extracted. Byeeee.
  • CBD isolate is exactly what it sounds like: isolated CBD. That means it has no additional cannabinoids, flavonoids, or terpenes. Zero. Zilch.

Research on CBD is still pretty new and ongoing — especially when it comes to athletes — but here’s what the latest research says:

  • A 2020 review of studies found that CBD has anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and analgesic effects in animal models. It also found that CBD might protect against inflammatory gastrointestinal damage and help heal skeletal injuries.
  • Other 2020 research says that CBD can help manage pain, inflammation, and swelling associated with injury. It can also be helpful in managing anxiety, fear memory process, and sleep problems.

Exciting! BUT the most important takeaway is that basically all research on CBD use in athletes recommends further research to confirm these findings. So it might be some time before we know for sure how CBD can help athletes specifically.

This list is all about safety, quality, and legitimacy. We put every CBD product through a super thorough vetting process that makes sure each product:

  • contains 0.3 percent THC or less
  • is made with U.S.-grown hemp
  • has been third-party tested by an ISO 17025-compliant lab
  • is free of heavy metals and pesticides, according to the certificate of analysis (COA)

We also check out:

  • any special manufacturing processes or impressive certifications a company has
  • product potency
  • quality ingredients
  • brand reputation, with our primary indicators of trust being stellar customer reviews, a lack of FDA warning letters, and zero health claims like “this product can cure you!”

Best cooling CBD cream for athletes

CBDfx CBD Cream for Muscle & Joint: Cooling

  • Price: $$$
  • CBD type: broad-spectrum
  • Size: 1.7 ounces (oz.)
  • Potency: 1,000 milligrams (mg)
  • COA: available online

This powerful broad-spectrum formula has a killer cooling effect. We also love that 100 percent of the hemp is organically grown and high quality. In addition to CBD, it has a few *extra* anti-inflammatory ingredients to kick it up a notch:

Reviewers are all about the cooling relief for muscle aches. Athletes and people with arthritis praise the quick pain relief and say it works better than IcyHot.

Bonus: It’s solvent-free and totes vegan.

Best full-spectrum CBD salve for athletes

Plant People Soothe+

  • Price: $$
  • CBD type: full-spectrum
  • Size: 2 oz.
  • Potency: 515 mg
  • COA: available online

This soothing all-purpose salve is formulated with full-spectrum CBD, along with some other fab ingredients:

  • arnica: a natural pain reliever that has been shown to help reduce pain after eccentric exercise
  • camphor and peppermint: two more natural pain relievers known for relieving inflammation (Psst: Menthol comes from peppermint and other mint plants, so this will product have a cooling feel.)

It’s fab for achy muscles, knees, elbows, and hands. It also contains coconut oil, beeswax, and shea butter, so it’s hella hydrating for your skin. Reviewers love the gentle feel of the balm and say you need only a pea-size amount to feel the results.

Best CBD stick for athletes

Go Green Hemp CBD Relief Stick Broad-Spectrum Unscented (1,000 mg)

  • Price: $$$
  • CBD type: broad-spectrum
  • Size: 2.2 oz.
  • Potency: 1,000 mg
  • COA: available online

This spirited stick has just three ingredients: beeswax, MCT oil (coconut oil), and organic broad-spectrum CBD extract. But the best part? The stick is mess-free and helps you target those tricky problem areas. It’s also hella portable — stick this guy in your purse or bag and apply it quickly on the go without having to wash up afterward.

Keep in mind that there aren’t any supplemental pain relief ingredients in this one — you’re totally relying on CBD’s pain-relieving potential.

Best CBD cream for athletes

Fab CBD Topical CBD Cream

  • Price: $$
  • CBD type: full-spectrum
  • Size: 2 oz.
  • Potency: 600 mg
  • COA: available online

The full-spectrum hemp extract comes from Colorado-grown organic hemp. And if you like citrus, you’re in luck — the blood orange essential oil gives this cream a zesty scent that reviewers go wild for.

It also contains super soothing aloe and chamomile (which is also used to treat pain and inflammation), along with hydrating ingredients like olive oil, cocoa butter, and coconut oil. And because this is a cream, it’s supposed to rub all the way in without leaving a greasy feel — which reviewers confirm is really impressive for a CBD product.

This cream has a 12-month shelf life and is best kept at room temp. And FYI, because it contains chamomile, anyone with an allergy or sensitivity to plants in the Asteraceae (aka Compositae) family should be careful about using it.

Best CBD lotion for athletes

Calm by Wellness Lavender Lotion

  • Price: $$
  • CBD type: broad-spectrum
  • Size: 4 oz.
  • Potency: 200 mg
  • COA: available online

Calm combines broad-spectrum CBD with pain-relieving white willow bark extract, organic coconut oil, aloe leaf juice, and lavender extract. So (obvi) it smells AMAZING. It also contains glycerin, which is an all-star moisturizer commonly used in lotions — so this one def has a different feel than the typical CBD salve.

But the reason we’re all here: It’s also a legit pain reliever. Just rub a dime-size amount into the painful area and let it do its thing.

Best CBD balm for athletes

Lazarus Naturals Soothing Mint Full Spectrum CBD Balm

  • Price: $
  • CBD type: full-spectrum
  • Size: 2 oz.
  • Total CBD: 1,200 mg
  • COA: available online

This luscious blend of beeswax and mango butter is infused with high quality CBD hemp extract and loaded with all kinds of fun stuff:

  • jojoba and sunflower seed oils for that classic hydrating balm feel
  • menthol and wintergreen leaf oil, an icy combo that has been shown to help relieve muscle pain
  • capsaicin, which comes from red pepper and has spicy pain-relieving properties

The brand says the mix of capsaicin and menthol makes for a unique cooling/warming sensation. Reviewers say it really does help with chronic joint pain and muscle aches too. Just keep in mind that it may take up to 2 hours to get the full effect.

There are a kajillion different CBD salves, creams, lotions, and balms on the market. This can make shopping a sticky situation. Here are some things to look out for to make sure you pick the best one for you.

CBD type

A little recap:

  • Full-spectrum CBD contains all the compounds naturally found in the cannabis plant, including THC.
  • Broad-spectrum CBD contains the same compounds as full-spectrum, but no THC.
  • CBD isolate is CBD only, baby!

While research suggests that leaving all the cannabis compounds together (aka full-spectrum CBD) could strengthen CBD’s therapeutic effects, there isn’t enough research on athletes to say whether one type of CBD is more beneficial than another. It’s really up to you to decide what you’re comfortable trying.

Type of salve or lotion

Should you go for a salve, balm, cream, or lotion? Is there a difference? Yup!

  • Salves are typically solid and made with ingredients like beeswax.
  • Balms are usually made with similar ingredients to salves but with a higher ratio of beeswax — so they’re even more solid than salves (think: lip balm that’s hard enough to keep its shape).
  • Creams and lotions usually have a thinner consistency — though it ranges — and should rub all the way into your skin without leaving a greasy feeling.

Which one you choose is really up to your personal preference. If you want something that rubs all the way in, you should probably go for a cream or lotion. If you want something that feels like it’s leaving a protective barrier on your skin, salves and balms are a better choice.

Other ingredients

A lot of products have other ingredients that can add to their benefits. Here are a few popular ones we discussed when going through our picks:

  • Menthol and other mint oils (peppermint and wintergreen). ICE, ICE, BABY! These give you that icy feeling a lot of people love, and they’re proven pain relievers.
  • Capsaicin. SPICY! Coming from red peppers, it creates a warming feeling that can also help relieve pain.
  • Arnica. This natural ingredient is known for helping relieve pain.
  • Jojoba, coconut, and olive oils. These happy hydrators often serve as carrier oils for CBD and other essential oils.

If you love that icy feel, look for salves with menthol or other mint oils. But if you hate that feeling, stick to menthol-free products — or even opt for simpler products with fewer ingredients.

Concentration

This is how many milligrams of CBD a product has. There isn’t currently an evidence-based rule to help you decide how much CBD can relieve pain, so it might take some trial and error until you find your sweet spot.

If you’re new to CBD, we recommend starting low and working your way up if you tolerate it without any issues.

Third-party testing and transparency

CBD is a kinda new thing. To make sure you’re getting a quality cream, stick to brands that have been third-party tested and are willing to post the results on their sites (or send them to you if you reach out via email).

If you’re in the mood to be super thorough, you can also make sure that the COA isn’t expired, that the brand also tests for contaminants like pesticides and heavy metals, and that the product’s potency matches (for the most part) what the brand claims.

When it comes to the gels, lotions, and creams on this list, application is super simple. Just apply the recommended dose to the spot that ails ya.

You can also try other forms of CBD like:

Dosage

There’s no specific recommended dosage for CBD. It really comes down to what’s best for you.

A 2011 review found that even high doses of CBD (we’re talkin’ 1,500 mg) are safe even when taken daily. But still, it’s prob a good plan to start slow and work your way up.

Pro tip: Some of the salves on our list have a high-ish CBD concentration. Try half of the recommended amount and see how it feels before you slather it on. A little can go a long way!

Will CBD show up on a drug test?

CBD shouldn’t show up on a drug test. But because full-spectrum CBD products contain trace amounts of THC, there is potential to get a positive drug test result from using them (though the likelihood is pretty small).

If you know you’ll be taking a drug test, you might want to opt for broad-spectrum or isolate products, which have no THC. The only catch is that you should always check the brand’s COA to confirm that no THC was detected during testing.

Is CBD safe?

CBD is generally considered super safe. But still, you have to know what you’re working with. This can be tough since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved only one CBD product. That’s right: ONE (it’s a medication that helps treat two rare forms of epilepsy).

Still, stick to stuff that comes from well-respected brands. And to ensure quality, make sure it’s been third-party tested.

What are the side effects of using CBD?

Since salves are topical, there’s a super low risk that CBD will get into your bloodstream. But you still might notice some harmless (but annoying) side effects like:

  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • drowsiness
  • appetite changes

Reminder: CBD can’t get you high.

Is CBD legal?

Marijuana-derived CBD products are illegal on the federal level but legal under some state laws.

Hemp-derived CBD products (with less than 0.3 percent THC) are legal on the federal level but still illegal under some state laws.

Check your state’s laws and those of anywhere you travel. Keep in mind that nonprescription CBD products are not FDA-approved and may be inaccurately labeled.

Now that you know your CBD ABCs, you can pick the best salve for your sporty spice pains and injuries. With these picks, there’s something for everyone. Just remember, CBD isn’t a cure-all. Talk with your doctor if you have a chronic injury.