Is Vaping CBD Safe?
The vaping industry has taken the country by storm. In many ways it has phased out traditional smoking methods for nicotine, marijuana, and even CBD. Cigarettes, joints, and cigars have been relegated to a thing of the past—replaced by handheld cartridges and electronic devices. However, what with the serious uptick in news stories of vape users getting sick or even dying from vaping-related illnesses, and the recent FDA bans on flavored cartridge-based products, you might be left wondering “can you vape cbd oil?” or “is vaping CBD safe?”
As to the first question, the answer is yes, CBD can be inhaled through a vaporizer. In regards to the second question, however, the waters become more muddied. While most people can safely vape CBD, they remain far more likely to develop any number of severe health issues resulting from inhalation. Until studies conclusively state that CBD is safe, might we suggest that there are safer, more effective ways to enjoy it.
Below, we’ll discuss the controversy surrounding vaping, the effects vaping can have on the body, and then propose CBD alternatives worth considering.
Is Vaping CBD Safe?
Truth be told, there remains swaths of information we still do not fully know or understand surrounding vaping—whether CBD or e-cigarette products containing nicotine. Because vapes are still a relatively new product, we lack the research necessary to reasonably say what the long-term effects might be. In addition, the dearth of federal regulation and the widespread demand for vaping products has led to all sorts of knock-offs and blackmarket alternatives being sold—many of which contain unknown flavoring agents and potentially harmful additives.
The following are but a few reasons why you should consider an alternative method for administering CBD.
Lack of Regulation
The fight over cannabis legalization rages on. Per Esquire, the state by state breakdown looks as follows:
- 11 states and D.C. allow the sale of recreational marijuana, medicinal marijuana, and CBD.
- 22 states allow for the sale of medicinal marijuana and/or CBD.
- 17 states range from outright opposition to legalization to being currently in the process of legalization.
Due to the fact that there’s no widespread consensus, it’s nearly impossible for the FDA to properly regulate cannabis products, including CBD vape oil. Similarly, hemp-based CBD, which contains less than .3% THC, was only recently made legal last year with the U.S. Farm Bill. As such, regulations are scant and inconsistent if they exist at all. Consumer Report writes:
While the FDA provides some guidance on dietary supplements, foods, and cosmetics, it does not offer similar oversight of vaping products, he says. That lack of regulation on vaping prevents the U.S. Hemp Authority from certifying CBD vape oils, as it does for CBD topicals, tinctures, and edibles.
And this isn’t the only issue that stems from this lack of regulation.
Mislabeling CBD Products
A mounting problem that we’re only recently discovering is that some CBD and vaporizer companies make bold claims, speak in half truths, or flat out lie about their product. As one 2017 JAMA study put it, “Discrepancies between federal and state cannabis laws have resulted in inadequate regulation and oversight, leading to inaccurate labeling of some products.” This study discovered that:
- Approximately 7 out of 10 CBD products did not contain the amount of CBD as advertised on their packaging.
- 42.85% of products contained more CBD than advertised.
- 26.19% contained less CBD than advertised.
- Just 30.95% of CBD products were accurately labeled.
This lack of regulation and frequent mislabeling is especially concerning when it comes to CBD vape pen products since the lungs are incredibly vulnerable organs. And, when you inhale unknown vape products, you put yourself at a higher risk of developing serious health issues. Knowing this, if you must vape CBD—which we advise against—it’s essential that you only purchase CBD vape cartridges from reputable companies that have undergone rigorous third-party testing to ensure that their products are safe and labeled accurately.
Despite such precautions, the problem remains that such companies are few and far in between.
Lack of Research
As mentioned, vaping is a relatively new industry, and hemp-based CBD has only been legal nationwide for about a year. Consequently, there’s a scarcity of clinical research on the effects of vaping CBD, particularly on studies pertaining to the potential long-term effects.
Recent decades have demonstrated the grave consequences of using building materials or ingesting specific substances that we didn’t know enough about. Asbestos once padded the walls, lead lined our water lines, tobacco was freely smoked in restaurants and around children. It took years for us to see the ramifications of such actions.
Now, we look back and proclaim, “How could we have been so naive?!” The same sentiments might be said about vaping in two decades. Currently, we lack the information to confidently state an opinion whether in favor of or against vaping CBD. Long-term studies must be conducted before we can safely say that vaping CBD is a smart idea, especially when we know that there are better alternatives.
One question many people have is, “is vaping CBD bad for your lungs?” The answer to this is—we don’t know, but the limited research says it’s likely. It’s worth noting that such dangers don’t stem from the CBD itself, but rather the substances that are included—whether intentionally or not—in the vape juice mixture. The two primary substances you should be wary of include:
- Cuticle Wax – Cuticle waxes are present on the surface of many plants, including the hemp plant. The wax consists of a layer of oily and fatty lipids that protect the plant. When people smoke cannabis in a bowl, bong, or joint, the wax burns off during the combustion process. However, vaping typically uses much lower temperatures, and these temperatures do not burn the wax layer away. Instead, the wax can collect together and possibly build up in your lungs – potentially causing health issues and other effects.
- Vitamin E Oil – There are many mechanisms of toxicity caused by EVALI. For example, oils/lipids/aerosols (hydrocarbons), heavy metals, oxidized lipids or surfactants, vitamin e acetate, and lipoid am/foam cells.
- Vape Additives – As mentioned previously, CBD vape products may not correctly label their ingredients. Harmful additives or substances could be added without your knowledge or consent—substances that aren’t meant to be combusted. For example, diacetyl, a buttery flavoring agent found in popcorn products, has been detected in several types of vape juices. While safe to eat, inhaling heated diacetyl has been linked to lung irritation and disease.
- The temperature of the vaporizer’s heater coil – If the CBD vape pen has a temperature that is too high (think 446°F or hotter) thinning agents in the oil may break down into carcinogenic aldehydes, which are harmful and potentially cancer-causing, and other toxic compounds. One study on the matter concluded:
- The ingredients in the vape oil – Other concerns you must bare in mind are the various ingredients found in the vape oil you purchase, since what is on the label isn’t always truthful. Harmful additives or flavoring ingredients, high concentrations of THC, and synthetic cannabinoids have all been found in various vape oils, even when they were not listed on the packaging.
- Taking CBD oil sublingually (under your tongue).
- Swallowing CBD capsules.
- Adding CBD oil to a drink or your food.
- Massaging CBD creams into your skin.
You should avoid CBD vape juices that have cuticle waxes and instead limit your selection to juices that have undergone a winterization process—a technique which involves removing some or all of the harmful wax.
In addition to diacetyl, there are dozens of other potentially harmful ingredients that only become a health concern when they are heated and then inhaled.
How to Make CBD Vaping Safer
If you choose to vape CBD, it’s important that you purchase only the highest quality vape products. Two things that you must consider when you purchase vaping items include:
In addition to applied power, the composition of e-liquid, and the devices’ ability to efficiently deliver e-liquid to the heating coil are important product design factors affecting coil operating temperature. Precautionary temperature checks on e-cigarettes under manufacturer-recommended normal use conditions may help to reduce the health risks from exposure to toxic carbonyl emissions associated with coil overheating.
The various types of coils (dry, wet-through-wick, full-wet) make it difficult to say what is safe and what is not. That said, generally speaking, look for vaporizers that have temperature readings or several temperature settings and then stick to the lower settings.
One way that you can protect yourself is by making sure that the vape oil company participates in independent third-party testing. This testing can confirm the true ingredients and the potency of the cannabinoids found in the oil.
Alternative Methods for Taking CBD
Vaping is certainly not your sole option when it comes to using CBD. There are many other ways that you can take CBD, including:
Inhalation of CBD is the fastest method because the CBD enters your bloodstream through your lungs. This speed factor likely contributes to the reason for the high volume of people who choose to vape CBD. However, the risks detailed above outweigh the benefits of feeling the effects faster. You can still expect to feel relief through CBD within 30-60 minutes by taking CBD under your tongue or by adding a few drops to your food or drink.
For Now, Avoid Vaping CBD
Ultimately, further clinical research must be conducted before we can conclusively know whether there are harmful effects caused by vaping and what those effects may be. Vaping CBD very well could be safe, but we simply do not know enough about it to say that with confidence.
What with the lack of research about vaping and health problems, it may be best to find another method for taking CBD. While there are many benefits of CBD oil, not all products are created equally. Therefore, if you want to find out more about safe CBD alternatives, check out our CBD blog or talk with one of our experts from Plant People today.
Emily Spring is the Director of Marketing at Plant People. A longtime proponent of balanced living, she has enjoyed over 8 years driving growth in the lifestyle, health and wellness sectors with deep experience in functional solutions for optimizing anyone’s everyday life.
Reviewed by Minchul An
Minchul An is a Clinical Cannabis Pharmacist and MTM Specialist.
Vaping CBD carries unique risks
People like vaping because it’s a smokeless, convenient, and fast-acting way to consume pleasure-inducing chemicals including THC and nicotine. It’s also potentially quite dangerous—and that’s also true when it comes to vaping cannabidiol, the popular cannabis-derived compound known as CBD. In fact, thanks to a regulatory no-man’s-land, a consumer craze, and manufacturers who dilute extract with oils better suited for salad dressings, CBD vapes are uniquely risky.
As of Oct. 10, more than 1,200 cases of a mysterious vaping-related illness, and 26 related deaths had been reported to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is advising consumers to “consider refraining” from vaping altogether. Of the 771 patients the CDC previously reported data on, the majority reported vaping THC and/or nicotine. Only about 17% reported having vaped a CBD product, but there is still good reason for CBD enthusiasts to take note—and even to be especially cautious.
“There’s no regulations.”
“There’s no regulations, there’s no one telling companies what to do,” says Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the trade group US Hemp Roundtable. “I don’t want to say it incentivizes bad behavior but it certainly doesn’t crack down on bad behavior.”
While no single brand, product, or ingredient has been identified as the cause of the 1,000-plus cases of vaping-associated pulmonary injury—first called VAPI and now renamed EVALI—we do know that many of the affected patients were vaping illicit, and therefore unregulated, THC products. Tests showed many of those contained vitamin E acetate, an oil derived from vitamin E—which is considered safe for skincare but not for inhalation.
We can’t reasonably expect dealers of illegal cannabis vapes would test their products for safety or share ingredient lists with customers. The thing is, consumers can’t necessarily expect that sort of testing or transparency from manufacturers of hemp-derived CBD vapes either—even if they’re buying them from vape shops, specialty stores, or websites that don’t appear to be breaking the law. The category is completely unregulated. And reckless players are not limited to labeling their products as THC. In September, the Associated Press tested 30 vape products marketed as CBD from brands that authorities had flagged as suspect, and found that 10 contained dangerous synthetic marijuana and many had little to no CBD at all.
While the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been struggling to research and regulate both CBD and vaping separately, the agency has allowed manufacturers to flood the market with both types of products. In the FDA’s eyes, none of these products are legal, as they have not been evaluated or regulated for their safety. And where these two categories overlap in CBD vapes is a grey area that’s ripe for exploitation at the risk of consumers’ health. According to analysts at Cowen and Company, that grey area was worth an estimated $40 million in sales in 2018.
Meanwhile Miller, along with many others in the cannabis and hemp industries, is eager for lawmakers to create legal frameworks for their products. They point to the reported illnesses from black-market vapes as proof that a legal, regulated cannabis market is a safer one.
A brief legal primer
The difference between cannabis and industrial hemp in the eyes of US law is the content of THC, the intoxicating compound in cannabis: If a plant contains more than 0.3% THC by dry weight, it’s cannabis, and still considered federally illegal despite the many states with legalized recreational and medicinal use. If it’s less 0.3% THC by dry weight, it’s considered hemp, which is being incrementally regulated by government agencies. The 2018 Farm Bill removed industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, essentially declassifying it as a dangerous controlled substance of no medical use, clarifying its status as an agricultural product, and making it legal under federal law under some circumstances.
In May of this year, the FDA held a public hearing where more than 100 stakeholders—patients, manufacturers, and researchers among them—testified about their experiences with CBD. Now, the industry is waiting for a timeline for regulation, which was expected this autumn, but has yet to appear. In the meantime, the FDA considers interstate sale of CBD as a food additive or nutritional supplement (ie., all those candies, canned sodas, and tinctures) to be illegal. But it’s not enforcing the law so long as operators in the estimated $590 million market for hemp-derived CBD adhere to the broader rules for the categories they fall in, whether that’s food, supplements, or cosmetics.
But here’s where it gets complicated, because the FDA hasn’t regulated vaping yet.
“You get kind of a double grey area here,” says Miller. “CBD is considered illegal by the FDA, and vaping is now viewed pretty hostilely by the FDA. It really is a great unknown … Without the FDA engaged formally, it makes it a lot tougher for consumers to figure out what’s a good product and what’s not.”
You might be safer with weed
If you’re in a state where weed is legal, you might be safer smoking (or vaping) it, by going to a licensed dispensary for a high CBD-strain or vape that’s subject to the same regulations that cannabis is. In states like California and Oregon, where cannabis is regulated by state agencies, products with THC are subject to testing for contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals, solvents, and mold-related toxins. Again, hemp-derived CBD products are currently subject to … nothing.
“It’s the wild, wild west,” says Aaron Riley, the CEO of the Los Angeles-based cannabis testing lab CannaSafe, of the CBD landscape. Riley says that many of the CBD products CannaSafe tests would fail if they were subject to the same exacting standards as products containing THC—but they’re not. “You don’t have to get licensed. You don’t have to do any type of testing at all.”
Which isn’t to say that no one is testing CBD products. As the Hemp Roundtable’s Miller said, “some very well-meaning companies will try to promote the best practices.”
Some of those companies are those that come from the cannabis industry, and therefore have years of experience with extraction and testing.
The northern California-based company Bloom Farms—which has been in the cannabis extracts business since 2014—started selling hemp-derived CBD products online in January, and puts them through the same testing processes as their products with THC, which are under the strict purview of the California Bureau of Cannabis Control. Customers can also download a certificate of analysis from Bloom’s website that provides test results from a third-party lab, but that’s far from standard in the CBD space.
An oily situation
And of course, not all CBD vapes are created equal. Many extracts sold in vape pens and cartridges are diluted with other substances, such as medium-chain-triglyceride, or MCT, oils—fats that are frequently derived from natural sources such as coconut oil. While these are known to be safe to eat—and are often found in CBD tinctures—there’s little if any evidence that it’s safe to vape them, despite some manufacturers touting them as an all-natural ingredient.
“It’s totally horrifying to me,” says Katie Stem, an herbalist who cofounded the Oregon-based cannabis company Peak Extracts in 2014, and has researched plant medicine and chemistry at Oregon Health & Science University. “People should not be cutting [cannabis extracts] with any sort of culinary lipid.” Stem says that with an extraction process using carbon dioxide as a solvent, it’s possible to create a vape-able distillate containing only plant material, without any additives.
Quartz contacted two manufacturers of CBD vape pens that contain MCT oil, and neither has replied to our messages. Bloom Farms’ unflavored CBD vape contains no MCTs or other cutting agents. The company’s flavored CBD vape pens contain trace amounts of MCTs—less than 0.3% according to a company representative—and the company is currently phasing them out.
Neal Benowitz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied the pharmacology of e-cigarettes, says that CO2 extraction process is “pretty clean,” and the results are well-known.
“People have been vaping them for a long time, and haven’t had a problem,” he says. “That seems to be relatively safe, and that’s a solvent that dissolves them. The question now is, when you start messing with that process, what are you adding to it?”
Benowitz said the effects of vaping MCT oil, however, is an understudied area.
“I’m concerned about it,” he says. “But I don’t have any data.”
Stem speculates the tendency to mix cannabis extract with MCTs might come down to greed or ignorance, and a misunderstanding of the term “cannabis oil,” which is something of a misnomer since CBD and THC extracts are not fatty lipids at all.
“They think, ‘Oh, it’s an oil. I can mix it with another oil and that will thin it and it will make it easier to flow into our vape pen,’ and it’s not harmful because we’re already smoking oil. Well, no. Cannabis extract is not an oil,” says Stem.
Kathryn Melamed, a pulmonologist at University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center who has seen patients affected by vaping, agrees that smoking oils can be dangerous, and notes that the vaping-related illness bears some resemblance to lipoid pneumonia—a direct reaction to lipids or oils in the lungs.
“While one type of substance—like vitamin E or maybe some other oil—can be ingested and metabolized through the gut, the lung just doesn’t have that ability,” she says. “So then it becomes much more dangerous, and a particle that the lung wants to try to fight and expel. And that’s the inflammatory response that you get.”