If you’re taking CBD, or considering taking it, chances are you have one of the many conditions that this cannabinoid has been known to treat, such as anxiety, chronic pain, inflammatory disease, or insomnia.

Or you may decide to take if for one of the preventative health reasons people have been using it for, like its neuroprotective properties.

Either way, you are likely somewhat of a health conscious person and will want to ask all the right questions before purchasing a CBD product. Understanding how CBD oil is made can empower you as a consumer. You’ll know what questions to ask, what to look for on a label, and even understand how some industry terms are exploited as selling points. 

If a CBD seller or manufacturer cannot answer or refuses to answer these questions (see below), it’s best just to pass on that purchase. Transparency of a CBD product should be provided from seed to shelf.

Not All CBD Oil is Created Equal

CBD is not yet regulated for quality in the U.S. And although states have varying regulations for growing industrial hemp for CBD, there are currently no federal regulations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations, however, are expected in 2020.

In the meantime, it is up to 1) farmers to grow hemp for CBD responsibly, 2) CBD manufacturers to do quality control, 3) CBD sellers to know the products they peddle, and, unfortunately, 4) for consumers to do their due diligence when purchasing CBD.

As you can imagine, a lot can slip through the cracks when the system of checks and balances is almost completely voluntary. That’s why it’s important to have your own checklist of questions. Not only could you be wasting money on a poor quality product that is not what it claims to be and will ultimately not help you, but it could actually do you harm.

This should not deter anyone from enjoying the benefits of CBD. There are many manufacturers and retailers who go to great (and expensive) lengths to prove that their products are high-quality.

This article is written with the intention of empowering consumers with the ability to separate the good, the bad, and the ugly with just a few simple questions.

Here’s a list of questions that consumers should ask when considering a CBD product:

  1. Where is the hemp sourced? This question is the MOST IMPORTANT. Industrial hemp is a bioaccumulator, which means it absorbs material from the soil around it. If not cultivated responsibly, pesticides, heavy metals, or contaminants of any kind can end up in your CBD.
  2. How is the hemp grown? Where hemp is grown is a great indicator of how it may be grown. We’ll get into these details below.
  3. What is the extraction method of the CBD?
  4. Is your CBD hemp-derived?
  5. Is your CBD third-party lab tested? (Also a super important questions.)

As we run through how CBD oil is made, you’ll see how these questions should be answered, why the answers are significant, and, most importantly, you’ll be able to recognize the red flags that will keep you from buying an inferior product.

Hemp Field
A field of industrial hemp growing in the wild

How Hemp for CBD is Grown

As a quick refresher, marijuana and industrial hemp are two different types of cannabis plants. Marijuana can have anywhere from 5-30 percent THC—the cannabinoid that gets you high—with lower amounts of CBD. Hemp, however, has higher amounts of CBD and contains only .3 percent or less THC, a non-intoxicating amount.

For the sake of this article, we’ll be discussing industrial hemp used for CBD because most CBD products are derived from hemp, it is legal in the U.S. (thanks to the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills), and hemp cannot get you high. (If the product is what it says it is. Read further to learn how more than the allowed amount of THC is sneaking into some CBD oil, and how you can avoid these products.)  

Hemp for CBD is grown from seeds or clones. A clone is a copy from a section of the parent cannabis plant that can sprout its own roots. It will have the characteristics of the parent plant. So, if a parent plant is female, the clone will be female—a characteristic significant in cultivating hemp for CBD because typically only female plants are used.

Female plants are desirable when growing industrial hemp intended for CBD, because they produce more CBD. When male plants are introduced with female plants, more seeds and less CBD are produced as a result.

This is why it is important that farmers do not grow hemp for CBD near male hemp plants or marijuana plants. The pollen can drift as far as 10, possibly up to 20 miles. The THC content can be affected by this as well, and, suddenly, an innocent crop of hemp can exceed its legal definition, and will be useless for CBD … if detected.

Some states require testing for THC beyond a certain period of growth. If unacceptable CBD or THC amounts (that is, not enough CBD or too much THC) are not caught by the grower or the state, it could still be detected by a third-party lab. But that’s only if the manufacturer pays to have that done. We’ll get to that …

Harvesting Hemp for CBD

Hemp meant for textiles can be harvested with machines, but harvesting for CBD extract is typically done by hand. Next the plants are hung, dried, and cured in very well ventilated barns. After this process, flowers are removed and clipped into small particles. Specialized equipment removes any remaining stems and seeds.

Then it’s on to the next step: extraction. But first …

Where Hemp for CBD is Sourced Matters

Again, hemp is a bioaccumulator. In China, some farmers will use industrial hemp to clean pesticides and heavy metals out of the soil, and then sell the contaminated hemp to CBD manufacturers. Consumers must be aware of these practices and products.

Start by only buying CBD that is made with hemp sourced from the U.S. or Europe.

The U.S. hemp farming industry is still small, but there’s an increasing number of high-quality farms doing things the right way. To ensure your hemp isn’t grown in or around dangerous contaminants, look for certified organic, organic compliant, eco-farmed or food grade hemp. (Keep in mind, the USDA only recently started allowing hemp farmers to certify their crops as organic, so there’s not a lot of those labels out there yet.)

The more established European hemp industry is well-regulated with rigorous product testing standards.

Hemp Seeds
Industrial hemp seeds

How Was Your CBD Extracted?

Once the industrial hemp has been harvested and properly cured in a well-ventilated barn—carefully watched so that no mold can take hold—it’s time to extract the oil.

People have been practicing this at home for some time. Think of how THC from marijuana (and possibly other cannabinoids) can be infused into butter to make pot brownies. Extracting CBD from hemp by heating it in olive oil is a popular and easy method for home remedy-type folks.

But these methods produce low yields of heavily diluted CBD.

A commercial CBD product should be safely extracted, and the end result should be free of solvents and contaminants, and should have the amount of CBD (and other cannabinoids if full or broad spectrum) that it claims.

It should not have more than .3 percent THC. Vigilant cultivation and safe, expert extraction can assure all of these and more, before the product is even made.

So Which Extraction Methods Are Safe for CBD?

Unfortunately, some extraction processes involve toxic chemicals. There are companies selling low-quality CBD that use solvents like Hexane and Butane. That’s why it’s important to know how your CBD was extracted.

According to the experts at Ananda Hemp, while no extraction method is perfect, how CBD oil is extracted should be safe and nontoxic as well as effective at capturing all the synergistic compounds found in the hemp plant. These beneficial phytonutrients include cannabinoids, terpenes, polyphenols, and flavonoids.

There are two safe and organic solvents used in extraction: ethanol and supercritical CO2.

Ethanol Extraction

  • Ethanol is simply alcohol made from plants.
  • In an ethanol extraction, organic food-grade ethanol is passed through hemp flower and brought to a very low boil.
  • The FDA classifies ethanol as safe for human consumption.
  • It yields the highest volume of cannabinoids and phytonutrients—best for full spectrum CBD oil.
  • A sophisticated ethanol extraction process can effectively remove unwanted materials such as plant waxes and chlorophyll efficiently without the heat exposure that is used in other extraction methods.

Supercritical CO2 Extraction

  • At normal temperatures and pressure, CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) behaves like a gas. When it is cooled and pressurized, it reaches a state that is somewhere between a gas and a liquid. This intermediate phase is called a supercritical state.
  • Supercritical CO2 can pass through the hemp plant matter as a gas, while mixing with it as a liquid as well. This allows it to pull out essential trichomes, terpenes and/or waxes. The remaining solution (of supercritical CO2 and plant compounds) is then passed through a separator, where it is broken down into its constituent parts.
  • This is the same extraction process used to decaffeinate coffee and tea.
  • In terms of toxicity, it is much safer than petroleum-based extraction methods (see below).

Another method, petroleum-based extraction, uses petroleum-based solvents, such as butane and propane to extract the CBD. The problem with this extraction process is that it involves high heat and high pressure and is highly combustible and highly toxic, which rules it out as a viable extraction option for the health and therapeutic industries.

There is a debate between ethanol and supercritical CO2, which is marketed as “cleaner” and “solvent free” compared to ethanol extraction. The truth is, both are safe when done right.

And supercritical CO2 is not truly a “solvent free” method. After the extraction, it requires a winterization process, in which a solvent, usually ethanol, methanol or isopropanol, is used to remove unwanted waxes. The extracted solution then has to be put through a distillation process, during which it is exposed to high temperatures.

So, don’t let the marketing hype about supercritical fool you. Both supercritical CO2 and ethanol are safe and acceptable extraction methods which you should look for in a CBD product.

CBD lab testing
Lab testing of cannabis oil extractions

Third-Party Lab Testing

Third-party lab testing is the post-production process which ensures that your CBD product is what it claims to be.

According to Consumer Reports, in the U.S., even Colorado doesn’t require testing of a finished CBD product. Third-party testing is expensive, but manufacturers who care about transparency will go the extra mile.

The thing you will ask to see is a COA, or certificate of analysis. Here’s what these certificates show:

  • Total cannabinoid content (CBD, THC, and all the other cannabinoids like CBG, CBC, and CBN). Also, how many active cannabinoids are present. In a non-intoxicating product, you always want 0.3% THC or less.
  • Terpene breakdown (what other good plant compounds are contributing to the overall effects of your CBD).
  • The product is free of residual solvents (from extraction), heavy metals, toxins, pesticides or bacteria.

Being an Awakened CBD Consumer

“Stay with a product that is properly tested and that has a manufacturer with experience in hemp and food production,” advises award-winning chemist Dr. Emek Blair. His company, Valimenta, a proprietary liposomal vitamin manufacturing labs, is firing on all these cylinders, simply because he has the years of experience.

His Puffin Hemp Liposomal CBD formula even has a unique credential—It is the first, and currently the only, hemp to be certified Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP).

Most manufacturers that have a history of experience, Good Manufacturing Practices, and proper product testing, will be transparent. You will not have to search too hard for this information. They know it gives them an edge in this CBD landscape.

And retailers should have all of this knowledge about their brands at the ready. They’ll often have relationships with the manufacturers. Some of them will have even done site visits to labs and farms to see where the hemp is sourced and how it is produced.

If a CBD retailer doesn’t know these things about their products, it’s best not to risk it—your money, your time, or your health.