Though there are hundreds of quality products available, the CBD market is flooded with scams, frauds, misleading products and just plain bad ideas.
Currently, the CBD market is completely unregulated. Almost anyone with some capital can get into the CBD business, and there’s been a glut of raw materials (raw hemp extract) available at falling prices over the past year, especially if you’re not too picky about the quality.
The result? Consumers struggle to know whether the CBD products they’re buying are legitimate or effective. Between completely fake products, and those that are misleadingly advertised, lots of people get turned off of CBD entirely, even if they might benefit from it. That’s unfortunate because, while there are a lot of overinflated claims out there, there’s ample evidence that CBD helps a lot of people.
While we normally focus on the positive aspects of the industry, and the highest quality CBD products, we also think it’s important to warn our readers … and put pressure on the hemp industry to do better.
Table of Contents
- Why are CBD scams such a big problem?
- CBD-infused clothing, pillows and bedsheets
- “Immune Boosting” claims about CBD & CBD hand sanitizer
- Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) and CBD
- Fake CBD Products
- Lead-filled & Impure CBD Supplements
- How do we fix this? A call for transparency & quality
Why are there so many CBD oil scams?
Once an obscure supplement of dubious legality, CBD has gone completely mainstream. A survey published in August 2019 by Consumer Reports suggested that 40% of people in their 20s have tried CBD, and even 15% of people 65 or older have tried it. Many more people are curious about CBD, or at least have heard of its potential. And an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill fully legalized hemp-derived CBD products, removing much of the remaining reluctance consumers had about trying it.
Unfortunately, when you combine unprecedented popularity with a lack of regulations, it leaves the market open for grifters, scammers, and a lot of people just looking for a quick buck. We frequently hear from readers that have purchased or considered purchasing scammy products from fly-by-night CBD brands.
At the time we’re writing this, the FDA is preparing to present it’s guidelines for consumer CBD products, after receiving approval from the White House. However, we expect these guidelines to be imperfect in their first draft, and require a lot of tweaking and negotiation with the industry before the market is truly stable and safe.
Beyond that, greedy brands are forever looking for loopholes that let them continue to exploit undereducated CBD buyers. The FDA simply does not have the resources or the power to shut down every problematic or misleading product on the supplement market — powerful lobbyists have ensured that.
In other words, even FDA regulations won’t make all these CBD scams and bad ideas disappear.
1. Scam: CBD-infused pillows, mattresses and clothing
A CBD-infused mattress. It’s something that would have seemed like a joke a few years ago, that someone might have used to make fun of the tendency to stick CBD in everything.
Now it’s a reality. A very expensive reality! In a way it’s almost ingenious: mattress brands struggle to differentiate themselves from one another, since most use almost identical technology. The same is true for CBD oil. So why not combine the two?
Except it’s completely ridiculous. In the case of a mattress, consumers are meant to believe that CBD inside it can not just penetrate your skin, but any bedsheets, mattress covers, and pillowcases you might use. Even if the products did work as advertised, they’re costly and short-lived. One brand charges $60 for a CBD-infused pillow and $900 (or more) for a twin mattress. For that price you could buy a regular mattress online and still have money left over for multiple bottles of high strength, high quality CBD tincture.
Speaking of which, you can simply look at a bottle of tincture to see how much you have left. How would you know when the product has become “depleted” and what are you to do with them then? Throw the whole mattress away?
CBD-infused clothing or plastic “CBD bracelets” are a similar scam, with many of the same problems. Even if these products did work, they seem to encourage a culture of disposability and conspicuous consumption that we can hardly afford during our climate emergency.
2. Scam: Making ‘immune-boosting’ claims and selling CBD hand sanitizer during a pandemic
We covered this topic in more detail in our article on CBD and the novel coronavirus.
While some (very preliminary) research that suggests certain cannabinoids might be beneficial in treating some symptoms, there’s no scientific evidence that everyday use of over-the-counter CBD supplements will do any good.
We think CBD can be extremely helpful during this stressful time. Cannabidiol can ease symptoms of anxiety or stress, help us sleep better, among other ways it might benefit us. But it’s very, very unlikely that it can keep you from getting sick if you’re exposed to the virus.
We’re revisiting it here because these shady products didn’t disappear as shortages on regular sanitizer ended and we learned more about COVID-19. Instead, they’ve proliferated.
Target sells an 8oz bottle of hand sanitizer for $5.00. That’s the fancy kind with added nice-smelling essential oils. Meanwhile, a typical 8oz bottle of CBD-infused hand sanitizer sells for $19.99. Even “on sale” for $9.99, it’s still twice the price.
It’s true that CBD hand sanitizer is unlikely to hurt anyone, as long as it’s made using safe ingredients. It’s still a waste of money. Frankly, it seems like an excuse to sell surplus CBD during a pandemic.
All that aside, a number of reputable CBD brands now make regular hand sanitizer available for cheap or for free. We applaud those companies for taking a small step that may actually help folks stay healthy.
3. Bad Idea: Multi-level marketing (MLM) CBD brands sell the American dream, but can they deliver?
Multi-level marketing CBD brands make our industry look bad.
If you’re wondering what multi-level marketing (also known as direct sales) is … remember Amway or Tupperware Parties? Maybe someone in your family sells essential oils or tights from a popular MLM brand. Now apply this same business model to CBD.
These brands sell a product, but they’re also selling the idea of becoming a salesperson. People pay a fee to join and then more money to buy CBD supplements to sell. Members are encouraged to not just sell supplements, but also get friends and family to join too.
The MLM business model is not ethical or sustainable.
Unfortunately, there’s only so many people in the world who can, or should sell CBD. Mathematically speaking, it’s impossible to keep recruiting forever. In almost every MLM, members spend far more money buying products than they make selling them, or from recruiting others. Many MLMs resemble cults more than they do legitimate businesses, putting immense pressure on members to keep spending money instead of leaving.
Let’s be clear: we’ve no reason to believe that MLM CBD brands are creating bad CBD products. Many of them seem to buy quality raw materials and perform the kind of quality testing we look for in a brand. We simply don’t believe their profit model is ethical, or sustainable.
This is likely to be the most controversial section of the article. MLM CBD brands are commonplace. Some belong to influential lobbying groups in our industry. We think it’s important to say this anyway. Amid record-breaking unemployment, we think it’s irresponsible to sell people this very expensive but elusive dream of financial freedom.
If you want to learn more about MLMs and how they hurt their members, we strongly recommend the first season of The Dream podcast.
4. Fraud: A flood of fake CBD products on Amazon & beyond
Hardly a week goes by without us hearing from someone asking about a CBD brand. Many of them seem reputable, and it’s just impossible for us to review every single brand out there. But some of them are clearly frauds.
Brands that spam people by email to buy questionable products. Some don’t even have a stable website. They just put up a crude storefront, make a quick profit and disappear.
The problem is widespread. Even Amazon.com is full of fake CBD products. Most of them are simply hemp seed oil, a substance that is nutritious but lacks the concentrated cannabinoids found in a hemp extract supplement. Many of these fake CBD products claim to contain literally impossible amounts of CBD, like 50,000 milligrams inside a one ounce bottle.
You also see these kinds of CBD products in gas stations, pipe shops, we even heard of a food truck that also sold CBD on the side. You should leave selling CBD to the experts: experienced, reputable brands that prioritize transparency.
Even major CBD brands sometimes go wrong. One study by Leafly found numerous products that under-delivered on their CBD. A few didn’t contain any CBD at all. Some had too much!
We only partner with CBD brands that offer third-party lab results, so customers can verify the product’s contents. Whenever possible, we’ve also run our own third-party lab tests on the CBD products we review. You’ll find the results in each review.
5. Fraud: Lead-filled CBD products put consumers at risk
And then there’s products that can actively harm consumers. In July 2020, the FDA recalled a lengthy list of CBD products, for both humans and animals, because they were high in lead. Unfortunately, there’s probably other harmful products out there that slipped through the cracks.
The FDA recalled dozens of lead-tainted CBD products for both humans and animals in summer 2020.
Hemp is known to be especially effective at absorbing heavy metals and other toxins from the soil. That’s great if you want to clean up pollution, but bad if the hemp you grow is going to end up in people’s bodies. Lead can also end up in products in other ways, both through other tainted ingredients and during the manufacturing process.
Lead exposure is serious. According to the FDA, “lead is poisonous to humans and can affect people of any age or health status,” but is especially dangerous to vulnerable populations like children, pregnant people, and people with pre-existing conditions. Lead builds up in your system over time, so even low-level exposure can be dangerous down the road.
While most people selling lead-tainted products probably aren’t doing so maliciously, there’s simply no excuse for putting your customers at risk of serious health problems, even permanent neurological damage.
CBD brands and buyers must put quality and transparency first
It’s true that the FDA may soon impose new regulations on the CBD industry. But that won’t absolve the industry of the responsibility to put extra care into making the best possible supplements.
Anytime a product becomes as popular as CBD, there’s a great temptation to use it to turn a quick profit without worrying about the quality of your product. With increasing competition and a saturated market, there’s a lot of pressure to cut corners.
The CBD industry can and must do better. Hemp returned to the U.S. starting in 2014, and it’s been fully legal since the end of 2018. When it comes to CBD, it’s past time to develop best practices and stick to them rigorously.
In the long term, we are sure that the brands which prioritize quality, transparency and care for their customers will survive, while others fall away.
What consumers can do to hold hemp brands accountable & stay safe
CBD consumers need to keep being careful and doing their research before buying any products. We suspect this will remain true even after the FDA releases their guidelines for CBD.
Fortunately, there are resources available — like our website — to help you make more informed purchasing decisions. If you use these tools, you’ll be able to avoid CBD scams and find the right, safe CBD product for your needs.
Here’s a small selection of some of the resources we’ve created to help you make informed purchasing decisions:
- Our complete introduction to CBD outlines a lot of vital, basic information on this supplement.
- Here are 5 things to look for when buying CBD.
- This video will help you understand how to read a CBD label.
- Finally, our beginner’s guide to CBD offers many tips for getting started.
One way to help improve the CBD industry is to “vote with your money”: only buy quality products from brands that make it easy to find information or get more help.