By Jenny Menzel
If you’ve shopped around in search of the best CBD products, you’ve likely seen or heard the term “third-party tested” thrown around a few times. What makes this phrase so important in the world of CBD?
After the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill legalized cannabidiol (CBD), the CBD industry grew faster than it could be regulated by the FDA — allowing gaping space for low-quality CBD products to sneak into the market.
The Challenges of Finding Pure CBD Oil
Because of the lax laws surrounding this highly touted natural remedy, many CBD manufacturers were free to test and verify their products with first-party testing. Inspired to ride the latest lucrative health wave, suppliers of these CBD producers were incentivized by the ease of selling any product with the words “hemp” or “CBD” on the label, even if those labels weren’t entirely accurate. One study analyzed 84 online CBD products and found only 31% of them were accurately labeled regarding CBD potency — some THC levels tested above the legal limit of 0.3%.
While most CBD companies adhere closely to the legal THC limit, there are many other components that third-party labs look at to determine a product’s safety and ability to perform. To prove their products are of high quality, reputable CBD manufacturers invested in hiring certified third-party labs — which would offer lab reports and a certificate of analysis (COA) — assuring their customers they were buying quality CBD.
So what does third-party testing look for? Here are the six main components independent labs measure to verify CBD products are accurately labeled, safe, and effective.
What Does Third-Party Testing Look For?
1. Cannabinoid Content
By far, the most common test run by an independent third-party lab is to measure the levels of cannabinoids. High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC testing) is the standard test to measure the potency of not only CBD and THC but also the concentrations of up to 120 cannabinoids — CBC (cannabichromene), CBG (cannabigerol), and CBN (cannabinol), to name a few. This is the most critical test to determine the legality of the product, as all CBD products need to have less than 0.3% THC not to cause a psychoactive response resulting in a “high” feeling. Strains of plants need to be inspected to correctly label whether a product uses full-spectrum CBD, broad-spectrum CBD, or CBD isolate. Most importantly, an accurate cannabinoid profile allows consumers to measure optimal dosing for the targeted ailment.
2. Terpene Profiles
Terpene profiles are more pertinent when deciphering the aromatic differences between cannabis strains containing higher THC levels, but terpene profiles are important for non-psychoactive CBD as well. CBD relies on terpenes in full-spectrum CBD to improve absorption of the other cannabinoids, leading to what’s called an “entourage effect” — a phenomenon where the many individual hemp components work together to produce therapeutic benefits. Because terpenes don’t make as significant of an impact in CBD products as they do with the vast range of products you might see at a high-end marijuana dispensary, many CBD companies won’t request this report from a third-party lab.
3. Presence of Heavy Metals
It’s not enough to see the word “organic” or “natural” on the label of your CBD product to trust purity anymore. Because cannabis grows in the ground as a bioaccumulator, industrial hemp plants can pull out nutrients from the soil, where they settle into the plant as it grows. With no guaranteed gate to stop toxins like heavy metals from settling into hemp crops, soil contamination is a common problem most natural supplement companies struggle with controlling, even when precautions are taken. Third-party labs test CBD for common heavy metal contaminants using mass spectronomy (MS testing) — looking for the presence of harmful metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium — all of which can cause inflammation and destroy cells.
4. Microbial Contaminants
Other toxic entities that independent labs will test for in CBD products are microbes like mold, bacteria, fungus, and parasites. These biological contaminants can infect hemp plants and survive the extraction process — contaminating the final CBD product you use. How a person may react to the contaminant varies, but common allergic responses may be triggered. Naturally-occurring carcinogens called aflatoxins are a real concern here as well, as they are cancer-causing, poisonous toxins produced by particular molds, such as aspergillus. If your product has received a COA, rest assured that it passed the PCR test as well, ensuring your freedom from the risk of insidious pathogens infecting your CBD.
5. Pesticide Toxicity
U.S. grown industrial hemp is often grown in more controlled environments, limiting the possibility of not only the need for pesticides but the cross-contamination that can come from neighboring farms spraying their crops with pesticides. For example, China has very few regulations regarding their agricultural industry, which leads to a higher contamination possibility of pesticides and heavy metals, one study found. Opting for a more controlled environment like what is found on hemp farms in the U.S. can decrease the chances of pesticide toxicity.
6. Extraction Solvents
There are different ways to extract CBD out of a hemp plant, some less harmful than others. While all extraction methods risk some level of residual solvents left in the final product, CO2 extraction is the safest — using new technology to reduce the use of toxic solvents significantly. Other methods involve using chemicals such as ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, butane, and even propane, all of which are highly flammable fire accelerants — probably not the ingredients you had in mind when opting for a natural remedy. Most third-party labs will test for the presence of residual solvents and include the results on the lab report, ensuring CBD products are free from these harmful compounds.
The Big Picture
The quickest way to be a smart CBD shopper is to look for a company’s third-party tested lab report. The most regulated third-party labs are certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and are hyper-focused on ensuring safety, accuracy, and purity. Lab equipment isn’t cheap, nor is the cost of labor and experience in the field of CBD, which may be what fuels the fire of transparency. If your CBD company is an open book, chances are they have a quality product they are proud of, and their customers will trust. Having accurate labels not only boosts a company’s reputation, but it also helps consumers be able to appropriately determine which CBD product and dosage is correct for their ailment in need of remedying.
- Ann, M., Greg, J., Amid, B., & Richards, N. (2020, September 12). Why is CBD Third-Party Testing Important? Retrieved December 15, 2020, from https://iscbdforme.org/cbd-third-party-testing-why-is-it-important/
- Bonn-Miller MO, Loflin MJE, Thomas BF, Marcu JP, Hyke T, Vandrey R. Labeling Accuracy of Cannabidiol Extracts Sold Online. JAMA. 2017;318(17):1708–1709. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.11909
- Wei, W.; Ma, R.; Sun, Z.; Zhou, A.; Bu, J.; Long, X.; Liu, Y. Effects of Mining Activities on the Release of Heavy Metals (HMs) in a Typical Mountain Headwater Region, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2018, 15, 1987. doi:10.3390/ijerph15091987
Jenny Menzel, H.C., is a Certified Health Coach and branding specialist for various alternative healthcare practices and volunteers her design skills to the annual grassroots campaign, the Lyme Disease Challenge. Jenny was diagnosed with Lyme in 2010 after 8 years of undiagnosed chronic pain and fatigue and continues to improve by employing multiple alternative therapies, including Āyurveda, Chinese Medicine, and Bee Venom Therapy.