The Difference Between CBD Oil and Hemp Oil

CBD Oil vs Hemp Oil

As cannabis products get more popular, you may see stores and websites starting to carry items labeled “hemp oil,” CBD oil”, “CBD hemp oil,” and other terms that clearly have something to do with cannabis, but what? Are these all the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? Which one suits your needs and interests?

Don’t worry, there are straightforward answers to all these questions. Read on.

Cannabis 101

Let’s start by exploring what cannabis actually is. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, so for clarity let’s start at the beginning.

Varieties of Cannabis

The word “cannabis” usually refers to either of two species of plants, technically called Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The two are closely related, a bit like, say, horses and donkeys. Both plants have been domesticated, with some strains bred to have very high levels of THC, the substance responsible for the famous “high.” Actually, most such recreational strains are hybrids between the two.

But there are strains of Cannabis sativa that have been bred instead for their fiber and for their edible seed. These strains are called hemp. They have so little THC that using them to get high is impossible, but they do have high levels of another substance, CBD, that shows some promise for medical use.

So, hemp and recreational cannabis are a bit like, say, a mule and a thoroughbred racehorse. They’re both cannabis, but not interchangeable!

The Anatomy of a Cannabis Plant

All cannabis plants produce a large number of substances collectively called cannabinoids, including both CBD and THC. The leaves have some cannabinoid content, but the concentration is highest in the female flowers.

In a recreational cannabis strain, much of that cannabinoid content will be THC, which can be used for either recreational or medicinal purposes. Hemp strains, in contrast, have only trace amounts of THC, but have larger amounts of CBD.

Once the flower is pollinated, cannabinoid production falls off, and seeds develop. Those seeds have very little cannabinoid, so they have no medical or recreational value, but they make very nutritious eating. The oil extracted from those seeds is hempseed oil, or just hemp oil.

Two Oils, One Plant

So CBD and hemp oil both come from hemp, which is a kind of cannabis, but they come from different parts of the plant and have very different uses.


CBD is used to treat a number of medical conditions, including anxiety, epilepsy, pain, and loss of appetite. Scientific research on most of these treatments is still inconclusive, but suggests they may work. In the meantime, users are trying a variety of CBD products, from lattes to face creams, on their own, sometimes reporting startlingly good results.

But “CBD” can actually be any of several different products, depending on how the substance is extracted and process. First, let’s look at extraction.

  • Hydrocarbon extraction was the first method developed and involves soaking the plant matter in a solvent like butane. It’s very low-cost, but it’s inefficient and can leave harmful residues in the product. It’s rarely used, now.
  • Lipid extraction uses a fat, such as coconut oil, instead of a solvent. It’s safe, but rarely used.
  • Ethanol extraction also extracts chlorophyll, meaning the product tastes bad unless it’s filtered. The filtered oil is safe, but less concentrated
  • Carbon dioxide extraction uses liquid CO2 instead of a solvent. It’s safe and very high-quality, but technically difficult and therefore expensive.

By any method, the extracted oil does not contain CBD, but rather an acid, CBDA, that must be chemically converted by heating. CBDA does not have the same effect on the body, but there are some suggestions that it has its own health benefits, so some manufacturers mix raw and heat-treated oil.

The oil can then be sold, or it can be frozen in alcohol to remove waxes, lipids, and other substances. Purified oil is more concentrated, but some claim that it lacks the full range of potential health benefits.

It is possible to further process the oil to yield pure CBD, a tasteless, white crystalline powder. The powder is water soluble, so it can be added to foods and beverages or processed into other products. It’s also unambiguously legal, something that may not be true for all CBD products in all jurisdictions. But unfortunately, some beneficial substances might be lost in the process. It’s not “full spectrum.”

Some manufacturers add CBD powder to a carrier oil (sometimes hemp oil) and sell it as full-spectrum CBD oil. Buyer beware.

Hemp Oil

Hemp oil, like several other plant oils, makes an excellent skin moisturizer and is a very good source of healthy fats, including those also found in fish oil supplements. If you want to avoid fish for whatever reason, hemp oil is a great alternative. It has a low smoking temperature, and so should not be used for cooking, but it’s a good option for salad dressings, dips, and spreads. The flavor is distinct, but not over-powering. It’s also available in capsules.

Hemp oil for internal consumption is generally cold-pressed and unrefined. That means the seed is cleaned and then crushed, without the use of heat or solvents. The oil then drains out, is filtered, and treated with nitrogen to remove dissolved oxygen that could cause spoilage. And that’s it. The minimal processing preserves the flavor, nutrition, and color of the oil, but it has a short shelf-life and must be refrigerated after opening. 

Hemp oil used in cosmetics is typically refined, meaning bleached and deodorized, to improve shelf-life.

CBD Oil vs. Hemp Oil: Keep in Mind

Unfortunately, the terms “hemp oil,” “CBD oil,” and even “cannabis oil” (properly a high-THC product) are often used interchangeably. Some vendors even seem unaware of the difference. The important thing to remember is that these are different. If you know which one you want, figuring out which one the vendor is talking about is easy.

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