The Latest Iffy Wellness Trend Is CBD-Infused Workout Gear

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)
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There’s no shortage of products that are being filled, soaked, or sprinkled with cannabidiol, the non-mind-altering ingredient in cannabis otherwise known as CBD. And the latest trend is sure to appeal to the wellness crowd: CBD-stuffed fitness wear that supposedly soothe your sore muscles before they even start hurting. But while these products are the clearest sign yet of CBD’s mainstream moment, they’re also emblematic of how much of a racket the industry has become in so short a time.

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In August, the New York-based company Acabada Active made its world debut, launching its line of CBD-infused “luxury ProActiveWear.”

The company’s garments range from a $125 sports bra to a $275 jumpsuit, all of which are said to be made in a factory in Portugal that uses 100 percent renewable energy (Acabada happens to mean “finished” in Portuguese). The CBD, however, is 100 percent sourced from the U.S.—a distinction made possible in late 2018, when the country legalized the farming of hemp cannabis crops, which contain little to no THC, the ingredient notorious for making us stoned.

Screenshot: AcabadaActive.com

Up to 25 grams of CBD are said to be packaged in each Acabada piece, thanks to “microencapsulation technology” that traps CBD droplets in tiny containers, according to the company. When wearers exercise and rub against the clothing, the microcapsules break open and periodically douse their skin with CBD. As for longevity, the CBD supply is supposed to last about 40 “high-intensity wear-and-wash cycles,” after which the person will still have a durable piece of gym clothing.

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Acabada, like many purveyors of CBD on the market, is careful not to make overt boasts that its products will treat or cure any condition, lest it run afoul of the Food and Drug Administration’s mandate that CBD-based products can’t be sold with unapproved medical claims. Indeed, there is no such thing as a FDA-approved topical version of CBD. Yet Acabada’s advertisements do tell prospective buyers to “embrace the anti-inflammatory, calming, and muscle relieving benefits your favorite CBD topical provides,” as well as that its CBD-loaded garments will “help fight soreness and promote healing before activity even begins.”

Part of what makes these products so alluring is that there’s a grain of truth to them. There are absolutely medical conditions that CBD (as well as THC and cannabis) can and will likely be proven to help treat. Last year, for instance, CBD was approved as an anti-seizure drug in liquid form to be taken orally. Lab studies of CBD have also found evidence that it could be anti-inflammatory, including on human skin, while some studies in humans have suggested that it could help relieve chronic pain. And you don’t have to go far to find gym rats who claim that CBD makes their workouts easier to handle by speeding up recovery time and alleviating soreness.

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But according to Ziva Cooper, research director of the Cannabis Research Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, the currently available studies aren’t close to confirming Acabada’s marketing.

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“We don’t have good evidence that, from controlled studies with humans, CBD is going to help accelerate the healing process,” she told Gizmodo by phone. “And if CBD does have an impact on healing or muscle soreness, we are in the dark as of yet with respect to how well it gets absorbed by the body when given topically.”

That’s an especially crucial point, since a drug can affect the body very differently depending on how it’s absorbed. A drug in topical form might cause less side effects but only work on where it was applied, for instance. Other drugs need to be very specially designed to actually affect the body through the skin, and won’t work at all otherwise.

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Don’t expect double-blinded, controlled clinical trials from Acabada anytime soon. The company provided Gizmodo with in-house research showing that its products secrete CBD as expected, without causing irritation to its wearers or leaking out in the wash; they also have data showing that their microencapsuled CBD is capable of penetrating the skin, where it’s supposed to interact with the natural cannabinoid receptors found in cells there. Acabada Active CEO Seth Baum told Gizmodo that customer surveys have been largely positive, with 32 out of 38 respondents saying they felt a little or much better after using Acabada products (100 in total were asked to respond).

But according to Baum, proving that the CBD in Acabada products actually does anything for customers wasn’t on their list of priorities before launch. “We didn’t try to validate the concept, the efficacy, of CBD—that’s a little above our pay grade,” he said. “There are people out there that understand CBD, that believe in CBD, that are already advocates. And that’s who we’re going to focus on.”

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Baum’s rationale can be seen from virtually everyone hawking these products, according to Tim Caulfield, a health policy expert in Ontario, Canada who’s more recently taken to confronting the pseudoscience in pop culture.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about reefer madness and harms associated with cannabis,” Caulfield told Gizmodo. “But within a relatively short amount of time, CBD has become a mainstay of this multi-trillion-dollar wellness industry and its benefits are assumed, its efficacy is assumed—it’s embraced this health halo.”

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There’s some room to argue that this mass interest in CBD might do some good, even if a lot of it will end up misplaced. Readers have sent emails to me extolling the benefits of CBD in helping them through their substance-use problems or chronic pain, adding that nothing else had worked. Cooper does think this public attention will help marshal the resources needed for scientists like her to properly understand the effects of CBD in people. It seems that Baum and his company are explicitly preaching to the already converted, regardless of medical consensus.

But what good is hope if it’s ultimately false, or ginned up for the sake of making a buck? And though it’s debatable how many of these products even contain enough CBD to affect the body at all, much less positively, there can be real costs for buying into the CBD hype.

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“People could be using CBD that’s ineffective, instead of getting treatments that are effective. Or they could be using CBD that’s contaminated, which it often is. And if it is effective, then it can be harmful too—nothing is totally benign,” Caulfield noted, referencing documented instances of people taking fake or mislabeled CBD as well as the relatively mild but common side effects experienced by people taking enough CBD to treat their seizures.

While Acabada may have hit the ground running in being the first dedicated CBD clothing company, it’s unlikely to be the only game in town for long. It collaborated with Belgium company Devan to make products infused with CBD, a technology billed as R-Vital that Devan has been advertising since January 2019.

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The rapidly growing cannabis industry as a whole is already projected to earn billions this year, even as the FDA has tried to crack down on the most egregious peddlers of CBD snake oil. And if you’re the patient type, you can also wait for a restocking of CBD-infused socks sold online through Amazon.

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About the author

Ed Cara

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere