Shopping for CBD: Full-Spectrum, Broad-Spectrum & Isolate

It isn’t often that the public gets to see a new legitimate industry grow from the ground up. With the legal status of hemp changing rapidly, more and more people are becoming aware of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis-derived substances, especially CBD. 

A bewildering array of CBD oil, tonics, topicals, and many other products is now widely available — and it can be hard to know where to start looking. In a brand-new business, standardization of terms is loose and unreliable. And it doesn’t help when the brands selling the products are often a little confused themselves.

It’s important to know a few things so you can shop with confidence, get the best value for your money, and choose the right products for you. Let’s start with what cannabinoids are & how they work.


Both plants and human bodies produce cannabinoids (chemicals named after the cannabis plant, but which are found throughout the natural world). Plant cannabinoids all have a similar structure, but each variation has a different effect on our neurochemistry and body systems. The most common cannabinoids are THC and CBD, but cannabis plants also produce many other varieties of cannabinoids, along with terpenes, phenolics, and related chemicals, in smaller quantities.

CBD in Isolation

CBD isolate can be either synthesized or extracted from the cannabis plant (it’s not always obvious which). It’s exactly what its name suggests — pure CBD, with no other plant compounds involved. It’s odorless, tasteless, and completely non-psychoactive. It’s also cheap, simple to buy online, and easy to add to oil, lotion, edibles, and anything else you can think of, which is why it ends up in so many CBD products you find on the shelves.  

And it just isn’t as effective as whole-plant CBD — either full- or broad-spectrum. Since it’s missing all those synergistic compounds, the health benefits of CBD isolate will be limited by definition.

Broad-spectrum — available everywhere, without the high

By now, CBD’s therapeutic qualities are well-known. CBD has great potential to ease pain, relieve inflammation, and regulate mood — and as we’ve seen, it works best in good company. Broad-spectrum CBD products use whole-plant hemp/cannabis extract, with the full complement of terpenes, phenolics, and other substances that help CBD do its work — but the psychoactive THC is removed as a final step.

Broad-spectrum CBD won’t get you high. You should also be able to pass a drug test if you’ve been taking it — but only if you are purchasing from a reputable brand that offers a Certificate of Analysis or other laboratory test to prove there is no THC. Broad-spectrum CBD is the best way to go for most people, especially those who live in a place where THC is still illegal, or who have a sensitivity to THC’s perception-altering effects.

Full-spectrum — why you might want to add a little THC

THC is the legendary psychoactive component of cannabis, the chemical that gets you high, and the one that’s still broadly illegal. If you live in a state where cannabis is legal, though, there’s an argument for seeking out therapeutic CBD products with small amounts of THC included. THC can relieve pain, nausea and muscle spasms better than CBD. An altered mindset isn’t necessarily enjoyable if only want therapeutic benefits — but CBD works to modulate THC’s potentially negative effects. Products with a high ratio of CBD to THC may be ideal for patients looking for a more dramatic result than with CBD alone. 

Potential negatives: don’t use full-spectrum CBD if you have to take a drug test, if you have to drive, if you’re uneasy about feeling “altered”, or if legal prohibitions are a concern where you live. 

 And remember… there’s no standardization of terms in the CBD industry. Some companies label products “full-spectrum” even when they’re not. Only licensed dispensaries in legal states can sell anything with THC, so if you’re not buying at a licensed dispensary, that product probably isn’t “full-spectrum.”

The Entourage Effect

Cannabis is greater than the sum of its parts, and “the entourage effect” refers to the interactions of all the cannabinoids, terpenes, phenolics, aromatics, and fatty acids naturally found in the plant. When researchers have isolated individual components, such as THC or CBD, they’ve found that they just don’t work as well as whole-plant extracts, because the array of cannabinoid compounds and their interactions appear to work together to prime the body and make it more receptive to beneficial effects. (This is a complicated mechanism; here’s some further reading).

Know What You’re Getting

The cannabis industry is still largely self-regulated, and some companies may be riding the wave of marketing hype and playing fast and loose with definitions. Whenever possible, stick with trusted manufacturers who have a proven track record of consistency and transparency.

Do your research before buying, and when in doubt, contact the company — if they’re doing their jobs, they should be able to provide you with a Certificate of Analysis (COA) or other laboratory test results that will verify what is — and isn’t — in the products they’re selling. This is useful not only for determining what kind of CBD they’re using, but also for assuring you that the product is free of heavy metals, known toxins or other adulterants, so you can enjoy your purchases in good health.