I receive an average of three PR emails per day that include the acronym CBD, and I'm sure many of you who don't write about beauty and wellness as part of your job have also found those three letters to be pretty inescapable of late. The self-care boom, combined with the recent legalization of industrial hemp farming in the United States, and growing cultural interest in all things cannabis, have coincided to make the non-psychoactive, cannabis-derived chemical compound the trendiest ingredient to hit the beauty and wellness space in recent memory. The substance, believed by researchers to be capable of helping with everything from anxiety to skin inflammation to epilepsy, can be found in everything from tinctures and vape pens, to lattes and seltzers, to massage oils and face serums. It's expected to surpass $20 billion in U.S. sales by 2024.
Rather than a wealth of great options for consumers, this explosion — which experts say has only just begun — has really only created more confusion around what CBD does, if anything, and whether or not it really belongs in every single thing we consume or put on our skin.
Launching Wednesday, Prima is a new CBD company that aims to take away some of that confusion, along with several of our modern-day physical and mental ailments. It's starting with three products: a daily supplement, a nighttime face oil and a therapeutic skin butter, that will soon expand into a range of other treatments. The company stands out in today's crowded CBD landscape for a few reasons: One is its founders: There's CEO Christopher Gavigan, who co-founded The Honest Company with Jessica Alba; COO and fellow Honest Company alumna Laurel Angelica Myers; and Chief Education Officer Jessica Assaf, a health and cannabis activist, Harvard Business School alumna and longtime advocate for clean products.
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Despite the few controversies and challenges The Honest Company has faced in recent years, it's a large company that had its "unicorn" moment, and the Prima founders' backgrounds in clean beauty and home goods give the company a sense of legitimacy, which is helpful in such an murky, unregulated space as cannabis. It's also helpful in enticing investors: In February, the founders raised $3.275M in seed funding, led by Lerer Hippeau, with participation from Greycroft, Mark VC and others — none of whom had invested in the CBD space before.
"You invest in founders, you invest in their vision," Gavigan tells me over coffee with Assaf in Los Angeles, where Prima is based. "Their excitement for us and our vision and belief in the science, coupled with our brand-building expertise that we have, and then the consumer demand [for CBD] — all that triangulates into a lot of great possibility."
It did take some convincing, though. "It really required us decoupling marijuana from hemp, because these investors, they didn't know they could even legally invest in such a thing," explains Assaf.
Like The Honest Company, Prima purports to only use "clean, safe, nontoxic" ingredients. Everything is claimed to be gluten-free, cruelty-free, vegan, clinically and dermatologically tested and doctor-formulated. And in the interest of transparency — and also perhaps to reassure those who now associate The Honest Company with false ingredient claims — Prima has made third-party test results for all of its products available to the public. There's even a QR code on the packaging that leads smartphone users to a batch report. "What we say on the label is really what's inside," assures Gavigan.
"We feel the responsibility to set new standards for the industry because there's no regulatory body yet overseeing the safety, the potency, the purity of these products; you're finding that when products are being taken off the shelf for third-party testing, they aren't what they say they are," adds Assaf. "Everything we've done is to be that trusted source." Prima is also registered as a Public Benefit Corporation, which formally institutionalizes the brand's commitment to drive social and environmental impact in addition to profit, and has pending B-Corp status.
Prima products use broad-spectrum hemp extract — meaning it contains CBD along with all other cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, except for THC — and a lot of the founders' time and resources have been spent locating the best sources of hemp (they landed on a farm in Oregon) and delivery methods and quantities so that customers really feel the benefits. Assaf says that, with CBD at large, the factor that brands aren't taking into consideration enough, and that consumers are largely misinformed about, is bioavailability — or the proportion of the substance that is actually absorbed into the bloodstream, and thus able to have an effect. According to her, with most CBD tinctures — one of the most common delivery methods for the ingredient — we can only absorb around 10% of the cannabinoids present, maximum.
"The efficacy depends on the surrounding ingredients and the carrier ingredient," explains Assaf. "If you're putting a carrier extract in oil and you're charging all this money for it and [the customer is] only absorbing 10%, max, of the CBD, you're not going to feel anything and you're going to give up. That's a huge risk for us. Because of the lack of innovation and sophistication, a lot of people aren't absorbing what they think they are."
To maximize bioavailability, the cannabinoids in Prima's CBD supplements are wrapped in a lipo-spheric structure (a term you might recognize from those cult-beloved vitamin-C supplements). According to Assaf and Gavigan, by surrounding the cannabinoids with a fat layer, they bypass your liver and digestive tract and are thus absorbed more fully to hit the body's "receptor sites" like your organs, your central nervous system and your skin. The ingredients accompanying the cannabinoids also matter. "You can't just lump raw [ingredients] into a formulation and think they're gonna work; they really have to be synergistic blends," explains Gavigan.
But that does not answer the larger question of: Say it is in a bioavailable format with synergistic ingredients, what does that CBD in general, and specifically in supplements and topicals like those Prima is selling, actually do? The answer is...complex.
Fundamentally, the founders of Prima believe — and there is research that shows — that the body already has an endocannabinoid system that, for many of us, is depleted; and that ingesting or applying cannabinoids can return the body to something of a state of equilibrium — and that could apply to everything from your skin to your stress or pain level. (For more background, I'd recommend this New York Times Magazine article and this perhaps more digestible Bustle article.)
Specifically, they're focusing on three categories: beauty, body and supplementation. To begin with, supplementation includes The Daily, a vegan softgel blend they see as a modern answer to the multivitamin. It is meant to be taken every day. It's $45 for a 30-day supply. "I like taking it every day because I feel like it takes my edges off; it focuses me, it calms me, it brings me to a greater state of balance," says Gavigan. Adds Assaf, "We believe that, with cannabinoids, the benefits are cumulative so we believe it is beneficial to take it every day." In addition to helping with stress, pain and anxiety, the founders believe it can also boost the immune system when taken regularly.
Then there's Skin Therapy, a $38 cream that feels like a rich butter and can be used anywhere on the body or face to lock in moisture. Finally, there's Night Magic, a $88 face oil filled with therapeutic ingredients (in addition to CBD) meant to rival the likes of Vintner's Daughter and improve "radiance, tone and balance."
"It was an opportunity for us to create what we think is the best facial oil in the market and then add cannabinoids to drive the efficacy," says Gavigan.
Skin care is the area in which, at least for me, CBD is most confusing. The therapeutic claims brands put on their labels are often purposefully vague, in part because making specific ones could still violate FDA regulations. The issues Gavigan would recommend Prima's products to treat are redness, irritation and dehydration.
"Skin issues are a function of the balance of the skin and so the underlying root cause is an imbalance at the cellular level; the CBD is coming in and balancing at the cellular level," he explains. "If you balance the cells then the body can go in to heal and detoxify and really do its functions."
It's not the sort of clear, easy-to-understand function we've come to associate with popular beauty ingredients like, say, salicylic acid and vitamin C; but if actually effective, it has the potential to do more by addressing deeper issues.
Prima already has a number of other product drops in the works, including powders mixed with nootropics and adaptogens meant to boost brain function, a bath bomb, and another skin cream meant to address aches and pains. One of the company's biggest goals is to really normalize cannabinoids, and much of that comes down to the packaging, which has a high-end feel without looking inaccessible or succumbing to any major millennial marketing tropes. It also comes down to education: Before putting any products up for sale, Prima launched as an educational content platform with articles about health — mental and physical — and the real benefits of CBD. It could additionally come down to retooling the retail strategy, which is currently direct-to-consumer online.
"We want to open up the market; we want to reach the audience that doesn't feel like cannabinoids are for them yet," explains Gavigan. "So much of that is the normalization of product on shelves next to other brands they know and love and what that does from a validation and credibility perspective."
He says he's gotten inbound requests from retailers, and is in talks with them. As it expands, he and Assaf see Prima as sitting at the intersection of beauty, wellness and healthcare. "We're taking this small misunderstood hemp category and move it into the health section — that's what it is, combining beauty with the efficacy of health care and the allure of wellness," says Assaf.