Until recently, federal regulation in the U.S. meant that industrial hemp could not be cultivated for commercial use. It wasn't until the 2018 Farm Bill that farmers could grow and sell hemp plant extracts—namely, hemp oil and CBD oil. Since then, these products have hit the market quickly and with much fanfare, but with increasing popularity comes increasing confusion. If you're wondering about hemp, CBD, and the difference between the two, here are the top-level highlights.
Hemp vs. CBD: The basics.
For starters, let's go over the differences between hemp and marijuana. These are two different plants from the same family: Cannabis. Cannabis plants contain a variety of different compounds called cannabinoids, the two most well-known (and most studied) are THC and CBD. THC has psychoactive effects, which means it can get you high and is found in high concentrations in marijuana plants. CBD does not have psychoactive effects, and is instead taken for stress management.*
Hemp oil extract, on the other hand, is an oil that's made from the stalk, and/or flowers of the hemp plant and is rich in beneficial cannabinoid compounds. (It should not be confused with hemp seed oil, an omega-3 rich culinary oil made from pressed hemp seeds that does not contain cannabinoids.) CBD isolate oil, on the other hand, is an isolated extraction of one particular cannabinoid, cannabidiol. So the main difference between hemp oil and CBD oil is that CBD oil contains one type of cannabinoid, while hemp oil has a variety of them.
More on hemp oil.
What it will do is give you a dose of beneficial cannabinoids, including CBD. While CBD and THC are the most well-known cannabinoids, the hemp plant contains more than 140 different cannabinoids in total. In addition to the cannabinoids, hemp is also rich in organic compounds called terpenes that give the plant its smell and taste. Each of these cannabinoids and terpenes is associated with various benefits, like supporting sleep, digestion, and immune function.*
While each cannabinoid and terpene is beneficial on its own, all of these compounds are synergistic when taken together—a phenomenon called "the entourage effect."* That's what makes hemp oil extract so impressive. As a rich source of cannabinoids, hemp oil extract imparts the entourage effect, meaning you benefit from all the plant compounds.
OK, what about CBD oil?
CBD is the isolated extract of the specific cannabinoid cannabidiol from either the hemp or marijuana plant. CBD oil can be purchased in the isolate form, which means all of the other cannabinoids and terpenes have been filtered out or in the broad- or full-spectrum form, which means some or all of the other cannabinoids remain.
CBD oil that comes from the marijuana plant can contain higher concentrations of THC and get you high. This type of CBD oil is only legal in certain places or under certain circumstances, like with a medical marijuana card. CBD oil extracted from marijuana is often marketed as "cannabis oil." CBD extracted from hemp contains less than 0.3% THC and will not get you high.
A good way to tell if the CBD oil you're purchasing is from hemp or marijuana is its availability. Most of the CBD oil that you can buy online and over the counter is the type that comes from hemp since the sale of high-THC CBD oil isn't legal everywhere or outside of dispensaries.
While CBD does have benefits on its own, like stress management2 and enhanced sleep quality3, it's missing out on the synergistic benefits of the other cannabinoids and terpenes.* For this reason, many experts recommend whole-plant extracts rather than isolated CBD products. For more, check out our roundup of best CBD products.
So, what's the difference?
Although they are marketed as being essentially the same thing, hemp oil extract and CBD oil extract do have some important differences. Hemp oil is a cannabinoid-rich extract that contains over 140 beneficial cannabinoids that produce the entourage effect, while CBD oil is an isolated extract of a single cannabinoid.
Decoding the label: What do the different spectrums mean?
Both hemp oil extract and CBD oil often have additional qualifiers, like full-spectrum, broad-spectrum, or isolate to give you an idea of what's actually in the bottle.
Full-spectrum products contain all of the cannabinoids, including CBD, and terpenes in a nice little package—the way nature intended. Hemp-derived full-spectrum extract contains a very small amount of THC (less than 0.03%) and will not get you high. If you're looking to reap the health benefits of the entourage effect, then full-spectrum hemp oil extract is what you want.*
However, be aware that some marijuana-derived CBD oil (or cannabis oil) can be marketed as "full-spectrum CBD oil"; in this case, the product likely contains THC as well and might get you high.
Broad-spectrum CBD products contain all of the cannabinoids and terpenes except THC (and the minor THC cannabinoids, like THCa and THCv). These products are marketed as "THC-free" or "contains 0.00% THC," and while that sounds good on paper, it does diminish some of the health benefits of the plant.
Remember: The small amount of THC (less than 0.03%) in the full-spectrum hemp products won't get you high, but it can enhance the entourage effect, amplifying benefits like stress management.* However, if you're concerned about THC even in small doses, broad-spectrum is a good choice.
CBD isolate is pure CBD. All of the other cannabinoids and terpenes have been filtered out and you're left with only CBD. CBD isolates are often marketed as "pure" or "99% pure CBD."
Remember: While you'll get plenty of CBD from these products, you're missing out on all the health benefits of the other cannabinoids and terpenes.*
Even armed with all of this information, the marketing of many CBD products can still be misleading. So, it's up to you to read labels closely and ask questions. When choosing a hemp-derived product, ask the manufacturer for a certificate of analysis (or "CofA"). A CofA shows the breakdown of all the cannabinoids in the product (and in what amounts) so you can be sure you're getting what's advertised. It's best if the CofA was done by an unbiased third-party lab rather than directly by the manufacturer.
The bottom line.
The difference between hemp and CBD comes down to the cannabinoid content. Cannabinoids are beneficial plant compounds, including THC, CBD, and others. Both hemp oil and hemp-derived CBD products are legal and contain less than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid found in marijuana.
CBD oil is the isolated extract of a single cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD). Hemp oil is a whole-plant extract that contains all of the cannabinoids, including, but not limited to, CBD. When taken together, cannabinoids have a synergistic effect, called the entourage effect.
If you are looking to reap the benefits of the entourage effect, you should try full-spectrum hemp oil. If you are concerned about THC, even in small amounts, you should try CBD oil or broad-spectrum hemp oil. For more on stress management, check out the best supplements to help relieve stress.*
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.