How To Read a Certificate of Analysis (COA) -- PT. 1 (2 part series)

Cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, is showing up in all kinds of products these days. Figuring out which products are best, however, is challenging for consumers and it’s hard to know the differences between products. Is there actually CBD in what you’re buying? If so, how much? And how can one be sure it’s safe to use? 

Copy of a certificate of analysis with CBD products laying on it

Before CBD can be added to any product, it has to be extracted from the hemp or cannabis plant.  The difference between cannabis and hemp is the amount of THC, the intoxicating component in the plant; plants with THC content in excess of 0.3% are considered cannabis, while those with THC levels below that percentage are called hemp.  CBD is the non-intoxicating cannabinoid, meaning it does not have an effect on state of mind and is believed to be helpful with anxiety reduction, pain relief, and a host of other benefits.  The extraction process generally employs the use of solvents like propane, ethanol, and butane - none of which you want hanging around in your tincture or topical. As an agricultural product, the soil the plant is grown in could also contain residual pesticides or heavy metals which can later be absorbed by the plants and show up in your CBD product. Whether extracted from cannabis or hemp plants, the same contaminants can be, and sometimes are, found in products, often at higher concentrations than what was in the original plant due to the extraction process.

An increasing number of brands are testing their CBD infused goods in an effort to make them free from these toxins and safe for use.  How can you be sure that your chosen product is one of the safe ones? Notwithstanding the lack of requirement, it’s still highly recommended that you choose brands that test for the array of potential contaminants, such as residual solvents, residual pesticides (many of which are no longer legal for use in consumable products), and heavy metals like arsenic or lead. Potency testing is also relevant in determining  how much CBD is actually in your product, either confirming or disproving product label claims. Testing laboratories provide a manufacturer with a “Certificate of Analysis” (COA) listing their findings.  Although these reports aren’t always available or referenced on the product label or website, manufacturers should be able to provide one when asked. 

Person in lab pouring purple liquid into beaker

What should you be looking at on a COA?

Potency – How much of the extract is actually in the product?  Some products list how much and others do not, and the usefulness of the quantity could vary by type.  The effects of CBD in a facial product may be different than those in a tincture to be ingested.

Heavy Metals – the four metals that are most commonly linked to negative health problems are lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium.  All extracted CBD should be tested for these and results should be below the “action limit,” which is how a laboratory determines if a product passes or fails. Each metal has a different allowable amount, and a product has to pass all four tests in order to be deemed safe for consumption or use.   

Pesticides – The list of pesticides tested for is state-specific. California requires cannabis to be tested for 66 pesticides, with each having different action levels.  Although ingestion or use of something with small amounts of pesticides may not cause immediate illness or disease, we know that long-term use is linked to a variety of diseases and serious illnesses.  When looking at a Certificate of Analysis, you can see what the actual content of each pesticide is.  If the report does not show “FAIL,” a consumer can assume that the product is free from unsafe levels of these compounds. 

Scientist looking into microscope

Solvents or Residual Solvents – When was the last time you added butane to your coffee or morning cereal?  Right, never. It shouldn’t be in your tinctures and topicals, either.  The levels of these solvents which have been deemed “safe” for use creates the cut-off for a lab to determine whether a product is okay to use.

Once you’ve ascertained which brands are committed to this level of quality and purity, you’ll know you’re using products that are safe and effective. 


Written by: Shuli Suman, Owner/Founder of True Science Laboratories, LLC in Los Angeles, California

Written by Svn Space

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