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What is the difference between Full Spectrum, Broad Spectrum, and CBD Isolates?

When I first started researching CBD, there were a lot of terms associated with it that I didn’t understand. Words like “full spectrum,” “broad spectrum,” and “isolates.” What did they all mean?

Technically, all of these terms relate to hemp extract and not to the cannabidiol (CBD) itself. However, they are important to know and understand so you can choose the product that’s right for you.

In this article, we’ll start by examining CBD itself, and then provide an overview of how products derived from hemp extract (including capsules, oils and tinctures, topicals, and more) are differentiated by these terms.

What is CBD?

If you want the skinny on CBD, you can check out our article on the difference between hemp oil and CBD. It provides a much more comprehensive background.

As a quick refresher, cannabis sativa (often shortened to “cannabis”) is the Latin name for the plant from which CBD is extracted. This plant contains at least 113 different chemicals which act on the body’s Endocannabinoid system. These chemicals are called “cannabinoids.” Each of them interacts with cannabinoid receptors in different ways.

One of these 113 cannabinoids is called cannabidiol (CBD) and is abundant in the strain of cannabis sativa that we refer to as industrial hemp.

So why does all this matter? Is one better than the other? Let’s take a look.

Different types of CBD Products

Full Spectrum Hemp Extract

This is arguably the most common type of hemp extract, and the most often associated with CBD products. What does “Full Spectrum” mean?

Full spectrum is just another way of saying that the full extract, with all of its inherent cannabinoids (and terpenes and flavonoids), was used to make the product.

Pros of Full Spectrum

Many who are proponents of the healing and medicinal properties of cannabis products, including CBD, advocate that full spectrum products are better. Why? Because they contain almost all of the natural nutrients and chemicals produced by the plant.

They will cite studies that show that the reported benefits of CBD, including anti-inflamatory effects, are augmented when all of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids are used together.

Intuitively this makes sense since these items work on the same type of receptors in different ways. If you subscribe to this theory, then full spectrum products are the most effective type of CBD supplement.

Cons of Full Spectrum

The downside of full spectrum is that industrial hemp, while a different strain of cannabis sativa than marijuana, still has a small amount of a cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabinol (better known as THC.) It is the chemical that, in much higher concentrations, causes the psychoactive effects from marijuana use.

What’s a small amount? Well, to be legally classified as industrial hemp, the THC content of the plant must be less than 0.3% (three-tenths of one percent.) Conversely, the average THC content of marijuana is ~10% (30 times as high as the maximum allowable for hemp) with some concentrated marijuana extracts over 50% THC.

Thus, unless you are taking a very high dosage of CBD, you’re unlikely to experience psychoactive effects from the minute amount of THC present in a full spectrum product. However, the THC is still there and potentially detectable in a drug test even if it’s not enough to get you high.

CBD Isolates

CBD isolates are just what they sound like – a substance that is almost completely pure cannabidiol that has been isolated from all of the other chemicals and substances in hemp extract.

While there are many different ways to create CBD isolates, the most common way involves a centrifuge. The end result is a white powdery substance that is nearly pure CBD.

Pros of CBD Isolates

There are a number of benefits to CBD isolates.

First, they are almost completely pure. Most products advertise that they are 99% to 99.9% CBD, which means you get rid of any detectable amount of THC and other cannabinoids.

Second, CBD isolate powder is generally cheaper than other forms of CBD on a price per milligram basis. CBD isolate can be added to a quality carrier oil to make your own CBD oil. You can also cook with it if you know what you’re doing. (CBD should not be heated, so make sure you know what you’re doing if you choose to cook with any type of CBD product.)

Because there are no detectable amounts of THC in a CBD isolate, it’s also a great choice for individuals that are concerned about passing a drug test.

Broad Spectrum Hemp Extract

Broad spectrum CBD products are almost identical to full spectrum. Almost.

The one thing they don’t contain is THC.

There are theoretically two ways to create a broad spectrum CBD product:

  • Manually add CBD isolate and all of the non-THC cannabinoids to a carrier oil
  • Remove only the THC from full spectrum products

I love the idea of broad spectrum hemp extract, but I have a hard time getting comfortable with either of the above methods for creating it.

The first option where you manually add the cannabinoids (minus THC) to the carrier oil seems challenging. Nature always does it best, so with a full spectrum extract you’re getting cannabinoid ratios that are natural to the plant. It seems like a huge hassle (and very error-prone) to try to take a CBD isolate and add scores of other cannabinoids in a healthy ratio.

The second option of removing only the THC from full spectrum extract makes the most sense to me. There’s only one problem: I cannot find any source that tells me how extracting ONLY the THC is accomplished. This should be straightforward science, not a trade secret.

Pros of Broad Spectrum CBD Products

There are two major pros with broad spectrum, and both of them relate to the absence of THC.

First, you are theoretically getting all of the benefit of a full spectrum product minus any synergies between THC and the other cannabinoids.

Second, the absence of detectable THC dramatically reduces the risk of failing a drug test or inadvertently experiencing psychoactive effects when taking high doses of CBD.

Cons of Broad Spectrum CBD Products

Assuming you don’t want THC in your product (and most of our readers do not) then there is little in the way of downside for broad spectrum products.

The real question is how true to a full spectrum product (minus THC) are the broad spectrum products on the market today? We don’t have a good answer for that yet. If you have some insight to share, please do so!

Of course you also won’t get any synergistic benefits of the trace THC in working with other cannabinoids, but that is likely to be negligible.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

As with any dietary or nutritional supplement, it’s always a good idea to consult your doctor or a trained medical professional. It’s also important to keep in mind that the information in this article should not be considered medical advice.

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