CBD, or cannabidiol, is dominating headlines these days. This cannabis compound isn’t psychoactive and the CBD store I walked into had options that could be ingested, dropped under the tongue, smoked, or absorbed through the skin. Proponents claim it can reduce anxiety and inflammation, and even calm seizures.

But if you’re confused about CBD and what it does, you’re not alone. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know before you try it.

What is CBD?
CBD is one of many molecules found in marijuana and hemp — both members of the cannabis family. The reason CBD is so user friendly is because it doesn’t have the same mind-altering effects as THC — the part of weed that gets you high. If you’re ordering a CBD product online or buying it in a state that hasn’t legalized pot, you’re probably bypassing the marijuana plant completely, says Dr. Andrew Kerklaan, a chiropractor who sells CBD-focused pain-relief products.

“What people are often looking for when they say CBD is something from zero percent THC and derived from the hemp plant,” says Dr. Kerklaan. “If you don’t have THC in it, there’s less regulatory burden.”

How does CBD work?
Both THC and CBD act on the body’s endocannabinoid system, which regulates pain and inflammation. Everyone is different, but the basic gist is that when you absorb CBD through the skin or orally through an oil or edible, it targets receptors in this network. However, since CBD isn’t regulated by the FDA, there’s no agreed-upon effective dose and it’s hard to know if the labels are telling the truth about how much CBD their products contain.

The cinnamon-flavored CBD oil I picked up from a store in Madison, Wisconsin, says it delivers about 7 mg per dose per drop under the tongue. Dr. Kerklaan’s creams have 120 mg to 180 mg per 2-oz bottles, which roughly translates to 4-6 mg per application. He said his consumers have reported positive results from CBD for relieving muscle tension, chronic pain, and anything that has to do with inflammation.

“Your endocannabinoid system is throughout your body and is part of your immune response,” says Dr. Kerklaan. “You can imagine if you can impact an overall regulatory system, you can have an effect on many things.”

It might be especially beneficial for women’s health
While the FDA recently approved a CBD-containing drug to treat epilepsy, research on the cannabis compound is still sparse. But since CBD is touted for its ability to reduce inflammation and relieve chronic pain, it could be helpful in providing relief for those with conditions like endometriosis. I have endometriosis, and the oil I tried before my last period did take some of the edge off my most severe cramping. If PMS causes you anxiety, CBD also has the potential to help with your mood.

Is it legal?
Yes, mostly. Whether you can try CBD legally depends on where you live, how it was sourced, and whether the compound was derived from marijuana or hemp. If you live in a state that has legalized marijuana for recreational use, then you’re good to go no matter which plant the CBD came from. While most hemp-derived products are legal, the laws in certain states can be confusing.

If you’re interested in trying CBD, check your state’s laws and talk with the sellers to see where their products came from. And to get your money’s worth, make sure the label clearly states how much CBD is concentrated in each dose.

“Some companies talk about CBD or hemp oil and they’re not really talking about the amount of CBD in them, they’re talking about the amount of oil,” says Dr. Kerklaan. “You’ve got to look at the packaging closely.”

Keri Wiginton is a writer and photographer focusing on issues related to women's health, mental well-being, and feminism. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Austin-American Statesman, Tampa Bay Times and Houston Chronicle. Follow her work at www.keriwiginton.com or on Twitter at @keriphoto.