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What Are Terpenes? Why Are They Important?

The terpene content of the CBD oil you’re using matters.

This large and diverse group of compounds offer a myriad of health benefits.

Here’s everything you need to know about cannabis terpenes.

Article By
Justin Cooke , last updated on September 4, 2021

The distinct smell of cannabis plants comes from a series of compounds produced in the resin of the plant called terpenes.

Terpenes are abundant throughout the plant kingdom — they’re responsible for the aroma of citrus fruits, lavender, nutmeg, mint, lemongrass, and so much more.

There are thousands of these unique chemicals, each with its own distinct flavor and effect profile.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about cannabis terpenes. We’ll cover what they are, what benefits they offer, and what other plants produce them.

This is a big topic, so feel free to jump around.

  • Table of Contents

What Are Cannabis Terpenes?

Terpenes are produced in the same glands that make CBD and other cannabinoids. They’re stored in the sugary trichomes that develop on the flowers and leaves of the female cannabis plant.

Terpenes are responsible for the aroma of the herb. Some terpenes smell like citrus fruits or cinnamon; others like mint or lavender. They make up the largest portion of the cannabis plants essential oil — which contains terpenes, alcohols, sesquiterpenes, and other aromatic molecules.

There are hundreds of different terpenes in the cannabis plant, each with a unique impact on the body. Some inhibit inflammation, others alleviate pain or nausea.

The Benefits of Cannabis Terpenes

Each terpene in the cannabis plant has its own set of benefits. Some terpenes are sedative (such as myrcene or humulene), others more stimulating (such as terpinolene or limonene).

Many of these terpenes are also the active ingredient in other medicinal plant species. For example, pinene is a terpene found in both cannabis plants and pine trees. It’s involved with the powerful antibacterial and antifungal benefits of both plants.

Examples of terpenes with different benefits:

  • Sedative Terpenes — linalool, myrcene, nerolidol
  • Anti-inflammatory Terpenes — bisabolol, borneol, linalool, myrcene, pinene, terpineol, nerolidol
  • Uplifting Terpenes — geraniol, pinene, limonene, valencine
  • Anti-anxiety Terpenes — caryophyllene, myrcene, nerolidol
  • Analgesic (painkilling) Terpenes — bisabolol, humulene, caryophyllene
  • Antimicrobial Terpenes — ocimene, pinene. Terpineol, nerolidol

Why Do Cannabis Plants Make Terpenes?

Plants make terpenes and other volatile compounds for a few different reasons. The most common is to resist being eaten by insects or animals, to attract pollinators, to protect the plant from intense UV exposure, to ward of bacterial or fungal infection, or inhibit the growth of competing plants (allelopathy).

In cannabis plants, the terpene content has evolved through selective breeding. Plant breeders select which traits will continue on into the next generation. This has dramatically altered the course of evolution and there are now countless strains of cannabis, each with differing terpene profiles.

For example, plant breeders may want to create a strain with a lemony aroma, so they will select only the plants that have this lemony scent to carry on into the next generation. The terpene associated with this lemon aroma is limonene. So plants that result from this selective breeding process will have a much higher limonene content than normal.

Most people refer to the essential oil fraction of cannabis as the terpenes — but there are actually several other classes of chemicals contained in this fraction as well. The entire volatile fraction of compounds is called the essential oil.

Terpenes make up the largest portion of the essential oil, but there are also compounds grouped as alcohols, phenols, esters, aldehydes, and more.

Types of compounds in the essential oil of cannabis:

  1. Terpenes — simple molecules consisting of a hydrocarbon with a functional group attached (ends with “ene”)
  2. Sesquiterpenes — a type of terpene with multiple functional groups (ends with “ene”)
  3. Alcohols — simple molecules with at least one hydroxyl group (ends with “ol”)
  4. Phenols — a complex alcohol with powerful antioxidant effects (ends with “ol”)
  5. Oxides — compounds with an oxygen group attached (ends with “ole”)
  6. Aldehydes — compounds with a carbonyl group (ends with “al”)
  7. Ketones — compounds with a carbonyl and oxygen (ends with “one”)
  8. Esters — acidic compounds with a O-alkyl group attached (ends with “ate”)

Third-Party Testing & Terpenes

Any reputable CBD brand will provide third-party testing for its products. This involves sending a sample of every extract the company produces to an independent lab. This lab will then verify the sample by running its own set of tests.

One of these tests involves assessing the terpene content of the sample CBD extract. It shows the concentration and ratio of the most predominant terpenes in the sample.

We can use this information to estimate the type of effects that particular extract might produce.

Here’s an example terpene test from Endoca:

You can see from the test that this particular sample is highest in limonene and a-pinene. We can estimate from this test that this oil is going to have a more uplifting, antidepressant, and energizing effect profile.

Here’s another sample from Nuleaf Naturals:

This test shows the most recent batch is highest in b-caryophyllene, a-bisabolol, and a-humulene. This suggests this oil is most likely going to have a stronger anti-anxiety and analgesic effect compared to other CBD oils.

Most Common Cannabis Terpenes

There are well over 100 different terpenes produced in the cannabis plant, only 17 of them that make up the majority of the terpene profile in most cannabis strains.

Here, we’ll cover each one in more detail.

Terpene NameTerpene BenefitsAroma
BisabololAnalgesic, Antispasmodic, VulneraryFloral
BorneolAnticancer, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-CoagulantMinty
CampheneAntioxidant, Anti-Inflammatory, AntifungalPungent, Musky
CaryophylleneAnalgesic, Anti-AnxietySpicy or Peppery
CarenePromotes Bone Healing, Anti-InflammatoryCitrus, Pineapple
EucalyptolBronchodilating, Anti-PhlegmMinty
GeraniolAnticancer, Anti-InflammatoryFruity, Citrus, Watermelon
HumuleneAnti-Inflammatory, Appetite-SuppressantWoody, Spicy
LimoneneUplifting, Energizing, AntidepressantCitrus
LinaloolSedative, RelaxingFloral
MyrceneCalming, SedativeMusky, Cardamom, Earthy
OcimeneAntifungal, Antiviral, Anti-InflammatoryWoody
PineneAnti-Inflammatory, Neuroprotective, Antioxidant, AntimicrobialPine
TerpineolAntioxidant, Anti-Inflammatory, AntimicrobialFloral (Lilac)
TerpinoleneAnticancer, AntimicrobialWoody, Citrus, Floral
NerolidolAntimicrobial, AntioxidantWoody, Citrus, Floral
ValencineUV Protectant, Anti-Inflammatory, Anti-AllergyCitrus

1. Alpha-Bisabolol

EffectsAnalgesic, Antispasmodic, Vulnerary

Alpha-bisabolol is abundant in chamomile, where it contributes to the characteristic floral aroma.

This terpene has potent antioxidant, analgesic, and vulnerary (wound-healing) properties. It’s especially useful for managing arthritis symptoms due to the combination of pain killing, antispasmodic, and tissue-restorative benefits.

CBD oils that are high in bisabolol tend to have a stronger painkiller and muscle-relaxant effects

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Chamomile

2. Borneol

EffectsAnticancer, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-Coagulant

Borneol is a terpene-derivative that quickly breaks down in the body into camphor (more on this later).

This terpene is a potent anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anticoagulant (prevents blood clot formation). Herbs rich in borneol have been used for thousands of years in China and other parts of Asia in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.

There’s a clinical trial currently underway exploring the anticancer benefits of borneol. This study is set to finish sometime near the end of 2021.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Rosemary
  • Camphor
  • Peppermint

3. Camphene

EffectsAntioxidant, Anti-Inflammatory, Antifungal
AromaPungent, Musky

Camphene has a potent aroma best described as musky or pungent. It’s the primary component of the fir tree and the main compound responsible for its aroma.

This terpene is a strong antioxidant, especially when combined with vitamin C [2].

Camphene has also been shown to help reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the bloodstream — offering a protective effect on the heart and cardiovascular system [3].

You can find camphene in a lot of skincare products for treating inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Citronella
  • Fir trees

4. Caryophyllene

EffectsAnalgesic, Anti-Anxiety
AromaSpicy or Peppery

Caryophyllene is interesting because it’s the only terpene that actively binds to the endocannabinoid receptors. Specifically, caryophyllene binds to the CB2 receptors. This gives this terpene similar effects to CBD, including pain-killing and anti-anxiety effects.

Some studies have shown that caryophyllene can help treat addiction to alcohol and tobacco and may even alleviate alcohol withdrawal symptoms [4].

Other studies have shown caryophyllene was able to increase the sleeping time of mice [5].

This terpene is found in a lot of common herbs and spices. It’s abundant in cinnamon, clove, oregano, and basil, as well as hops used to produce beer.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Black Pepper
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Rosemary

5. Carene

EffectsPromotes Bone Healing, Anti-Inflammatory
AromaCitrus, Pineapple

Delta-3-carene is best known for its ability to promote healing in broken bones and ligaments. It’s found in citrus fruits as well as herbs like rosemary and basil.

This terpene is used  a lot in perfumes for its unique “fresh pineapple” scent, as well as topical products designed for supporting broken bones. Studies have shown that animals fed foods enriched with carene had better bone matrix formation than the control group [6].

Some reports suggest carene is beneficial for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Many of the other herbs that contain high carene levels have a long history of use for treating Alzheimer’s disease and supporting memory formation — but there have not been any official studies to back this up.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Cedar
  • Pine
  • Cypress

6. Eucalyptol

EffectsBronchodilating, Anti-Phlegm

Eucalyptol (AKA cineol) is most abundant in the eucalyptus tree. This terpene has a strong effect on the respiratory tract, where it’s used to open the airways, kill bacteria and fungi, and promote the release of phlegm.

Herbs high in eucalyptol are often used for conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, COPD, smoke inhalation, or other lung conditions due to the ability for this compound to improve lung function and remove the buildup of phlegm [7].

Some studies have found nootropic and anti-Alzheimer’s properties of eucalyptol.

In cannabis, eucalyptol is rarely found in more than 0.01% of the terpene profile and therefore only offers supportive effects.

This terpene can be described as cooling and offers a subtle minty aroma to the herb.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Eucalyptus
  • Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Bay
  • Tea Tree

7. Geraniol

EffectsAnticancer, Anti-Inflammatory
AromaFruity, Citrus, Watermelon

Geraniol is produced in a few species of plants (lemon, tobacco, geranium) as well as honeybees. As bees come and go from the hive, geraniol is deposited around the entrance. This scent helps bees locate the entrance as they head back to deposit their nectar.

This compound is often used as a flavoring in candy, soaps, and skin creams. It has a pleasant fruity aroma with some subtle citrusy undertones.

Geraniol has been shown to reduce the ability for cancerous tumors to resist anticancer drugs [8]. There are research teams currently exploring ways to integrate geraniol and synthetic derivatives into modern cancer therapies.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Lemon
  • Tobacco
  • Geranium
  • Citronella

8. Humulene

EffectsAnti-Inflammatory, Appetite-Suppressant
AromaWoody, Spicy

A-humulene is most abundant in the hops plant (Humulus lupulus) — which is a close relative of cannabis. Some cannabis strains contain as much as 40% humulene within its terpene profile. It’s one of the most common terpenes found in the cannabis plant.

This terpene has a potent anti-inflammatory effect by blocking a key inflammatory mediator called COX [9]. This is a similar mechanism used by drugs like Aspirin for alleviating pain and inflammation.

Humulene has also been reported to have appetite-suppressant and anti-cancer benefits. 

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Hops
  • Coriander
  • Clove
  • Basil
  • Sage
  • Ginseng

9. Limonene

EffectsUplifting, Energizing, Antidepressant

Limonene is the second most abundant terpene in most hemp plants. This terpene has a characteristic citrus flavor. To no surprise, citrus fruits like lime and lemon contain high concentrations of limonene. The essential oil of key limes is almost entirely made up of limonene.

Limonene has an uplifting effect — which has a positive effect on mood and energy levels. Some studies have shown limonene contributes to the antibacterial properties of cannabis plants as well.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Limes
  • Lemons
  • Rosemary
  • Juniper
  • Peppermint

10. Linalool

EffectsSedative, Relaxing

Linalool is common in the plant kingdom. It’s found in herbs like lavender, cinnamon, coriander, and birch bark. Some believe linalool is one of the main contributors to the characteristic cannabis aroma.

This terpene is primarily sedative in nature, but also offers some neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects [10, 11, 12]. 

CBD products high in linalool tend to be better for promoting sleep and alleviating chronic pain conditions. Despite its sedative qualities, the floral aroma has a pleasant, uplifting effect.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Lavender
  • Birch
  • Rosewood
  • Laurel
  • Sweet basil

11. Myrcene

EffectsCalming, Sedative
AromaMusky, Cardamom, Earthy

Myrcene is the most common terpene in cannabis. This terpene makes up nearly 65% of the terpene portion of the plant in many cannabis strains.

This terpene provides strong sedative and relaxing effects [13]. Hemp or marijuana strains with high levels of this terpene tend to be the most sedative — suitable for chronic stress, insomnia, and anxiety.

Myrcene also has notable anti-inflammatory benefits, offering support for conditions like arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Mango
  • Lemon grass
  • Thyme
  • Hops
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Bay
  • Parsely
  • Lemongrass
  • Cardamom

12. Ocimene

EffectsAntifungal, Antiviral, Anti-Inflammatory

Ocimene is named after the basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) which is where this terpene was first discovered.

The characteristic woody scent of ocimene makes it a popular addition to perfumes, soaps, candles, and incense.

Ocimene has strong antiviral qualities. It’s been shown to inhibit Herpes Simplex [14] and more recently Sars-CoV 2 [15]. It’s also been shown to inhibit various species of fungi (ringworm, yeasts, and molds) [16], and provides reliable anti-inflammatory benefits [17].

  • Sweet, floral, woody
  • Antiviral
  • Antimicrobial
  • Decongestant

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Mint
  • Parsley
  • Orchids
  • Kumquats
  • Basil

13. Pinene (Alpha & Beta)

EffectsAnti-Inflammatory, Neuroprotective, Antioxidant, Antimicrobial

Pinene is most abundant in the pine tree which is where it got its name.

There are two variations of pinene — alpha and beta-pinene. The effects of both are very similar. The only difference between the two is the position a particular chemical group (alkene) is located on the base molecule.

Pinene is a simple molecule that’s produced in hundreds of individual plant species. It’s considered one of the most basic terpenes in terms of structure.

The effects of pinene are far from basic. This simple terpene has a lot to offer.

These terpenes have potent anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties [18, 19, 20, 21].

Pinene is also believed to have nootropic benefits by improving blood flow to the brain, and inhibiting an enzyme known as acetylcholinesterase.

Herbs with an abundant supply of pinene are often used as respiratory tonics for treating cold and flu, asthma, and bronchitis. 

CBD oils rich in pinene tend to have energizing, uplifting, and neuroprotective qualities.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Pine
  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Parsely
  • Dill

14. Terpineol

EffectsAntioxidant, Anti-Inflammatory, Antimicrobial
AromaFloral (Lilac)

There are four different types of terpineol, but there’s very little difference in their effect profiles.

Terpineol is found in many different plant species, most notably eucalyptus, linden flower, lilac, and pine. This floral terpene is the characteristic aroma for lilacs. It’s used a lot in perfumes and soaps.

Many herbs that contain particularly high terpineol concentrations are used for treating respiratory conditions such as cough, cold, and flu. This makes it no surprise that many of the benefits of this terpene are directly related to lung health and infection.

Terpineol has been shown to offer potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects [22, 23, 24].

This terpene is also strongly correlated with CBD or other cannabis products that have a relaxing effect. Some consider this to be a contributing factor for cannabis products with a “couch-lock” effect.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Eucalyptus
  • Linden Flower
  • Lilac
  • Pine

15. Terpinolene

EffectsAnticancer, Antimicrobial
AromaWoody, Citrus, Floral

Terpinolene is one of the main terpenes found in tea tree oil — which has marked antifungal and antibacterial qualities.

A recent study showed terpinolene had a strong inhibitory effect on brain tumors in animal testing [25]. One study showed terpinolene was able to inhibit protein kinase AKT [26], which is a key target for anti-cancer therapies.

Terpinolene is also a reliable sedative. It’s been shown to produce a sedative effect on mice simply by inhaling essential oils high in this particular terpene [27].

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Lilacs
  • Nutmeg
  • Tea Tree
  • Cumin
  • Rosemary
  • Apples
  • Conifer trees

16. Nerolidol

EffectsAntimicrobial, Antioxidant
AromaWoody, Citrus, Floral

Nerolidol is found abundantly in herbs like jasmine and lavender. It has a subtle floral and woody aroma. There are two forms of nerolidol — trans- and cis- nerolidol.

This terpene has impressive antifungal and antibacterial qualities. What makes this tepene especially interesting is its ability to inhibit antibiotic resist. This effect has been noted for both bacterial strains and malaria [28, 29].

Other studies have shown nerolidol to have potent sedative and relaxing qualities [30].

CBD oils high in nerolidol are best for stress and anxiety support, and may offer additional benefits for immune-related health conditions.

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Jasmine
  • Lemongrass
  • Ginger
  • Tea Tree

17. Valencine

EffectsUV Protectant, Anti-Inflammatory, Anti-Allergy

Valencine got its name from Valencia oranges — which is the most significant source of this particular terpene. It’s characteristic citrus flavor makes it a popular ingredient for skin creams and food products.

This terpene has been shown to help protect the skin from UV radiation [31]. It’s a common ingredient in sunscreen lotions due to a combination of this effect and the pleasant citrus aroma it adds to the lotion.

Other studies have indicated this terpene is useful as an anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy agent as well [32, 33].

This Terpene is Also Found in:

  • Valencia oranges

Key Takeaways: What is a Terpene?

Cannabis contains several hundred individual ingredients. While cannabinoids like CBD and THC carry the most weight in terems of therapeutic benefits of the plant overall, there are a lot of other compounds that provide subtle nuances to the herb that can have a dramatic impact on health overall.

Terpenes are a particularily important class of compound produced in the cannabis plant. These compounds are responsible for the characteristic aroma of the plant, and provide additional benefits towards alleviating pain, reducing inflammation, relaxing the mind, and much more.

Knowing what terpenes are present in a particular CBD oil allows us to estimate what the effect profile of that oil is likely to have. You can check third-party lab tests to see the breakdown of terpenes contained in a given hemp extract.

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