We often recognize plants by their unique smell — the refreshing, earthy aroma of pine, or the fruity smell of lemon. These two scents might not smell similar, but behind the scenes, the same group of compounds is responsible: terpenes.
Terpenes are found in virtually all plants, playing a major role in their distinct aromas. What’s more, they seem to contribute to the beneficial health effects of CBD oil and other cannabis-derived products.
In this guide, we’re going to explain what are terpenes in CBD, and why they’re an important component of CBD oil. You’ll also find a terpenes chart focusing on the most common ones found in cannabis.
What Are Terpenes?
Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in a wide variety of plants, including cannabis. They form the largest and most diverse group of natural chemicals, with over 20,000 terpenes discovered to date. ¹
Terpenes are sometimes interchangeably called terpenoids, although this related class of compounds has a slightly different structure.
Scientists believe plants evolved to produce terpenes primarily as a defensive strategy to repel herbivores and attract the predators and parasites that prey on these animals. ²
Terpenes are best known for their distinct smells and tastes which contribute to the unique aromas of individual plants. Pinene, for example, is responsible for the fresh, earthy scent of pine and other evergreen trees.
Terpenes in Cannabis
Although the cannabis plant contains over 150 known terpenes, ³ the most common are myrcene, pinene, linalool, caryophyllene, limonene, and humulene.
Some terpenes come in multiple forms called isomers. Isomers have the same molecular formula but a different structure. For example, caryophyllene comes in the form of alpha-caryophyllene (better known as humulene) and beta-caryophyllene.
Like CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids, terpenes are most abundant in the hair-like trichomes that cover the cannabis plant.
Each “strain” of cannabis has a distinct terpene composition, which contributes to its exclusive flavor and aroma. What are terpenes in CBD? Well, without terpenes, cannabis and CBD aficionados would never be able to enjoy the hints of pine, citrus, or berry.
More importantly, terpenes can have advantageous properties and work together with cannabinoids to produce the unique health effects of marijuana, CBD oil, and other whole-plant cannabis preparations.
Lastly, terpenes can also be made in a lab rather than being extracted from plants. ⁴
Such synthetic terpenes are starting to be utilized in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, vaping, and cannabis industries when there’s a need for specific terpenes that might be too difficult to purify from plants.
Some companies are also attempting to mimic or recreate the terpene profile of cannabis with these man-made creations. But for now, it’s best to stay away from these synthetic alternatives as not enough research has been completed to validate their safety.
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Terpenes & The Entourage Effect
The real value of cannabis terpenes comes from their role in the “entourage effect.” First proposed in 1998, this evidence-based theory argues that cannabis works best when used as a whole plant extract. ⁵
In other words, the “entourage” of all the different cannabinoids, terpenes, and other cannabis phytochemicals working together in synergy may produce greater effects and benefits than any of these compounds on their own. ⁶
Terpenes are believed to contribute to the entourage effect in two ways. First, each terpene provides distinct effects, such as anti-inflammatory, sedative, antibacterial, antioxidant, and other beneficial properties.
Second, many terpenes are thought to work synergistically with cannabinoids.
For instance, let’s take a look at the common cannabis terpene, myrcene. Firstly, it adds muscle-relaxing, sedative, and anti-inflammatory properties to the plant and may play a notable role in the “couch-lock” sometimes experienced after smoking cannabis. ⁷
Secondly, myrcene may enhance the effects of cannabinoids by making it easier for them to cross the blood-brain barrier. ⁸ This means more cannabinoids can be absorbed, increasing their potency.
Similarly, the terpene linalool is known to have anxiety-reducing properties, which may complement the similar effects of CBD.
In fact, many of the unique, complex effects cannabis users ascribe to particular strains — such as reduced anxiety, sleepiness, or increased relaxation, energy, or creativity — may come largely from terpenes.
The cannabis entourage effect and the role terpenes play in it have been demonstrated by multiple studies. ⁹ Although there’s much more research needed to completely unravel how terpenes and cannabinoids work together, it’s clear that terpenes play a major role in the medicinal and recreational benefits of cannabis.
What are Terpenes in CBD Products?
Terpenes are not only found in marijuana — the intoxicating form of cannabis used primarily for its recreational effects. They’re also present in hemp — the low-THC, high-CBD variety of cannabis that was recently made legal in the United States.
Hemp has a similar terpene makeup to regular cannabis, with the most common terpenes being beta-caryophyllene, linalool, caryophyllene oxide, humulene, myrcene, and pinene.
As such, terpenes can contribute to the health benefits of CBD oil and other hemp-derived CBD products that have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years.
That’s why you may have heard the entourage effect mentioned with full-spectrum and broad-spectrum CBD — two types of whole-plant extract that contain the complete entourage of hemp compounds, including terpenes.
Terpenes are only present in three kinds of CBD product formulations:
Full-spectrum CBD, which contains all hemp cannabinoids (CBD and THC), terpenes, and other phytochemicals.
Broad-spectrum CBD, which is the same as full-spectrum but with THC completely removed.
Any other type of product where terpenes were added separately, such as a CBD isolate vape e-liquid infused with a specific blend of terpenes.
That means products containing isolate — a purified form of CBD — will not contain any terpenes unless they were blended in during a separate step.
As a result, CBD isolate products lack the entourage effect of whole-plant hemp extracts, making them less effective overall.
Opting for full or broad-spectrum CBD products is the best way to ensure that you’re getting all of hemp’s terpenes and getting the greatest efficacy and benefits.
CBD Third-Party Terpene Testing
You should also be aware that CBD companies use varying manufacturing processes to formulate full-spectrum and broad-spectrum extracts, which can influence the terpene levels of the final product.
That means a full-spectrum CBD oil from one company might contain a wider variety and higher concentrations of terpenes than a tincture from another brand.
The only way to know exactly which terpenes you’re getting is to look at what’s called a terpene profile test. You’ve probably heard of third-party testing — tests are done by an independent lab to confirm that a CBD product is safe and contains as much CBD as it says on the label.
A terpene profile test is another type of third-party test. Instead of showing which cannabinoids are present in a CBD product and in what amounts, this test identifies the terpene levels.
Although reading a test report for terpenes might sound difficult, it’s actually quite straightforward to see what are terpenes in CBD.
In most cases, you’ll see the names of terpenes and a corresponding number or bar that indicates how much of that terpene is present in the CBD oil or product.
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Terpenes: Beneficial Compounds with True Potential
As you can see, terpenes don’t just provide a pleasant smell to plants but they also have many helpful properties.
They appear to play a particularly important role in the therapeutic effects of whole-plant cannabis products such as CBD oil by working in synergy with cannabinoids. Researchers have only recently begun to explore the potential health applications of terpenes.
We can expect more promising studies to come out in the near future regarding what are terpenes in CBD, shedding further light on what they are capable of and how they contribute to the beneficial effects of cannabis.
Gleb Oleinik is a freelance CBD & cannabis writer from Vancouver, Canada. He’s read thousands of studies about cannabinoids and other beneficial natural compounds, helping him translate complex science into plain language. He’s also written third-party lab test reports of CBD products and knows the industry inside and out. When he’s not writing, Gleb likes to spend his time in the gym and out in nature.
Frequently Asked Questions
Similar to CBD, terpenes can be taken internally as part of an oil or edible product, inhaled through vaporization or smoking, or applied to the skin.
As the name implies, synthetic terpenes are man-made versions of natural terpenes. They’re starting to be used by some companies in the cannabis industry and other fields. You can often find them being sold independently or as a blend with CBD and THC.
Different terpenes can have different effects on the human body. Thus far, research has shown that terpenes can have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, sedative, neuroprotective, and many other beneficial properties.