Terpenes, explained: The smelly compounds that can benefit your health

You've encountered many terpenes in your life -- here's what they do and how to use them.

Amanda Capritto
3 min read

Cannabis is very terpene-rich, but it's not the only plant that contains terpenes.

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When you walk by someone smoking cannabis, the smell is unmistakable. The compounds that produce the potent smell of weed fall under the same class of compounds that produce the citrusy smell of oranges, the sweet smell of chamomile and the clean smell of pine. 

These compounds, called terpenes, serve important purposes in plants and possibly in humans, too. Research doesn't yet paint a clear picture about the roles that terpenes might play in humans, but the purported benefits range from improved immune function to reduced inflammation. For example, researchers are currently looking at the potential benefits of limonene, a common terpene, as an antioxidant. 

Here's what we know now, and how you can incorporate terpenes into your wellness routine. 

Read more: Is CBD actually legal?

What are terpenes? 


Plants with strong fragrances, like lavender, typically contain terpenes.

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Most commonly associated with cannabidiol (the ever-popular CBD), terpenes are aromatic compounds that give plants their distinct smells. Part of the reason terpenes have become so closely associated with CBD is because cannabis plants have extremely high concentrations of terpenes, which accounts for the pungent skunk-like smell. 

Many plants, not just cannabis plants, contain terpenes -- you can generally tell by smelling the plant. For example, lavender, rosemary, mint and citrus plants all have terpenes. Terpenes generally have specific roles in a plant's life, such as attracting pollinators, warding off predators and helping plants recover from injuries.

Scientists have identified hundreds of different terpenes (cannabis alone contains over 100), although researchers have only extensively studied a handful. Myrcene, linalool, caryophyllene, limonene and pinene have been studied for health benefits like reducing inflammation and managing allergies.

Read more: Is CBD safe for your pets?

Terpenes vs. cannabinoids 


Terpenes aren't the same as CBD.

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Many people confuse terpenes and cannabinoids or use the terms interchangeably. 

Terpenes include only the aromatic compounds that give plants their distinct scents, and cannabinoids are compounds that act on your endocannabinoid system and produce mood-altering or physical effects. For instance, THC is the cannabinoid that gets you "high" and CBD is the cannabinoid often used for its pain-relief properties.

While both terpenes and cannabinoids are bioactive (they affect the human body), your body processes the two types of compounds differently. 

Terpenes alone probably don't contribute to mental euphoria or measurable physical effects, although some research suggests that terpenes may enhance the effects induced by CBD.

Read more: Edibles vs. topicals vs. vaping vs. oils: CBD products, explained

Uses and benefits of terpenes


You can use terpenes for aromatherapy.

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How can you use terpenes to improve your well-being? Start with aromatherapy. Terpenes are the reason that essential oils have a strong scent, and those terpenes are said to promote various health benefits, such as helping you sleep or boosting your energy level.

Diffusing lavender essential oil, for example, can help you relax and get better sleep. Diffusing citrus oil may help you feel more awake and alert. 

Some oils with potent terpenes, such as peppermint, can help with physical ailments, too. Topically applying peppermint oil, for example, can temporarily reduce pain from muscle soreness. 

Other than these basic (and largely anecdotal) correlations, there isn't much evidence supporting the use of terpenes for wellness. That doesn't mean terpenes don't help -- just that we need more research to discover any conclusive health benefits. In the meantime, continue enjoying the terpenes you may not have known were coming out of your essential oil diffuser

Read more: CBD-infused activewear doesn't have science on its side -- yet

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.