What are terpenes? Why does cannabis smell?

What are terpenes? Why does cannabis smell?

Cannabinoids are substances of great value in the cannabis plant. But besides that, terpenes are equally important.

Terpenes are molecules that contribute to the distinctive aroma of the cannabis/hemp plant. Each terpene has its own aroma and may have certain medicinal effects. It has been hypothesized that terpenes may also participate in an "entourage effect" with cannabinoids, but this has not been 100% proven yet.

Here is a brief overview of some of the major terpenes and their effects:


The terpene most commonly found in cannabis (can make up 60% of the essential oil), and is also found in abundance in hops, sour fruits, bay laurel leaves, lemongrass, eucalyptus and many other plants. Its smell is described as being quite similar to that of cloves.

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Some mango varieties contain high levels of myrcene. Many cannabis users claim that they achieved a stronger "high" when smoking cannabis after eating mangoes. This effect may come from the entourage effect of myrcene working together with cannabinoids.

Possible medicinal effects of myrcene are: sedating, pain relieving, analgesic, anticancer and antioxidant.


The citrusy smell of orange, lemon, and grapefruit peels is due to limonene. This terpene is also present in abundance in certain strains of cannabis, giving it a hint of orange and lemon. Limonene may help THC users feel more alert and refreshed.

Read more: Cannabinoids - THC, CBD and more

Possible medicinal effects are: antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, pain-relieving, anti-cancer and may also help with diabetes.


This is the terpene that contributes to the spicy and strong aroma of black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, basil, etc., and is also present in some cannabis varieties.

This terpene is believed to help fight inflammation, cancer, aid sleep and relieve pain.


Pinene is the source of the smell of pine, which is especially abundant in turpentine. They are also found in many other plants, such as rosemary.

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In medicine, this terpene is used as an expectorant, bronchodilator, and has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. In addition, it also helps improve memory. In fact, pinene has the potential to help cannabis users reduce the side effects of THC on short-term memory.


This terpene contributes to the scent of lilac. Alpha-terpineol has been known for its relaxing, antioxidant, antibiotic, and antimalarial effects. In addition, it can also be anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and can reduce nausea and aid sleep.


The scent of lavender has long been used as a sleep aid. This terpene also has antidepressant, antipsychotic, anxiolytic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anticonvulsant properties.

Linalool has been licensed for use as a flavoring in natural insecticides. Steam containing linalool is a good remedy for repelling insects such as fruit flies, lice, and cockroaches.

Finally, beside the mentioned ones, there are many other terpenes that are also present in some cannabis/hemp varieties such as valencene, alpha-eudesmol, beta-elemene, alpha-bisabolol, humulene, terpinolene...

Terpenes contributes to the effects of different cannabis strains

There are countless different cannabis strains in the world, each of which produces a different effect when used. So, what makes that difference?

Part of the reason is due to the cannabinoid content in that strain. For example, high or low cannabinoid content, and what is the THC/CBD ratio… This will lead to different effects when consumed. However, another part is due to terpenes.

For example, citrusy strains with a lot of limonene such as Sour Diesel, Super Lemon Haze will have an effective stress relieving effect. Strains with a spicy peppery smell due to their beta-caryophyllene content such as Bubba Kush, OG Kush will help you relieve pain and sleep better. Similarly, strains that have a hint of pine-like smell such as Jack Herer, Blue Dream, will be able to make you more alert, and in contrast, myrcene rich strains like Northern Light will definitely make you feel extremely sleepy. Therefore, many experienced users can even tell what effect a certain strain will have just by smelling it.

Because terpenes have such interesting effects, many cannabis/hemp manufacturers may add non-cannabis-derived terpenes to their products to help enhance the user’s experience. Many people even mix individual terpenes together in certain proportions to mimic the scents of some classic cannabis strains. Furthermore, in many cannabinoid extraction process, such as the Supercritical Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Extraction method, most of the terpenes can be lost in the process, therefore, manufacturers can choose to add back terpenes, either from a cannabis/hemp or other non-cannabis plant sources.

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It doesn't matter if the terpene comes from cannabis or not. Limonene from marijuana or limonene extracted from oranges and lemons are two similar molecules, both giving the same effect. So, instead of worrying about the origin of the terpene in the product, how that terpene was extracted should be the main concern. Like cannabis extraction, the terpene extraction process must be safe in terms of raw materials, ingredients, method, and free from unwanted chemicals and impurities.

Entourage effect

The hypothesis of this effect lies in the sentence: "“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts". To make it easier to imagine, assuming you are a person with your own strengths and weaknesses, you will need a partner who is able to cover these weaknesses and enhance your strengths. That's the key to effective teamwork, and that's how the cannabinoids and other phytochemicals in the cannabis/hemp plant work.

Read more: Does CBD have side effects?

In fact, cannabis strains with too high THC and too low CBD content are more likely to cause side effects, such as panic attacks, paranoia, nausea, etc., than strains with a more balanced ratio.

In addition, research has also shown that CBD isolates (which do not contain any other cannabinoids) bring quite limited benefits and will require a larger amount of CBD for a person to achieve a desired effect, such as relieving symptoms, compared to using a full spectrum CBD extract. Full spectrum extracts is the type of CBD product that beside CBD, you also get benefits from other cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids that were found in the initial cannabis/hemp starting materials.

When CBD is used alone, its medical effects in terms of dosage often correspond to a bell-shaped curve. With low to moderate doses, the effect will gradually increase, but after the dose exceeds the optimal threshold, the drug’s effect will decrease. This means that, when using too little or too much CBD alone, you will get less of a desired effect.

However, studies showed that using CBD in the form of full spectrum extracts somehow does not show such a pattern of action, at least for its anti-inflammatory and antidepressant effects. The effectiveness of full spectrum CBD extracts can consistently increase as you increase the dose, instead of decreasing like when using CBD in  the form of isolates.

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