What Are Terpenes? A Peek into the (Very) Near Future of Cannabis

Terpenes in CBD oil

When it comes to cannabis, our sights have been set squarely on cannabidiol (CBD). But there’s another type of compound, terpenes, that has been getting attention lately — and it may just be the future of plant healing.

What are terpenes exactly?

Terpenes belong to a class of compounds called terpenoids, which are “aromatic components of plants that serve ecological roles in attracting beneficial insects, repelling predatory insects, and preventing infections with fungi, [among other functions],” says Ethan Russo, M.D., director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute. In short: they’re the ‘smelly’ and flavorful essential oils of the cannabis plant.

What do they do?

These aromatic oils go far beyond giving marijuana its characteristic fragrance — terpenes serve key functions for the plant itself, helping to buffer stressors and encourage its survival. “By using cannabis and its various ingredients, we are tapping into the biochemical abundance of plants and their mechanisms to protect themselves and thrive in a hostile environment,” says Russo. What’s good for Mother Nature is good for you, too: Terpenes themselves are believed to have therapeutic properties. (That’s right, it’s not just the CBD show here.)

Terpenes are one quality that sets different cannabis strains apart from one another. “As many as 200 different ones have been found,” says Russo. Indeed, you might recognize the name of some of them because they’re not just found in cannabis, but in a variety of plants and flowers. In fact, they’re key components of essential oils. For instance: Linalool, used to fragrance skincare and bath products, is also found in cinnamon, citrus, and mint. Limonene, which has a citrus-y scent and flavor and is also found in citrus fruits (as you likely guessed), is said to be a mood booster. Alpha-Pinene is another common fragrance ingredient — it smells like turpentine, which may sharpen alertness.

Why does this all matter?

That’s not where the chemistry lesson ends, though. The reason terpenes are often associated with CBD is because they work together (in what’s called the “entourage effect”). “Terpenes interact synergistically with cannabinoids, and many claim the different terpene profiles create different ‘effects’,” says Stuart Titus, Ph.D., CEO of Medical Marijuana, Inc. and HempMeds. In short, terpenes may boost the medicinal benefits of CBD.

CBD, as Titus explains, “helps regulate the body’s endocannabinoid system, bringing the body closer to homeostasis.” Physically and mentally, homeostasis is your body’s happy place. And terpenes may be able to usher your body into homeostasis more effectively. The most synergistic terpene with CBD, says Titus, is beta-Caryophyllene, which interacts with the CB2 receptor (one of the cannabinoid receptors). “It’s been shown to help make the benefits of CBD more dramatic, though the actual benefits vary from person to person,” he says.

Terpenes and your skin

When it comes to your skin, research from the NYU Langone Medical Center has found that terpenes can lower inflammation and protect against oxidative damage in the dermis, improve barrier function, and may even effectively shield skin from UV rays (though continue to wear your sunblock). They may be especially useful in treating dry or sensitive complexions. It’s worth noting, though, that this research is not specifically in CBD terpenes. For example, in one study on mice, the terpene compound B-damascenone, found in rose essential oil, protected against sunburn.

The future of terpenes

One thing’s clear: we haven’t fully unlocked the potential of the cannabis plant, considering it has 146 known cannabinoids and about 200 terpenes, says Titus. So, more cool, cutting-edge products to come. Right now, entourage botanicals, he says, are often lost during CBD extraction. But given the emerging science behind terpenes and their entourage effect, companies are placing a greater focus on extracting more from the plant — not just CBD.

“Products of the future will combine higher concentrations of rare cannabinoids with higher concentrations of trace terpenes to provide additional health and wellness benefits,” says Titus. And although there needs to be more research, says Titus, there’s even promise for combining non-cannabis terpenes — ones found in essential oils — with THC or CBD to promote certain effects. (Plus, a jasmine or lavender-tinged CBD oil sounds pretty darn appealing.)