What Are Terpenes? A Beginner’s Guide

Terpenes are natural compounds that enhance therapeutic properties of cannabis.

Dr. Abraham Benavides is an international cannabis science advisor, health coach, and full-tuition merit scholar of the GW School of Medicine. Abe pioneered and published first-author research with the Cannabis...

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Woman smelling the aromas of a cannabis flower
Illustration: Layla Selestrini / CBD Oracle
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Key Takeaways:

  • Terpenes are abundant, aromatic, and organic compounds commonly found in plants including Cannabis that are therapeutically employed for millennia.
  • Each confers characteristic fragrances, flavors, and biological effects in synergy with cannabinoids.
  • Terpenes may enhance key therapeutic properties of cannabis, potentially useful in many symptoms and conditions related to pain, inflammation, cancer, mood, sleep, and more.
  • The synergy between cannabinoids and terpenes is called “the entourage effect”.

Terpenes are what fresh air is made of. Think about the last time you stepped into a forest or garden and took a deep breath to relax.

The pleasant earthy and flowery aromas surrounding you and even the relaxing sensation are largely due to the presence of aromatic and organic compounds called terpenes.

What Are Terpenes? 

Terpenes are naturally scented compounds made, stored, and released by nearly all plants on earth like trees, grasses, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers – especially Cannabis.

A few fungi and animals make their own terpenes, too. They help deter pests, herbivores, fungi, and bacteria while attracting beneficial pollinators and allowing plants to communicate.

Over 20,000 terpenes give plants their characteristic fragrances, flavors, and voices. They also confer therapeutic and medicinal benefits, used for millennia in herbal remedies for pain, inflammation, infections, cancer, diabetes, and more. Also like cannabinoids, terpenes are made in the trichomes of cannabis plants.

The Cannabis species produces over 500 compounds, including 200 terpenes that outnumber and weigh more than the nearly 150 cannabinoids we know of.

Cannabis terpenes function in the same ways as other plants but also synergize with cannabinoids to enhance therapeutic effects. This concept is called “the entourage effect”, and is the reason why whole-plant or full-spectrum products feel, smell, and taste better than distillates and isolates.  

Common Cannabis Terpenes and Their Effects

Most plants have one or two dominant terpenes.

Despite the large, 200 terpene-production capacity as a species, each cannabis plant usually makes around 30–50 terpenes

Individually, each cannabis plant typically has a dominant terpene that is about 35% of its total terpene content. On average, the top four terpenes comprise about 72% of the total. 

In North American cannabis, the top eight most common, dominant terpenes are:

Interestingly, five of these vary greatly in concentration. Myrcene, pinene, limonene, caryophyllene, and terpinolene can range from being the dominant terpene to only a minor one or simply not detectable. 

The genetic and chance variations of terpene expression contribute to the enormous diversity seen within Cannabis.

This is why two plants of the same cultivar, or strain name, can feel different even when grown under identical conditions. Even direct cultivar descendants produce terpenes to different extents, unless genetically modified.


  • Aroma: Peppery, cloves, cinnamon, hops
  • Effects: Anti-inflammatory via direct CB2 activation, antidepressant, antianxiety, stress-reducing, pain-relieving
  • Cultivars and Strains: Afghan Kush, Blue Cheese, Durban Poison, White Widow, Glueberry OG, Blue Berry, Purple Kush
  • Common Plants and Foods: Black pepper, clove oil, caraway, basil


  • Aroma: Berries, herbal, floral, woody, root-vegetable
  • Effects: Anti-inflammatory, sleepy, pain-relieving, antianxiety, stress-reducing, increases THC high
  • Cultivars and Strains: Pure Kush, Blue Dream, Ace of Spades, Super Bud, Jack Herer
  • Common Plants and Foods: Hops, mangoes, lemongrass, bay leaves


  • Aroma: Lavender, floral, rose, coriander, lemony
  • Effects: Antianxiety, antidepressant, stress-reducing, sleepy, calming, pain-relieving
  • Cultivars and Strains: Fire OG, Valley Fire, Trainwreck, Purple Kush, White Cookies
  • Common Plants and Foods: Lavender, coriander, cinnamon, mint


  • Aroma: Lemon, citrus, oranges, turpentine
  • Effects: Antianxiety, antidepressant, stress-reducing, antiasthmatic, sleepy
  • Cultivars and Strains: Sour Diesel, Bruce Banner, Marionberry, OG Glue, Animal Cookies
  • Common Plants and Foods: Lemons, citrus, juniper, limes, oranges


  • Aroma: Piney, herbal, woody, turpentine 
  • Effects: Boosts short-term memory, counteracts THC intoxication, may alleviate breathing ailments
  • Cultivars and Strains: AC/DC, Chemdawg, Trainwreck, Sour Diesel, Super Lemon Haze, Master Kush, Purple Kush, White Widow
  • Common Plants and Foods: Pine trees, rosemary, cedar, redwood, conifers, juniper, eucalyptus, thyme, coriander


  • Aroma: Spicy, earthy, woodsy
  • Effects: Anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, wound-healing
  • Cultivars and Strains: Jack Herer, Chemdawg, Original Glue, Death Star, Sour Diesel
  • Common Plants and Foods: Hops, basil, ginseng, black pepper


  • Aroma: Herbal, pine, citrus, flowery, lilac
  • Effects: Antianxiety, stress-relieving, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, wound healing, sleepy
  • Cultivars and Strains: Ultra Sour, Dutch Treat, Ace of Spades, Sour Tsunami, Afghani Kush, Purple Kush, Blue Cheese, Banana Blaze
  • Common Plants and Foods: Tea tree, lilac, citrus fruits, navel oranges, apples


  • Aroma: Floral, woody, vegetal, herbaceous
  • Effects: Antifungal, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, anticonvulsant
  • Cultivars and Strains: Durban Poison, OG Kush, Dutch Treat, Sour Diesel, Strawberry Cough, Dream Queen, Chocolope
  • Common Plants and Foods: Allspice, tarragon, basil, mint, parsley

Benefits of Terpenes 

Terpenes commonly share many underlying mechanisms and potential therapeutic benefits we associate with herbal and tropical remedies.

Put together, the most common cannabis terpenes above may have a wide range of potential benefits that include:

  • Antianxiety
  • Antidepressant 
  • Pain-relieving
  • Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant 
  • Sedating and sleep-inducing
  • Antiviral
  • Antifungal 
  • Gastroprotective and GERD-relieving
  • Antibacterial 
  • Anticancer and chemo synergistic
  • Organ-protective
  • Antidiabetic
  • Antihypertensive
  • Anticonvulsive 
  • Neuroprotective
  • Antiparasitic and antifungal 
  • Acne benefits
  • Wound-healing

While terpenes aren’t yet shown to get people high, there is groundbreaking research that shows certain terpenes may increase THC’s effects at the CB1 receptor.

Even at low concentrations, terpenes may activate CB1 to about 10-50% of THC’s strength. This may redefine the “entourage effect”. 

In addition to these potential effects, terpenes can also influence your cannabis consumption experience and define the “sativa” vs. “indica” effects.

Side Effects

Terpenes in food are generally recognized as safe by the FDA, as they’re naturally present in small concentrations and quantities. Synthetic terpenes aren’t, however, and may be very concentrated.

Concentration is important because, in high quantities, isolated terpenes can become detergents and cleaners. You should not consume undiluted isolated or concentrated terpenes as it may cause serious side effects.

Cannabis is about 3-5% terpenes by dry weight. So as a rule of thumb, keeping terpenes below 5% by volume helps avoid irritating side effects on the gut, eyes, skin, and airways. Some people may also be allergic to particular terpenes.

How to Identify and Choose Terpenes

When shopping for cannabis at a dispensary, you can take things a step further by asking to look at the Certificate of Analysis (COA). The COA is a third-party lab report stating what the product contains and verifies quality and safety information.

With the product COA and information we shared above, you can select a cultivar that has your top four terpenes based on desired effects.

For example, when people talk about sativa strains giving a clear-headed or focused high, they’re probably talking about strains higher in pinene, which counteracts THC intoxication and boosts short-term memory. Pinene is a key terpene behind the creative and energizing effects of sativas.

On the other hand, people who are fans of indica strains for their sleepy and “stoney” high enjoy strains that are higher in myrcene. Myrcene is a sedating terpene that may also help cannabinoids cross the blood-brain barrier to enhance effects. You’ve likely heard of people eating mangoes to get higher; they’re taking advantage of the extra myrcene boost from mangoes. 

Practical Selection Tips

Choosing the right terpene profile can accentuate preferable effects and cannabinoid absorption. But it usually takes some trial and error to find the cultivar or strain.

I encourage patients to keep a journal of cultivars with their effects, top four cannabinoid percentages, and top four terpenes. This gives you a more scientific and accurate approach to selecting cultivars.  

Journaling can reveal more information about your preferences and cultivar profiles in the long run. Once you try out and find your favorite blend of cannabinoids and terpenes, eventually you can confidently go into any dispensary and choose a whole new cultivar based on your own data and the COA. This comes in handy if you travel, move, or simply rotate between dispensaries.

Meeting with a cannabis coach can quickly give you a list of recommended terpenes, products, and cultivars. I enjoy helping people select the right terpenes and cannabis products for them.

Terpenes in Cannabis Consumption

Consumption Method Differences

Your preferred consumption method also influences your terpene absorption and experience.

Like cannabinoids, terpenes are delicate, heat-sensitive, and don’t like water. They can be tasted and noticed to some degree when smoking or dabbing, but are disintegrated at high combustion temperatures.

Vaporizing flower or concentrates at sub-combustion temperatures (under 400 °F or 204 °C) can deliver more cannabinoids and terpenes because of the lower temperature.

Besides flower, “live” concentrates are preferred for their flash-frozen preparation, which conserves terpenes and results in a more flavorful and effective final product. 

Edibles and capsules can deliver cannabinoids and terpenes directly to the gut. Since they are absorbed there and metabolized by the liver, the effects of terpenes may largely remain local. This is also true for suppositories preferred by GI, GYN, cancer, elderly, or hospice patients to deliver localized relief to the pelvic area. 

Meanwhile, tinctures can give you more terpene absorption by mouth relative to the gut, resulting in faster and greater systemic effects.

Choosing where you want to deliver the medicine is important if you want to focus on gut health with edibles or a wider mix of overall well-being.


Heat and light directly break down cannabinoids and terpenes. Keeping this in mind, it’s best to preserve cannabis products in a dark, cool, airtight, and low-humidity-controlled environment. 

Refrigerating tinctures or freezing flower, edibles, and concentrates may be a good solution for medium to long-term storage of three months or more.