How Do Major Terpenes In Cannabis Affect Its Smell?

How Do Major Terpenes In Cannabis Affect Its Smell?
Written by Robert Hammell

One of the defining characteristics of cannabis has always been its unique smell. For some, the smell can even be the primary quality in determining how potent the cannabis is. But is there any actual basis for this determination? The reality is that the potency of a cannabis chemovar comes mainly from major cannabinoids concentrations but the smell and some of the peculiar effects of a particular strain depend on the terpene profile

Terpenes can contribute both to the physiological and neurological effects by modulating the penetration of cannabinoids through skin layers among other peculiar beneficial effects associated with them. All of this is referred to as the entourage effect, that is the synergistic action of components. Terpenes can, in fact, play a major role in the user’s experience.  


Though it is one of the most common terpenes in the world, pinene can be somewhat rare in cannabis. Reminiscent of a coniferous forest, this terpene comes in two forms. The first, alpha-pinene, smells similar to pine (hence the name) or rosemary. The second variation, beta-pinene, smells similar to dill, basil or hops. Aside from its robust flavor and aroma profile, pinene may actually be one of the most desirable terpenes present in cannabis. This is due to its medicinal qualities, including anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and bronchodilatory effects. Some early evidence even suggests that pinene may help to counteract the deleterious effects of increased tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) usage associated with short term memory loss. Data is still inconclusive on this final point, but considering all the other additional benefits pinene has clear value both for its aromatic and medicinal properties. 


Limonene is a much more common terpene in cannabis, and, as its name would implies, brings a fruity citrus like flavor. Early research indicates that limonene is tied to mood elevation and stress relief due to its potential neuroprotective qualities.

This terpene may also contribute to physical health. In the short term, data indicates that limonene may help with gastric reflux by contributing both antibacterial and antifungal effects to the user. For longer term maladies, evidence suggests this terpene may be useful in combating both skin and mammary cancer.


The previous two terpenes had obvious flavor profiles, but that is not the case for Linalool. It is found in more than 200 species of plants, and is described as having a flowery aroma similar to lavenders or roses, with a hint of spice reminiscent of basil or cinnamon. Linalool possesses antibacterial properties, but its highest potential resides in its neurological effects. When consumed, linalool has been shown to limit glutamate receptors, which can help to dampen symptoms of epilepsy. For wider market appeal, this terpene may also serve as a sedative with muscle relaxation properties. This is because of linalool’s ability to stimulate adenosine, a pain reliever, in the brain.


Eucalyptol is typically identified by its cooling, minty flavor. In similar over the counter medications, eucalyptol has been used to treat rhinosinusitis, and it may have similar beneficial effects in cannabis. The strong minty aroma helps to open nasal passage ways and can relief symptoms of the common cold or sinus infections. When compared to other natural extracts, eucalyptol was found to be more effective as a pain reliever. In addition to that, eucalyptol may hold even more promise in preventing cognitive decline. In one study conducted on elderly patients, people using this terpene saw significant improvement on the Dementia Behavior Disturbance Scale. So while pinene may help prevent short term memory decline, eucalyptol may help with long term memory loss.


Bringing the spicy aroma to both hops and lemongrass, myrcene is one of the most common terpenes found in cannabis. [25] In fact, some estimates believe it exists in approximately 20% of commercial cannabis strains. In herbal medicine, myrcene is often used as a sleep aid. Lemongrass sourced myrcene has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving qualities. The most exciting medical benefits of myrcene lies in the possibility for it to prevent the spread of cancer. This is based on research that indicates the potential of this terpene in blocking the development of aflatoxins by inhibiting the liver enzyme CYP2B1. Aflatoxins cause a variety of cancers by mutating DNA. This mutation is also taken a step further with myrcene, as it can also block the growth of other toxins like t-butyl-hydroperoxide.


For those who can appreciate a little spice, caryophyllene provides the strong flavor in other plants like black pepper, basil, and cinnamon. In cannabis, this terpene is said to provide a warming sensation in the nose. Caryophyllene tends to have much more physical reactions than other terpenes, owing in part to the fact that it frequently bonds with CB2 receptors throughout the body. This terpene can potentially act as a pain relief, anti-inflammatory agent and helping to cope with anxiety and indigestion.


Imagine the crisp flavor of a green apple, or the freshness that ginger adds to a recipe. These flavors come from the terpene farnesene. While there is evidence that farnesene can help with minor health issues like pain relief or sedation, it can also aid a wide range of more severe medical issues as well. In terms of neurological disorders, farnesene has worked as in vitro treatments for multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. This is because this terpene has neuroprotective qualities, which means it may also be useful in treating other neurological disorders as well. Additionally, farnesene can help prevent gastrointestinal cancer


Speaking of terpenes that may prevent cancer, another one to add to the list is terpinolene. This terpene can be found in cannabis and it has a mildly spicy aroma. Terpinolene can also be found in cumin, nutmeg, and tea. In terms of the cancer fighting properties, terpinolene has demonstrated the ability to block ATK1 expression in K562 cells. ATK1 proteins are common to multiple forms of cancer including those found in the breast, lungs, and colon. By limiting the proliferation of ATK1, terpinolene may prevent and also shrink tumors that already exist. There is also evidence that terpinolene may also help to prevent oxidation of low density lipoproteins (LDL) in vitro. LDLs are a harmful type of cholesterol that can build up in the arteries and lead to long term heart disease or stroke.


The final terpene on this list is carene, which has a complicated aroma that combines pine with lemon. Aside from cannabis, it is commonly found in cypress trees. Carene has some shared medical benefits to other terpenes, primarily when it comes to neurological disorders. This terpene has been shown to provide relief to patients with Alzheimer’s disease or fibromyalgia. What makes carene unique is that in one study conducted on mice indicates that it may help bone health. In small doses, this terpene has been found to stimulate alkaline phosphatase in MC3TE-E1 subclone 4 cells. This leads to increased calcium production, which may be useful for several bone related disorders, including the possibility of helping heal broken bones.

About the author

Robert Hammell