What are Terpenes and Why Should I Care? - Plant Therapy Blog

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Essential Oils Blog

What are Terpenes and Why Should I Care?

Time to Talk Terpenes!

Within a single drop of essential oil lives a complex, intricate world of relationships, bonds, and reactions that are completely hidden to the naked eye. Sometimes it can be all too easy to use our oils without giving this fact a second thought. But the precise chemistry working inside your beloved bottle of essential oil is exactly what gives that oil all your favorite qualities! So it’s worth learning about.

Not a chemistry fan? Don’t run away just yet!

As a person not particular savvy to anything more than the basic ins and outs of chemistry, I get it. The idea of looking into the microscopic happenings of essential oils can be daunting, confusing, and full of words with a few too many syllables. But whenever I’m confronted with a topic that makes my brain want to run and hide, I just remember this: learning something new is empowering! And if you love using essential oils, this information is going to help you become a more thoughtful and informed person about what it is you are using for yourself and your family. So let’s dive in!

herbs in clear glass bottles

What are terpenes, anyways?

If you love learning all about your essential oils, then there’s a term you’ve likely come across: terpene. Any single plant can contain hundreds of different compounds, which includes terpenes. Terpenes are a very large class of compounds created naturally by plants and even some insects. Essentially, these are molecules found in leaves, flowers, stems, roots, or fruit of plants that give off a distinct smell.

Terpenes aren’t around for our benefit, though. Plants aren’t working hard day and night to make sure we like how they smell, believe it or not! Terpenes actually act as a natural defense for the plant. They can ward off dangerous parasites and bugs, while also helping the plant to survive in extreme weather changes.

Terpenes are all hydrocarbons, which means that they are composed of only carbon and hydrogen elements. The carbon atoms form the framework and the hydrogen atoms attach themselves in specific ways. Their ultimate configuration leads to a specific terpene.

Woman smelling from an EO bottle

…and terpenoids? What are those?

You may find the words “terpenes” and “terpenoids” used alongside one another if you’ve done some personal research. They are not the same thing, but they do have a strong connection to one another. Terpenoids, also referred to as isoprenoids, are derivatives of terpenes. In an incredibly basic sense, if you took the molecular structure of a certain terpene and added oxygen atoms or other functional groups, you would have a terpenoid. Because remember, terpenes are only made up of carbon and hydrogen. Terpenoids can include other components, like oxygen, transforming them into an entirely different constituent with separate properties from their “parent” terpene [2].

Maybe you’ve heard of these guys…

In the essential oil world, there are two dominant groups of terpenes: monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes.

Like how both words end with “—terpenes”? Makes it pretty easy to remember!

Monoterpenes

Monoterpenes are the smallest occurring terpene molecules with only ten carbon atoms. And because they are small in size, they are also very light and evaporate quicker than other heavier terpenes. Have you heard of limonene? This constituent shows up all the time in aromatherapy! It’s in essential oils like Lemon, Pink Grapefruit, Bergamot, and Orange. Generally, limonene has a recognizable dull, citrus odor.

Pinene is another monoterpene found in many popular essential oils, such as Cypress, Juniper Berry, and Rosemary. It has that characteristic coniferous, piney smell that many of us love so much.

Dropper surrounded by orange peels

Monoterpenols

And here comes our constituents with those extra functional groups! Here we’ve got the incredible constituent Linalol (also spelled Linalool), found in Lavender, Basil, Ho Wood, and so many others! Menthol, the cooling constituent that gives Peppermint its signature smell and feel, is also a monoterpenol.

Sesquiterpenes

Sesquiterpenes are heavier than monoterpenes. They have 15 carbon atoms instead of 10, meaning they will evaporate slower. If you’re familiar with essential oil notes, you’ve probably realized that sesquiterpenes would make up many base notes, while monoterpenes make up many top notes.

Beta-caryophyllene, known for its incredibly anti-inflammatory properties, is a sesquiterpene found in oils like Copaiba Oleoresin, Black Pepper, and Ylang Ylang Complete. And Chamazulene, that unique constituent that is responsible for those incredible “blue” oils (like Blue Tansy, German Chamomile, and Blue Yarrow) is also a sesquiterpene.

child looking at flowers through a magnifying glass

Sesquiterpenols

These derivates of sesquiterpenes are also probably present in your essential oil collection!

This group contains some pretty famous constituents, too, like Cedrol (in Texas Cedarwood), Patchoulol (in—you guessed it—Patchouli), and Santalol in Sandalwood.  

So there’s a handful of well-known constituents in the large umbrella of terpenes and terpenoids. There are hundreds and hundreds of different constituents in this family, each with their own unique structure, aroma, and therapeutic properties.

So what do terpenes and terpenoids do for us?

Aside from just smelling pretty good, these compounds provide benefits to our bodies. It is within them that amazing physiological transformations can take place. According to neurologist and researcher Ethan Russo, terpenes “could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections” [1].

For instance, we know that citrus oils are bright, cheerful, and wonderfully uplifting. Well, that is completely due to the constituents in those oils, such as limonene. We also know limonene helps stimulate the immune system by interacting with white blood cells. On the other hand, linalol has calming properties that help give essential oils like Lavender their worldwide reputation for being a go-to when you need to relax the mind and body.

Or, if you love to blend oils to make incredibly aromas, having a basic sense of terpenes may help a lot! Not only do terpenes contribute to the overall smell of an oil, but they also help determine whether that essential oil is a top, middle, or base note. Because remember, the larger the molecule is, the heavier it is and the slower it will evaporate.

This is a lot to take in.

Each terpene and terpenoid makes unique contributions to the essential oil they make up. For a single person to know the function of every constituent is a huge undertaking. However, knowing what an oil is made up of helps us make the best decisions for particular needs. Luckily we have resources to refer to when we need help uncovering the properties of a constituent, so there is no need to memorize!

And in terms of how deep we dove into this topic, we really just put our toes into the water. This is a massive topic that many intelligent people spend their whole adult lives studying. For questions or more information, please contact our team of aromatherapists at [email protected]. And don’t forget to check out our Safe Essential Oils Recipe group on Facebook to keep the conversation going!

By Katrina Scampini, Certified Aromatherapist

Sources:

[1] Russo E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344–1364. doi:10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x

[2] Rhind, J. (2014). Listening to Scent: An olfactory journey with aromatic plants and their extracts. London: Singing Dragon. pgs. 129-130.

48 thoughts on “What are Terpenes and Why Should I Care?”

  1. This blog article presents the information in a very understandable manner. I look forward to reading more blog posts on other essential oil chemical compounds. Thank you for taking the time to share this information!

  2. Love how PT wants it’s customers to learn and not be overwhelmed when it comes to oils! This company is translucent with everything, not trying to hide anything, and I LOVE that about them!
    Thank you PT for your great oils and all of the wonderful blogs, posts and info you share with us all !

  3. Very informative blog. I read a lot of helpful information without feeling overwhelmed. I have heard of terpenes before but did not understand the importance they hold. I love learning more about the oils I use and love.

  4. I will never look at at drop of any essential oil the same! Thank you PT for this fascinating and very informative article. One more reason to love nature and essential oils!

  5. Great article! I’ve been seeing references to terpenes more and more lately but this is the first time I’ve read much about them. I’m curious to find out more about which blends of terpenes are beneficial for what and also which terpenes should not be blended together.

  6. Love that PT is constantly educating and sharing this kind of information with all of us. You guys make it easy to learn.

  7. I was curious about the new term terpene, but I didn’t actually think I would read the whole article. Now, I wish there was more info about how to combine scents. 🙂 Thank you!

  8. Thank you for this breakdown of constituents–was quite helpful in understanding more about essential oils.

  9. I just listened to the latest free webinar with the Tisserand Institute. They had a guest, Petra Ratajc, who gave a fascinating talk on the biological side of the plants that can have an essential oil made from it. There was a section on terpenes that I found fascinating, a lot of which was summarized in this article. Thank you Plant Therapy for posting this more advanced article!! I am beyond the basics at this point and love reading about the more involved topics.

  10. I am ecstatic to read this article. I have been reading about and purchased terpenes over the last few months and there isn’t a lot of visibility into them unless you know what you’re looking for. I’ve had positive results with usage and am thankful for your providing additional safe information.

  11. Wow! So much great information explained in a way that even I can understand. Thank you Plant Therapy for sharing your knowledge with your customers.

  12. One of the reasons I’m sticking with PT is the education they provide to their customers. Great post and PT!

  13. To echo others, thank you PT for focusing so much on customer education. I love having this blog as a resource for myself and for friends!

  14. Though I may have had a bit of trouble understanding ALL of it (I blame Mum Brain), thank you for this helpful and easy to understand article. It’s one of the most informative yet still-within-my-basic-chemistry-understanding articles I’ve read yet! I’d love to see more articles like this 🙂

  15. That is an incredibly informative read! Thank you! As someone who never did well in chemistry, I understood all of this

    1. Love learning the ins and outs and whys that essential oils do what they do. Thanks for helping break it down!

  16. Thank you for the informational article. I learned a lot. Thanks for breaking it down into laymen terms

  17. Well, I kept reading because the author convinced me it was important, but I’m afraid I don’t find it very interesting. I’m glad there are people who DO study the chemistry behind EOs, though, so the rest of us can benefit from their findings.

  18. Thanks for sharing this information! I’m recently starting an herbalist class and this is helpful not only for my oils, but also for the herbs in the way you described the terrines!

  19. Thank you! I am of the sort who gets into this kind of information. You have given me a valuable starting place for my explorations. The explanation was simple and easy to follow.

  20. Great article, Katrina! This is one the best explanations I have ever read about terpenes. Simple and very understandable for a basic user like me. I hope the blog keeps doing articles on the chemistry of essential oils. Learned a lot!

    1. I’m so glad this article kind of dumbs it down for people like me who don’t fully understand chemistry. The first time I ever heard of terpenes or terpenoids was at a dispensary and the guy was talking about them being in THC oil (at least I think). But it’s pretty interesting to know what the point of them really is.

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