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What are terpenes?

Focus on Ingredients 02.02.21 7 min. read


At a glance: What are terpenes?

  1. What are terpenes?
  2. The importance of terpenes for plants and animals
  3. Effect and benefits of terpenes on the skin
  4. Other possible applications of terpenes?
  5. How long do terpenes have an effect?
  6. Are there any side effects?


CBD-containing care products currently springing up like mushrooms. But which of them make really beautiful, smooth and clear skin? It is often said that one should pay attention to full or broad-spectrum products. The reason for this is that in the entire range of active ingredients of the hemp plant are included. Just as the terpenes and cannabinoids can be mutually reinforcing way, for example. An extra bonus of effectiveness, so to speak. But what does it exactly with the terpenes about?

What are terpenes?

In short: terpenes are responsible for the scent and taste of plants - and also for one or the other effect on us humans...

Plants have many fascinating properties: they are endowed with a wide variety of colors and scents. Some of them taste good and even have a specific effect. It is not for nothing that plants have been used for thousands of years as tea, spices, food or medicine.

Thus, plants and can open up new treatment options that are in no way inferior to some chemical-synthetic products. The good thing about them is that they not only have an amazingly wide range of effects, but are often also well tolerated.

Terpenes belong to the group of substances known as phytochemicals. They are enormously diverse. For example, when you put an essential oil in your fragrance lamp, the terpenes are what arrive to your nose, as a smell. But that's not all: they also form other aromatic and fatty substances, hormones, attractants (pheromones), vitamins, basic skeletons of fungi and sponges, natural rubber, and much more [1].

Think about the different types of hemp, how differently they smell and act. One has a rather calming effect, the others stimulating. Hemp can smell flowery, earthy, fruity, woody, musky, minty, sweet, lemony or even cheesy and all this only because of the different terpenes.

The importance of terpenes in plants and animals

There are around 8000 different terpenes in plants and animals. It's no wonder that they have so many different functions. You can find them in the oils and resins of plants, in their flowers, leaves and barks. They help plants attract insects, perform photosynthesis, and fend off predators.

Terpenes protect us from bacteria, fungi and other harmful environmental factors, which makes them ideal ingredients for cosmetics. It is even suspected that they can inhibit the development of cancer. As hormones, they ensure communication between cells and help to transmit stimuli in the body. There are even terpenes that can act directly on the endocannabinoid system. In interaction with CBD, they can direct, attenuate, or amplify the effects of cannabinoids. Terpenes and cannabinoids, according to theory, influence each other in their effect (entourage effect) [2].

Terpenes in the hemp plant

There are over 200 different terpenes found in hemp alone. They are mainly found in the resin of the female hemp flowers, just like the cannabinoids. Strictly speaking, cannabinoids are actually a special form of terpenes. If a hemp variety possesses many terpenes, this is usually also considered an indicator of a high cannabinoid content [6].

Different hemp varieties differ mainly in terms of smell and effect. This is due to the fact that each variety has its own composition and concentration of ingredients (such as CBD and terpenes). How and how strong a cannabis variety works depends largely on its terpene and cannabinoid composition.

You may have heard that CBD exerts its effect on the CB2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system, among others. The terpene caryophyllene can do that too, but unlike CBD, it acts on the CB2 receptors in a direct way. In fact, CBD itself does not act directly on the receptors at all [S16].

However, terpenes are capable of even more: they also react with other receptors in our body. For example, the terpene bisabolol can inhibit the production of inflammatory mediators by binding directly to inflammatory proteins.

Here you can see the most important terpenes in the hemp plant and at a glance. To make the whole thing more vivid, we have listed in parentheses where the terpenes still occur - so you can imagine the respective smell maybe rudimentary:

  • ß-caryophyllene (black pepper)
  • eucalyptol (eucalyptus)
  • linalool (lavender)
  • limonene (citrus fruit, especially in the shells)
  • myrcene (ripe mango)
  • nerolidol (orange blossom)
  • pinene (pine resin)
  • γ-terpinene (citrus) [6].

Effects and benefits of terpenes for the skin

Now what does all this have to do with cosmetics, you may ask. In fact, terpenes can do a lot for our skin. Smaller terpenes, for example, can easily overcome the skin barrier. This allows them to easily permeate into deeper layers of the skin. It has been discovered that terpenes may be used:

  • in the control of pathogens (bacteria, fungi and viruses)
  • in the control of inflammation
  • in the reduction of free radicals (anti-aging)
  • against the development and spread of skin cancer
  • can help relieve pain, ulcers and wounds [3]

The main terpenes in detail

Have you ever enjoyed aromatherapy with essential oils? During a massage or with a relaxing aroma lamp perhaps? Essential oils are popularly used in natural medicine to de-stress, calm or revitalize the body and mind. The oils work not only through the senses, but also through mucous membranes and/or the skin. This also makes them so popular in CBD cosmetics.

Want to know more? Then take a look at what terpenes can do:

Terpenes for the immune system and inflammation

Inflammation is a reaction of the immune system. The blood vessels dilate so that immune cells can fight harmful stimuli. If you have ever had an an allergic reaction, you will be familiar with this: the skin becomes red and warm, and in most cases also swells up. Many terpenes can at least partially regulate this overreaction of the immune system and thus soothe inflammation. This is utilized in cosmetics to alleviate chronic skin conditions, reduce pain, and soothe blemished, acne-prone skin. Examples of such terpenes are:

  • bisabolol
  • ß-caryophyllene
  • eucalyptol
  • lime
  • linalool
  • myrcene
  • ginkgolide B
  • humulene
  • cineol
  • pinene [2; 4; 5; S1; S2; S3; S5; S7; S8; S10; S11; S14; S17; S19].

Terpenes as antioxidants

Free radicals are everywhere in and around us. They come for. B. before in UV light, fine dust and cigarette smoke. The congregation, they can destroy unrestrained cells and cell components. You might know that from people who have tanned often like: Over time, the aggressiveness of free radicals indicates premature aging, pigmentation and at worst skin cancer. The opponents of free radicals are antioxidants. They neutralize the free radicals before they can cause skin damage. Some terpenes can be powerful antioxidants that protect the skin from sunburn and support the regeneration and healing of the skin. These include:

  • bisabolol
  • camphene
  • pinene
  • squalene
  • terpinene

Terpenes against pathogens (bacteria, fungi and viruses)

Good thing we can't see the many microorganisms around us. They want to invade our bodies, but fortunately they are kept out by the skin barrier. However, the skin does not always manage this, e.g. when it is dry or damaged. Then abscesses, wounds and infections can develop. However, many terpenes can fight microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi) well and heal wounds. That is why they are popularly used as natural preservatives, among other things. These include: 

  • bisabolol
  • carvacrol
  • cineol
  • thymol
  • humulene
  • Limonoids
  • myrcene
  • pinene
  • squalene [2; 4; 5; S4; S9; S14; S17; S19; S20].

Terpenes against cancer

In the case of cancer, cells multiply uncontrollably. This is often due to a defect in the genetic information. However, terpenes are said to be so potent that they can even block the development and spread of skin tumors. This is the case, for example, with:

  • lime
  • Limonoids
  • squalene
  • carvone [S6].

In animal experiments, the terpenes were able to reduce existing tumors. It is not yet known exactly how this happens. It is likely that they do not kill the cells directly, as chemotherapy does, for example. The researchers suspect that instead they suppress the activation of cancer genes and trigger the self-destruction of the cancer cells [2; 4; 5; 6]. 

Terpenes for circulation

The skin needs good circulation so that it is supplied with oxygen and nutrients in order to get rid of harmful substances - in other words, so that it can regenerate. It needs energy from the metabolism so that it can build up and renew itself. Forskolin is a terpene that can improve blood flow to the skin and energy production in the cells [5]. The result? Your skin looks fresher, plumper and younger.

Terpenes for skin soothing and sebum control 

If you are or have been affected by acne, you certainly know this: the skin is oily and unsightly pimples keep appearing. This is because the sebaceous glands produce too much skin oil and clog the pores. If bacteria are added to this, inflammation and finally pimples develop. Many terpenes have an antibacterial effect, so that inflammation has no chance. For example, they have a calming effect on the skin:

  • camphene
  • Linalylacetat.

Other possible applications of terpenes

These are just a few of almost infinite examples where terpenes provide genuinely beneficial results. And this applies to the body, the mind and the psyche. That's why you'll find them especially in naturopathy and holistic natural cosmetics.

Some terpenes also help other substances to penetrate the deeper layers of the skin more easily. Bisabolol and limonene, for example, increase the skin's absorption capacity. The nice thing is: terpenes can also be used as solvents and preservatives, making synthetic chemical agents superfluous. Limonene, for example, can dissolve oils and fats such as petroleum in a short time and very effectively [6; 7].

How long do terpenes have an effect?

Terpenes are very volatile. However, it is not possible to give a general answer to how long they act on the skin. That depends, among other things, on: 

  • how sensitive your skin on terpenes react
  • from which plant they come
  • how high they are dosed
  • how high quality your product is
  • which symptom you want to fight
  • which ingredients were combined terpenes.

In the form of CBD creams or CBD ointments, it generally takes a little more than an hour for the effect to set in. Then, however, the effect persists for several hours. The effect of terpenes can be stronger when combined with other plant compounds. Cannabinoids and terpenes together, for example, act synergistically (entourage effect). This means that both substances together have a greater effect than the sum of the two individual substance effects. Even small amounts of cannabinoids are sufficient for this. 

Are there any side effects?

Yes! Terpenes, at least in higher concentrations and on sensitive skin, can cause irritation and allergies. This is especially true for citral, geraniol, limonene and some others. If you apply them to your skin, they can cause skin irritation, itching and redness. So if you are unsure, it is best to ask your dermatologist for an allergy test. 

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