What are Terpenes and Why are They Included in Naturally Derived Topical Pain Relievers?


As cannabidiol (CBD) has become more popular and widely utilized, there’s another plant compound that is garnering significant attention: terpenes. So, what exactly are terpenes and how can they be used alongside cannabinoids in topical pain relievers?

What are Terpenes?

Terpenes are a diverse range of organic compounds produced in the resin glands of a variety of plants such as conifers, cannabis (including hemp), lavender, citrus, and even certain insects., They are a key component of essential oils, which could be one of the reasons they garner so much attention in integrative medicine.

These compounds are responsible for giving plants their odors. But this is actually part of their natural defense and reproduction strategy. Terpenes help plants (and some insects) ward off predators, lure pollinators, and fight harmful bacteria and toxins. Aromatherapists and other integrative medicine practitioners believe that terpenes support humans in a similar way, reinforcing humanity’s interconnectedness with the natural world.

The infographic below demonstrates a variety of hemp terpenes, along with their scents, sensations, and chemical structures. The chemical structure of each varies between linear form, like myrcene, and that of a ring shape, such as limonene, depending on the number of cyclic rings in each terpene’s chemical makeup.

hemp terpenes

How are Terpenes Different from Cannabinoids?

While they can both be found in the hemp plant, they have different chemical makeups and interact with the body differently.

As you may be aware, cannabinoids are chemical compounds that bind to receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), the body’s switchboard that helps humans and other mammals maintain homeostasis. As the names suggest, endocannabinoids are produced internally in the body while phytocannabinoids are introduced through plant compounds. Both types of cannabinoids help the body maintain its equilibrium.

The two most well-known cannabinoids found in cannabis include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is psychoactive and is the compound responsible for making you feel high when you ingest marijuana.

CBD and THC both have the same chemical formula, including the same number of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. The difference is how their chemical formulas are structured. The difference in their structural configurations is that THC has a cyclic ring and CBD has a hydroxyl ring, which causes them to interact differently with ECS receptors.

While they both interact with receptors CB1 and CB2, THC binds to both, allowing it to be psychoactive, while CBD blocks them both.

While hemp terpenes can interact with the endocannabinoid system to take effect along with cannabinoids in what is known as the ‘entourage effect’, all terpenes can also effect the body through inhalation. The inhalation of essential oils stimulates the amygdala and hippocampus by way of the olfactory system, which can address physiological or psychological symptoms.

When a client smells essential oils, their guanine nucleotide-binding protein (G-protein) coupled receptors (GPCR) are activated, creating electrical signals that are then sent to the brain by olfactory sensory neurons. Research indicates that this may provide various psychophysiological effects, such as calmness and relaxation, to the client.

Hemp Terpenes and the Entourage Effect

There are around 200 terpenes found in the hemp plant, but only a handful are abundant enough to emit odors. These same terpenes can also be found in other plants, which are listed below. Some of the noteworthy hemp terpenes include:

  • Linalool. The same terpene found in lavender has a sweet, floral scent.
  • Limonene. Limonene can also be found in lemon rind, orange rind, and juniper.
  • Myrcene. Also found in lemongrass and hops and contributes to the scent of beer.
  • Alpha and beta-pinene. Both are also found in pine needles and have an earthy, woody aroma.

The entourage effect is the idea that hemp plant compounds, including cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, work best when combined in products because they work together to maximize each other’s effects on the endocannabinoid system. This theory is aligned with the naturopathic notion that plants are most effective when used in the purest form that is possible, barring any safety risks.

To explain the entourage effect to your clients or patients, it might be easier to start with the concepts in permaculture regarding companion planting. If you’re not familiar with this, it is the practice of planting specific plants close together so they can mutually support each other’s growth and defense.

Similarly, terpenes work together to support each other’s natural benefits from growth to protection. And they are thought to support humans in a similar fashion.

Benefits of Terpenes

So, how can terpenes benefit your patients and clients? Since they form the basis of essential oils, they are a key component of aromatherapy and many naturally-derived products. That’s why you can even find them in products you use every day like your natural toothpaste.

Whether you use pain relief products that contain essential oils or utilize aromatherapy on its own during your sessions, the scent of terpenes is said to support both physical and mental health.


Users of aromatherapy often report that they experience a better night’s sleep, feel reduced stress, feel less anxious about external triggers, feel less depressed, and feel a better sense of well-being and balance.

Additionally, naturally-derived, topical pain relief products combine terpenes, such as camphor and menthol, as active ingredients for their counterirritant properties, with other essential oils for aromatherapy benefits.

While camphor and menthol can be found in small amounts in hemp, camphor derived from camphor-laurel trees and menthol derived from peppermint are the only terpenes recognized by the FDA as active ingredients for the temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain.

CBD CLINIC utilizes synergy blends in both our topical pain relievers and massage oils to create soothing yet powerful formulas for topical pain relief and massage therapy. We combine our active ingredients (camphor, menthol, and lidocaine) with terpenes found in eucalyptus, clove, tea tree, frankincense, and other essential oils. Together, they enhance the cooling effects of the active ingredients—and support their pleasant aromas.

The Power of Plants

Now that you have a better understanding of terpenes, you’re ready to help your patients experience the benefits of these plant-based compounds. Whether it be for aromatherapy or their counterirritant properties, terpenes are naturally derived substances that can support the body both physically and mentally.

The incorporation of terpenes into pain-relief creams and ointments is a holistic remedy that can help benefit your patients’ or clients’ pain relief journeys.

How many terpenes can you find in your household products? We’d love to hear how terpenes find their way into your life.

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