What Are Terpenes and How Do They Work?

Medically Reviewed on 10/12/2021
what are terpenes and how do they work
Terpenes are aromatic compounds naturally found in  plants that give them their unique fragrances. They are the main ingredient of many essential oils

Terpenes are aromatic compounds naturally found in various plants that give them their unique flavors and fragrances. They are the main ingredient of many essential oils and are often used in aromatherapy or other alternative therapies.

In plants, terpenes play various roles in:

  • Attracting pollinators
  • Repelling predators, such as insects or foraging animals
  • Helping plants recover from damage
  • Keeping infectious germs at bay

What plants contain terpenes?

Plants that contain terpenes include:

  • Cannabis
  • Rosemary
  • Peppermint
  • Lemongrass
  • Evergreen shrubs
  • Tea
  • Thyme
  • Spanish sage
  • Citrus fruit
  • Pine
  • Lavender

What are medicinal uses of terpenes?

Table 1. Terpenes and their medicinal properties
Terpene Medicinal properties
Tea tree Contains active ingredients to treat skin infections and acne
Thyme Has powerful antibacterial and antifungal properties
Cannabis Has psychoactive properties to help treat psychosomatic diseases
Spanish sage Enhances memory and is used in antidementia drugs
Citrus fruits Destroy lice and their larvae
Citral Has antibacterial and antifungal effects
Lemongrass Insect repellant

Other properties associated with terpene include the following:

  • Insecticidal: Terpenes are effective against pests, such as lice or mites. Terpenes used in anti-insect formulations include:
    • Limonene
    • Beta-ionone
    • Geraniol
    • Eugenol
    • Myrcene
  • Antimicrobial: Terpenes can kill or stop the growth of microorganisms. Terpenes used as antimicrobials include:
    • Pinaceae
    • Sage
    • Rosemary
    • Thyme
  • Antiviral: Terpenes that have antiviral properties include:
    • Carvone
    • Carveol limonene
    • Alpha and beta-pinene
    • Caryophyllene
    • Beta-ocimene
  • Anti-cancer: Terpenes have been widely touted to have cancer-fighting properties. Examples include:
    • Limonene found in citrus fruits
    • Thymoquinone found in black cumin
    • Alloocimene
    • Beta-myrcene
    • Pinene
    • Terpinene
    • Thymohydroquinone
  • Folk medicine: Terpenes are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or Ayurveda.
Table 2. Plants used in traditional medicine
Plant Terpene present Uses in Ayurveda Uses in TCM
Lemon Limonene Oral cavities, digestive problems, abdominal colic pain, and cough Digestive problems and cleansing the body
Orange Limonene Digestive disorders, abdominal colic pain, and worm infestation Stomach ache and cough
Juniper Limonene Antiseptic, treat cellulite, pain, and swelling Treat cold and urinary problems
Indian gooseberry Phyllaembicilins Boost immunity, strengthen hair follicles, cure acne and pimples, improve the circulatory system, and cure diarrhea Treat diarrhea, jaundice, and inflammation
Cinnamon Alpha-pinene, caryophyllene, linalool, alpha-phellandrene, cymene, humulene Cold, diabetes, high cholesterol, digestive problems, bronchitis, and sinus congestion Cold, diabetes, high cholesterol, digestive problems, control sweating
Ginger Zingiberene Digestive problems, joint pain, and air sickness Cold, cough, wheezing, asthma
Garlic Nerolidol, alpha-pinene, and terpinolene Treat pimples, tumors, snakebites, wounds, headache, heart disease, gastric problems, ulcers, and measles Food poisoning and digestive problems


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Medically Reviewed on 10/12/2021
Cox-Georgian D, Ramadoss N, Dona C, Basu C. Therapeutic and Medicinal Uses of Terpenes. Medicinal Plants. 2019;333-359. Published 2019 Nov 12. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-31269-5_15