Terpenes vs Cannabinoids: What’s the Difference?

January 9, 2024

Written By: Earth Buddy Team

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The discussion about terpenes vs cannabinoids can be complicated to those new to the cannabis world. Cannabinoids are more commonly discussed than terpenes, but that doesn’t mean terpenes are any less important. They’re just not as well-known as the other compounds in cannabis, like THC and CBD for dogs and cats. Cannabis testing has allowed scientists to discover compounds like terpenes and different cannabinoids, their differences, and other cannabis constituents.

Terpenes VS Cannabinoids

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While terpenes and cannabinoids are cannabis-related compounds and both play significant roles in the cannabis plant and its effects, they are indeed distinct chemical compounds with key differences.

Understanding these differences is crucial in appreciating their unique contributions to the cannabis industry, the plant’s properties, and the effects they produce. Some of the primary differences between terpenes and cannabinoids include:

Molecular Structure of Chemical Compounds

Terpenes and cannabinoids differ fundamentally in their molecular structure. Despite both being organic compounds, they have entirely different chemical structures, which contribute to their unique properties and effects.

Occurrence in Nature’s Plant Species

Terpenes are quite abundant in the plant kingdom, found in a wide array of plants beyond cannabis, including fruits, flowers, and herbs. They are responsible for the aromatic and flavor profiles of many plants. Cannabinoids, on the other hand, are found in far fewer species. While most famously associated with the cannabis plant, they are also present in a select few other plant species, but in much lower concentrations.

Evaporation Temperature

The evaporation points of terpenes and cannabinoids are vastly different, which affects how they are extracted and used. Terpenes are volatile compounds that can evaporate at temperatures as low as below 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). This is why the aroma of terpenes is often noticeable at room temperature. In contrast, cannabinoids require much higher temperatures to evaporate, typically over 150 degrees Celsius.

Diversity of Types

The diversity of these compounds also varies greatly. There are over 100 different known natural cannabinoids, each with their own effects and properties. However, this number pales in comparison to the diversity of terpenes, which number over 30,000 across all plant species. This vast array of terpenes contributes to a wide range of aromas and flavors found in nature.

Cannabinoid Constituents That Communicate With The ECS and The Entourage Effect

There are over 100 cannabinoids that scientists have found able to communicate with the endocannabinoid system. The most abundant cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD (cannabidiol), CBDa (cannabidiolic acid), and CBG (cannabigerol). The other cannabinoids are still being investigated by researchers involved in cannabis science, but what is known in plant science is, they are all part of the entourage effect.

Predominant Terpenes in Cannabis Plants and Essential Oils

Terpenes, the aromatic compounds found in cannabis plants, play a fascinating role in the plant kingdom. Secreted from the resin glands of the cannabis plant, these volatile compounds are responsible for the distinctive and often potent aromas not only of Cannabis sativa plants but also of a wide variety of other plants, such as pine cones, flowers, and citrus fruits. Interestingly, terpenes are also the primary constituents of essential oils, which are used in aromatherapy and perfumes.

However, the primary function of terpenes in nature extends beyond just creating pleasant or distinctive smells from essential oils in the diffuser. In the wild, these compounds serve a more crucial role in the survival and plant growth.

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One of their key functions is to attract pollinators. The aromatic properties of terpenes help lure in insects and animals that play a role in pollination, thereby assisting in the reproductive process of the plant.

Terpenes also act as a defense mechanism against predators. Their strong odors and flavors, based on terpene composition, can deter herbivores and pests from eating the plant, and in some cases, they can even inhibit the growth of harmful fungi and bacteria.

In addition to these ecological roles, terpenes contribute significantly to the oxygenation process in cannabis plants.

There are actually hundreds of terpenes out there, but only a select few have been studied and noted to have effects. The most common terpenes that have been studied include caryophyllene, limonene, myrcene, and pinene.

Myrcene in the Cannabis Plant

Myrcene, classified as a monoterpene, holds a prominent position in the world of cannabis due to its prevalence and distinctive characteristics. It is often the dominant terpene in many cannabis strains, sometimes comprising up to 65% of the strain’s total terpene profile. This high concentration of myrcene plays a crucial role in differentiating between the two primary strains of cannabis: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.

The presence and concentration of myrcene in a cannabis plant significantly influences its classification and effects. Strains with high levels of myrcene tend to be classified as Cannabis indica, which are typically associated with helping maintain calmness. These effects are often sought after for help coping with external stresses, occasional discomfort, and promoting rest.

On the other hand, Cannabis sativa strains generally have lower concentrations of myrcene and are more commonly linked to supporting energy production.

Myrcene’s influence extends beyond just the categorization of cannabis. It is also responsible for the plant’s unique and often pungent aroma. Myrcene emits a distinctly musky, earthy, and herbal scent, which is sometimes described as resembling cloves or balsamic.

This terpene is not exclusive to cannabis; it is also found in other plants such as mango, lemongrass, thyme, and hops. The presence of myrcene in these plants contributes to their specific aromas and flavors.

Limonene in the Cannabis Plant

Limonene, a prominent terpene renowned for its fresh, citrusy aroma, is commonly associated with citrus fruits such as lemons, oranges, limes, and grapefruits. It is this terpene that imbues these fruits with their distinctively zesty and refreshing scent.

Beyond its prevalence in the citrus family, limonene also holds a significant place in the cannabis world, being the second most abundant terpene in many cannabis strains. The concentration of limonene can vary considerably across different cannabis strains, contributing to the diversity in their aromas and effects.

When you encounter the smell of a citrus-based cleaner, it is often limonene you are detecting. This terpene is widely used in household cleaning products, perfumes, and air fresheners due to its pleasant scent and its ability to dissolve oils and other substances, making it an effective natural cleaning agent.

The presence of limonene in cannabis contributes not only to the aroma profile of different strains but also to their therapeutic effects. It’s known for helping maintain normal emotional balance, making strains high in limonene popular for those seeking help reducing the effects of normal environmental stress.

Pinene in Cannabis and Pine

Pinene, as the name suggests, is a terpene primarily responsible for the characteristic smell of pine trees. This terpene is what imparts the distinctive, refreshing aroma to pine needles, making it one of the most recognizable scents in nature. However, the presence of pinene extends beyond just pine trees; it is also found in a variety of other plants and herbs, contributing to their unique aromatic profiles.

In addition to pine needles, pinene is abundant in herbs such as rosemary, parsley, and dill. In rosemary, it combines with other aromatic molecules to produce the herb’s signature robust and woodsy fragrance. In parsley and dill, pinene contributes to their fresh, green, and slightly bitter scents. This wide occurrence of pinene in various plants is a testament to its versatility and importance in the plant kingdom.

In the context of cannabis, pinene is one of the terpenes that contribute to the complexity of the plant’s aroma and its overall profile. Strains high in pinene may have a clear, sharp piney aroma and are often sought after for promoting normal inflammatory pathways and helping support normal respiratory function and health.

Linalool in Lavender and Cannabis

Linalool is a naturally occurring terpene known for its distinct and potent floral aroma, which is particularly abundant in lavender plants. This terpene is largely responsible for the calming and soothing fragrance that is characteristic of lavender, a scent that is widely recognized and appreciated for promoting calmness. Linalool’s presence, however, extends beyond just lavender; it is also found in other plants such as cinnamon and birch, contributing to their aromatic profiles.

In cinnamon, linalool adds to the spice’s warm, sweet, and slightly woody fragrance. In birch trees, it combines with other natural chemical compounds to produce a crisp, fresh, and somewhat medicinal scent. These diverse occurrences of linalool in various plants highlight its versatility as a contributor to a wide range of natural aromas.

The floral scent of linalool is not only pleasing to the senses but also has potential benefits. It is widely used in aromatherapy, particularly in products containing lavender, for its ability to support normal emotional balance. Research has suggested that linalool may have sedative properties, contributing to its effectiveness in promoting calmness and providing help for restless animals.

Caryophyllene and the Endocannabinoid System

Caryophyllene or beta caryophyllene, known for its distinctive spicy, peppery scent, stands out in the terpene world due to its unique chemical structure and interaction with the body’s endocannabinoid system. This terpene is commonly found in various plants and spices, such as black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon, contributing to their warm and spicy aromas.

The most remarkable aspect of beta caryophyllene is its ability to interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), particularly the CB2 receptors. Unlike other terpenes, beta caryophyllene, both a terpene but also acts similarly to cannabinoids by directly engaging with these receptors. This interaction makes beta caryophyllene a compound of interest in scientific research, especially regarding its potential abilities to relieve occasional discomfort.

More Cannabis Terpenes

Other terpenes found in the cannabis plant include humulene (also found in basil and cloves), omicene (promotes defense mechanism in plants), and terpinolene (combination of wood, citrus, and floral scent).

Cannabis Terpenes vs Cannabinoids: They Work Differently

Cannabinoids and cannabis terpenes work differently in the body. Here’s how they differ:

How Cannabinoid Compounds Work

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There are two primary receptor types in the endocannabinoid system; CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are commonly found in the central nervous system. CB2 receptors are primarily located in the immune system. Although both of these receptor types have a primary location, they can be found throughout the body and they both promote homeostasis.

Each cannabinoid binds to a different receptor in the endocannabinoid system to provide specific effects. THC, for example, can bind to either receptor type but prefers to bind to CB1 receptors.

The main function of the CB1 receptor is to regulate serotonin levels. By stimulating the CB1 receptors, THC can change serotonin levels in the brain. That’s why those who utilize THC have psychoactive effects. CBD oil for dogs and cats, however, interacts with both cannabinoid receptors, but doesn’t stimulate the CB1.

How Cannabis Terpenes Work and the Entourage Effect

Terpenes’ role in the body varies based on how it’s used; topically, inhaled, or orally. They are activated through the GABA receptors and TRP channels when they’re applied topically or ingested and brought into the digestive system. When they’re smelled, the olfactory sensors are triggered and the signals are sent to the olfactory bulb and the brain.

Cannabis terpenes don’t bind to CB1 receptors, either, so they don’t work in the same way as cannabinoids like THC. However, terpenes do contribute to the plant’s unique aroma and flavor profile and are believed to play a role in influencing its effects, a phenomenon often described as the “entourage effect.”

Commonly Abundant Cannabinoids Found in Pet Supplements

We couldn’t possibly discuss 80-100 cannabinoids in one swoop, but there are some that you may see frequently while you’re digging into the cannabis world. They’re often referred to as the major cannabinoids. Cannabis for dogs and cats can be a confusing topic and how to use cannabis oil for pets is a topic understood by looking at how different cannabinoids work in our pets bodies.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in Medical Cannabis and Other Uses

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is a key compound found in the cannabis plant, and its effects on the body can be attributed to its interaction with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). One of the fascinating aspects of THC is its ability to mimic anandamide, an endocannabinoid naturally produced in the mammalian body.

Anandamide, often referred to as the “bliss molecule,” plays a role in promoting relaxation and supporting a healthy appetite. By mimicking this endocannabinoid, THC is able to bind to and activate the ECS cannabinoid receptors, particularly the CB1 receptors in the brain, leading to the effects cannabis users associate with cannabis use.

The THC compound exists in several different forms (all psychoactive cannabinoids), each with its own unique properties and effects:

Delta-9-THC Found in Medical Cannabis

This is the most well-known form of THC and is the primary psychoactive component in marijuana. It binds to CB1 receptors in the brain and alters normal neurotransmitter release, affecting cognition, memory, pleasure, coordination, and perception in cannabis users. This is the cannabinoid commonly recommended for use as medical cannabis for medicinal purposes for humans with health issues.


Delta-8-THC is similar to Delta-9-THC but with slightly different chemical properties and effects. It is less potent than Delta-9-THC and interacts with both CB1 and CB2 receptors.

Delta-10-THC (THCP)

Delta-10-THC, also known as THCP, is a relatively less known variant of THC. It is structurally similar to Delta-9-THC but is found in much smaller quantities in the cannabis plant. The effects and potency of Delta-10-THC are currently a subject of ongoing research.

Cannabidiol or CBD for Dogs & Cats

Cannabidiol is the most common compound you’ll likely hear about when discussing full spectrum hemp extract, especially CBD for dogs & cats. There’s a significant amount of research available regarding CBD, especially now that the pet market is booming with CBD oil for dogs and cats.

The properties of CBD oil for dogs and cats are helpful in promoting mental and physical well-being. One of the many ways cannabidiol can be beneficial is by providing our pets with antioxidants.

Antioxidants have been shown to aid in the elimination of unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals. Just by providing antioxidants, CBD for dogs and cats assists the body in combating environmental pollutants, helps decrease oxidative damage, and supports normal bodily functions.

Cannabichromene (CBC) in Cannabis Plants

Cannabichromene, commonly referred to as CBC, is another significant cannabinoid found in cannabis plants, ranking as the third most prevalent cannabinoid after THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).

It highly resembles CBD in molecular structure, but more research needs to be conducted to understand its full effects. Despite being less well-known than its counterparts, CBC holds considerable interest within the scientific community.

Cannabinol (CBN) Is The Side Product of THC

Cannabinol, commonly known as CBN for dogs and cats, is a unique cannabinoid in that it is not directly produced by the cannabis plant in significant amounts but is instead a byproduct of the aging and degradation of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

As a metabolite cannabinoid, CBN is formed when THC is exposed to heat and light over time. This process of degradation typically occurs when cannabis plants become overly ripe or when cannabis buds are stored for extended periods. When it comes to using CBN with CBD for dogs & cats, there are a wealth of health benefits!

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) Found in Cannabis

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is a cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant, chemically similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s most famous and psychoactive compound. Despite their structural similarities, THCV and THC have distinct properties and effects.

THCV is less common than THC and CBD (cannabidiol) in most cannabis strains. However, it is typically found in higher concentrations in certain African and Asian strains of cannabis.The growing interest in cannabinoids like THCV reflects a broader trend in cannabis research, focusing on less prevalent cannabinoids and their unique physiological effects.

Terpenoids and Phytocannabinoids As Secondary Metabolites From the Glandular Trichomes

Terpenoids and phytocannabinoids, while distinct in their chemical nature and effects, share a common origin in the cannabis plant. Both of these compounds are produced as secondary metabolites within the glandular trichomes where cannabinoid biosynthesis occurs (primary metabolites are not unique to cannabis and are found in most plants).

2 of Earth Buddy’s cat & dog supplements containing Kief cannabinoids like our best cbd for dogs with arthritis.

The glandular trichomes are tiny, often hair-like structures predominantly found on the surface of the female flower of the Cannabis plant. These glandular trichomes are the plant’s biochemical factories, where a variety of compounds are synthesized. These same trichomes are what Earth Buddy uses in a variety of products such as Gut Health Colostrum for dogs & cats, Maxx Life Glutathione for dogs & cats, and our best mushroom supplements in Focus+Immune mushroom capsules for dogs & cats. You may see it labeled as “dry-sieve Kief”, “Hemp Essence”, or “Whole Plant Hemp Extract” but these pet supplements contain the full spectrum of medicinal benefits of perfectly intact trichomes.

The uniqueness of the secondary metabolites known as phytocannabinoids to cannabis sets this plant apart in the botanical world of plant genomes, contributing to its distinctive properties and the wide array of effects it can produce.

Understanding this complex process is crucial for cannabis production, breeding, and cannabis cultivation practices, as it allows growers to manipulate conditions to optimize the production of specific cannabinoids for different uses and effects.

For more information on how Earth Buddy combines the medicinal properties of Terpenes & common Cannabinoids found in pet supplements, check out our Learn Page.

For further reading, we recommend:

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