As the legal cannabis market grows into a $13.6 billion industry, plant extracts like CBD and terpenes have grown into a multi-billion dollar space in their own right.
However, as in any rapidly emerging market, there’s a reasonable degree of confusion between products — particularly among prospective new consumers. An illustrative case in point is the confusion between terpenes and essential oils.
While both terpenes and essential oils have their respective applications in the realm of natural health and wellness, key distinctions between the two make them impractical to use interchangeably. Let’s go over these differences below, as well as a crucial secondary function that sets terpenes apart from other plant extracts.
What are Terpenes?
Terpenes are naturally occurring aromatic hydrocarbons found in all plant life. Because hundreds of terpenes can be found in the cannabis plant alone, cannabis research is what led the extensive study effort into terpenoids and their benefits.
This association between the two causes some consumers to assume that terpenes can only be found in terpenes, which isn’t the case. In fact, terpenes are found in flowering plants, fruits, vegetables, herbs and even spices.
Other than their documented medicinal and therapeutic potential, perhaps the most notable thing about terpenes is their role in the entourage effect that occurs when consuming non-cannabis isolate products, such as bud, flower, full-spectrum CBD and vape oils. Terpenes are often added to hemp and (legal) cannabis products to bolster their aroma and flavor.
The Entourage Effect, Explained
The “Entourage Effect” is a term coined by Israeli organic chemists S. Ben-Shabat and Rafael Mechoulam to describe the process of cannabinoids and terpenes working in tandem to essentially amplify each other’s effects on the human body.
This is achieved by their modulatory influences on the endocannabinoid system, which is a network of receptors that regulate hormone and neurotransmitter activity within the nervous system.
Studies show that the entourage effect has positive implications on symptoms of a range of neurophysiological conditions, including chronic pain, depression and anxiety disorders. This makes terpenes valuable not only in themselves, but as components in full-spectrum cannabis extracts and infused food or beverages as well.
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils or EOs, on the other hand, are the combined extracts of plant material put through press, solvent, or steam extraction processes. Sesqui-, mono- and diterpenes can be found in essential oils, along with secondary compounds like flavonoids and polyphenols.
This is the reason for the distinction in nomenclature between terpenes and EOs, where the former are named individually (e.g. Caryophyllene or Linalool) while the latter are simply named after whichever plant they were extracted from (e.g. lavender EOs, eucalyptus EOs, etc).
While essential oils are ideal for use in aromatherapy, diffusers, and massage, they are far less versatile than terpenes in terms of infusion potential.
Because of the presence of flavonoids and polyphenols, EOs are non-viable for infusion into food, beverages, or vape oils due to their effect on flavor. However, they are more than suitable for use in therapeutic candles, bubble baths, and soap. In the end, the key consideration when choosing between terpenes and essential oils is your own intended use case.