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8 December 2021 / Caitlin Devlin

The role of terpenes in plants and essential oils

You may not know it, but terpenes are essential part of your favourite fragrances.

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Sri Lankan yellow flower at night

You may have heard the word ‘terpenes’ used in reference to essential oils before. But what exactly are terpenes, and what kind of role do they play?

What are terpenes?

Terpenes are a major constituent of essential oils. These organic compounds are known to give scent, flavour and medicinal benefits to various plants, and in recent years have begun to be investigated for their medicinal properties.

Many of the benefits of essential oils come from the benefits of the terpenes in the plant material, as does much of the scent.

You may have heard of some common terpenes such as limonene, pinene, and linalool.

What are terpenes good for?

Terpenes have several important roles in nature. As stated, they give the plant its fragrance and flavour, but they also play a part in the plant’s protection.

Terpenes can deter animals from grazing and prevent damage to the plant, and they can also act as a part of a plant’s immune system and guard against germs and infection.

Terpenes don’t just repel threats though; they can attract pollinators to the plant and help it to spawn elsewhere.

These days, isolated terpenes are commonly used by perfumers and food manufacturers to add scent and fragrance to products.

Bush daisies in the sun

Are there different kinds of terpenes?

The most common kinds of terpenes to find in essential oils are monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes.

Monoterpenes are considered by many in the aromatherapy community to be more stimulating and have been studied for their antiviral abilities.

Sesquiterpenes are considered more relaxing and have been found to play a role in regulating the body’s response to environmental stress.

What is the difference between terpenes and terpenoids?

Many people use the words ‘terpenes’ and ‘terpenoids’ interchangeably, but they are actually two separate things entirely.

Terpenes are the natural form of these compounds that exist in the plant. When the plant dries, these compounds oxidise and become terpenoids.

What is terpeneless oil?

Terpeneless oil is oil which has had its terpenes removed via fractional distillation.

Other oxygenated compounds also contribute to the scent and benefits of oils, and some oil producers believe that terpenes don’t keep well over long periods of time, reducing the potency of the oil.

For this reason some people prefer to produce or use terpeneless oil.

In summary:

  • Terpenes are organic compounds that give scent, flavour and benefits to plants.
  • They protect the plant in a number of ways.
  • Terpenoids are formed when a plant dries and the terpenes oxidise.
  • You can also buy oil that has had its terpenes removed via fractional distillation.

Shop our essential oils here.


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