Every year, before the leaves even change color, everyone seems to be talking about pumpkin spice. Love it or hate it, the associations are powerful. Though most of us don’t realize it, part of what we recognize about that warm, festive smell and taste is the terpene α-terpinene.
Herbs like allspice, cardamom, marjoram, verbena, and even eucalyptus contain essential oil with relatively high amounts of this unmistakable fragrance compound . In the cannabis plant, α-terpinene (or alpha-terpinene) possesses a more woody, lemony aroma than the gingerbread-harkening plants like allspice. Yet, in cannabis, the scent is just as pleasing.
Here we’ll explore the benefits of, uses for, and fun facts about α-terpinene. Whether you enjoy this terpene in your latte or your favorite cannabis product, there’s no denying this powerful essential oil has much to offer.
What are terpenes?
The largest class of compounds in essential oil is terpenes. Terpenes are natural compounds made up of isoprene molecules and serve plants and trees by giving off protective scents that attract pollinators and detract predators. The chemical composition of their main components includes molecules containing five carbon atoms with double bonds .
Besides endowing plants with their respective smells and tastes, terpenes have become major constituents in food chemistry production, cosmetics, commercial fragrances, and medicinal products. With an influx of promising anecdotal reports about the therapeutic benefits of terpenes, scientists continue to study the potential antioxidant activity, antiviral properties, and antibacterial activity of specific terpenes.
For instance, certain botanical extracts like eucalyptus oil are lauded for their potential antioxidant and antifungal properties due to the terpene eucalyptol being present in the oils . Whether this translates directly to getting the same benefits from the terpene alone is still a question.
What is α-terpinene?
Alpha-terpinene is a volatile oil found in various plants such as cannabis, juniper, cardamom, and eucalyptus. Also produced industrially, α-terpinene is a chemical rearrangement of a-pinene  with a molecular weight of 136.23 g/mol .
A-terpinene is a component of the herbal essential oil, tea tree oil, which has been long used in folk medicine as a treatment for athlete’s foot, lice, nail fungus, and insect bites, yet more research is needed to determine exactly what role a-terpinene plays in the outcome .
What are the main α-terpinene effects?
Though the effects of α-terpinene are often associated with aromatherapy, cannabis users have identified other potential therapeutic effects as part of the entourage effect; the way in which terpenes work synergistically with cannabinoids to bolster the effects of the cannabis plant. For instance, some users claim they experience a greater sedative effect when a cannabis strain has a higher presence of a-terpinene .
Terpinenes have a strong preservative effect as they can act as antifungals. For this reason, they are used in food substances and cosmetics to preserve shelf life . Additionally, α-terpinene has been researched for its effect on cancer cells. A study published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Research found that α-terpinene contributed to the inhibitory activity of cancer cell growth in lab animals . Further investigation will reveal if there are viable human cancer treatments to come from this promising discovery..
Precautionary statements about the safety of α-terpinene generally advise against prolonged exposure to the skin or eyes in high concentrations. The potential toxicity of the terpene has not been fully investigated. However, any terpene in high concentrations may be toxic, so caution is advised when handling them .
Uses for α-terpinene
Alpha-terpinene has become a popular flavoring agent in the food and beverage industry and a natural fragrance for cosmetics such as skin lotions and shampoos. Due to its unique chemistry, α-terpinene is also used in electronics and semiconductor manufacturing materials .
Cannabis strains high in α-terpinene
Though α-terpinene is not among the most prominent terpenes in cannabis, it is among the top 20 cannabis-derived terpenes. Some strains that are relatively high in it are:
Sour Special Sauce – This Indica-dominant strain is the result of pairing Special Sauce with GG#4 Conversion. Woody, fruity, spicy and sour with astringent berry notes, the strain hints of an exotic, sour earthiness.
Super Sour Space Candy – Bulky and dense, this Sativa-dominant strain from Oregon CBD emerges from the crossing of Sour Tsunami with GG#4 Conversion to produce this extra-sour flavor built upon the beloved Sour Tsunami.
Hawaiian Haze – An award-winning, Sativa-dominant hybrid from Oregon CBD, this strain is born by crossing DC Haze “CC” and Early Resin Berry (ERB). The resulting unique and funky terpene profile evokes the taste of the tropics.
What is the entourage effect?
Originally proposed in 1999, the entourage effect describes an analysis of cannabis compounds—such as terpenes, flavonoids, and other chemicals— acting synergistically with cannabinoids in the endocannabinoid system, resulting in chemistry that modulates the overall effects of the plant. It follows that terpenes would add to the entourage effect because they are part of the overall composition of the plant materials .
Sources of α-terpinene
One of the main constituents of tea tree oil, α-terpinene can also be extracted from a variety of other plants, including:
- Juniper 
Final thoughts about α-terpinene
What is it that makes this terpene unique? Of course, the particular subtleties of its scent and potential therapeutic benefits keep consumers coming back for more. But another interesting trait that sets α-terpinene apart from other terpenes is its relevance to specific commercial products— ones not limited to foods, beverages, cosmetics, and cleaning agents like most other terpenes. Namely, its application to electronics, such as semiconductor manufacturing , puts this dynamic terpene in a category all of its own.
Medical Disclaimer / Legal Disclaimer – Information is provided for educational purposes. It does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice or medical advice. We attempt to be accurate and up to date, but the legality of cannabinoids and the science of cannabis are evolving. The author is neither a legal professional nor a medical expert. Before buying or using any products, you should check with your local authorities and medical providers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a difference between CBD and THC?
Yes but they are related. CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are both naturally-occurring cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, and both have the same molecular structure. A slight difference in how the atoms are arranged accounts for the differing effects on your body.
What is the difference between alpha-terpinene and gamma-terpinene?
Alpha-terpinene is one of three monoterpenes associated with terpinene. Beta- and gamma-terpinene are the two others). Each of the double bonds differs in positioning from the other variations of the terpenes. For instance, in a-terpinene, the double bonds are at the 1- and 3-positions of the p-mentha 1,3 diene skeleton .
Can you get high on terpenes?
Even when terpenes are extracted from marijuana, they do not contain THC and are not psychoactive in and of themselves. However, they may affect how you experience THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids because of their role in the entourage effect—the analysis of how other compounds in cannabis work together synergistically to enhance the effects of the plant .
Do a-terpinene and p-cymene have similar aromas?
Both terpenes occur in relatively high concentrations in allspice, eucalyptus, and cannabis. Some people find that they have similar smells.
What is γ-Terpinene?
Y-Terpinene is a variation of a-terpinene.