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Are Terpenes Essential Oils?

What are terpenes?

At first glance, terpenes and essential oils can seem like the same thing; they both can come from plants, they’re both aromatic, they’re used for many of the same things. These many, many similarities have led to a wide misconception that they are the same thing, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Terpenes are organic compounds that provide botanicals with their flavor and aroma. Derived from isoprene—another organic compound—and come in a wide array of variations.

Monoterpenes are a class of terpenes that consist of two isoprene units and have the molecular formula C10H16may be linear (acyclic) or contain rings. Modified terpenes, such as those containing oxygen functionality or missing a methyl group, are called monoterpenoids. 

Diterpenes are a class of chemical compounds composed of two terpene units, often with the molecular formula C20H32. Diterpenes consist of four isoprene subunits. They are biosynthesized by plants, animals and fungi via the HMG-CoA reductase pathway, with geranylgeranyl pyrophosphate being a primary intermediate.

Polyterpenes are compounds comprising several hundred isoprene units and give rise to natural rubber. Poly means ‘many’, so that rubber is made up of many repeating isoprene units. The name for a compound made up of many such repeating units is a polymer.

The most common source of natural terpenes are plants but even some insects can produce terpenes on their own. Though you may not know it, you encounter terpenes every day. One common place you will come across terpenes is the kitchen. For example, the terpene gives your standard lemon juice and lime juice its distinct, citrusy scent. Isolated terpenes are used in cosmetics, perfumes, bath products, and much more.

What are Essential Oils?

To understand the difference between terpenes and essential oils, we must also know what essential oils (EOs) are. Essential oils are hydrophobic, volatile compounds acquired by processing plants. This is done using multiple methods but the most common ones are distillation and cold pressing. Essential oils are typically named after the plant they are derived from (ex. tea tree EO comes from tea tree leaves) and are called “essential oils” because they are considered to contain the “essence” of a plant. In recent years, essential oils have gained popularity for their declared health benefits. Many people use EOs in a diffuser in their homes to create a comfortable, nice smelling atmosphere.

What’s the Difference Between Terpenes and Essential Oils?

Even after reading what terpenes and essential oils are, you may still be confused. For starters, the primary difference between terpenes and essential oils are that essential oils contain terpenes a variety of other compounds as well. Because EOs are using an entire plant’s extracts, it will contain terpenes and other hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, isolated terpenes are comprised of just themselves. Isolated terpenes are selectively removed from a plant so while pine oil may contain alpha-pinene, gamma-terpinene, beta-pienene (along with other non-terpene compounds), your alpha-pinene isolate is going to be almost entirely made up of the alpha-pinene terpene. Another difference is that essential oils require a lot of raw materials. According to Earth Science Journal, in order to produce 1 pound of lavender essential oil, a total of 250 pounds of raw lavender is required. Terpenes do not need nearly this much raw material to be extracted. In summary, while all essential oils contain terpenes they also contain many other compounds while terpenes consist only of themselves. We hope this post helped clarify the difference between these two easily confused substances!

Sangita Kumari, Sachin Pundhir, Piyush Priya, Ganga Jeena, Ankita Punetha, Konika Chawla, Zohra Firdos Jafaree, Subhasish Mondal, Gitanjali Yadav. “EssOilDB: a database of essential oils reflecting terpene composition and variability in the plant kingdom.” Database, vol. 14, pp. 1-12. 2014. DOI: 10.1093/database/bau120

Nikki Yeager. “1 Pound of Essential Oil = 250 Pounds of Lavender.” Earth Island Journal. 28 July, 201

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