Decoding the Science of Cannabis Malodors: From Terpenes to … – Happi

Tackling the challenge of neutralizing cannabis and smoke odors goes beyond simply mixing ingredients. It demands a deep understanding of the root causes of these scents and the science behind neutralizing agents. With a fusion of scientific precision and insights from consumers, I’ve developed products that proficiently combat cannabis and malodors.

Understanding Cannabis and Smoke Odors

Cannabis odor is mainly attributed to terpenes, while smoke odor includes a range of volatile organic compounds. So, what are terpenes?

Terpenes are a large and varied class of organic compounds produced by various plants, including cannabis. They play a vital role in the plant’s biology, mainly deterring herbivores, attracting pollinators, and protecting the plant from environmental stresses. Terpenes are responsible for the distinct aromatic and flavor profiles of different cannabis strains.

Some of the most prevalent and well-researched terpenes commonly found in cannabis.

Terpenes are volatile aromatic molecules. In cannabis, they are primarily responsible for the scent and flavor of the buds. Beyond scent, some terpenes may have potential therapeutic properties. For instance, myrcene might have relaxing effects, limonene could be uplifting, and pinene might promote alertness.

● Biosynthesis: Terpenes are synthesized in the glandular trichomes of the cannabis plant, the same glands where THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids are produced.

● Variability: Different cannabis strains contain different terpene profiles. This is why some strains smell like berries, others like pine, and others like diesel or skunk.

● Entourage Effect: A theory called the “entourage effect” suggests that cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) and terpenes work together synergistically. This means that the combined effect of THC, CBD, terpenes, and other compounds in the cannabis plant may be greater than the sum of their individual effects.

● Difference from Cannabinoids: Terpenes are found in many plants, not just in cannabis. While they can influence the effects of cannabis, they don’t interact with the endocannabinoid system in the same direct way that cannabinoids do. Cannabinoids are a class of compounds exclusive to the cannabis plant, with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) being the most well-known. They interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to produce various effects.


● Stability: Like all volatile aroma molecules, terpenes are sensitive to light, heat, and air exposure, which can cause them to degrade or evaporate.

There are more than 100 different terpenes identified in the cannabis plant. However, the concentration and presence of these terpenes can vary widely among different strains and cultivation methods. Here are some of the most prevalent and well-researched terpenes commonly found in cannabis:

● Myrcene: Often described as earthy, musky, and herbal – similar to cloves.

● Limonene: As the name suggests, it has a strong citrus scent, resembling lemon.

● Pinene: Reminiscent of pine and fir.

● Linalool: Floral and reminiscent of lavender.

● Caryophyllene: Spicy and peppery, often found in spices like black pepper.

● Humulene: Earthy and woody, also found in hops and coriander.

● Terpinolene: A complex aroma with notes of pine, floral, herb, and even a little citrus.

● Ocimene: Sweet and herbaceous, sometimes with hints of wood.

● Eucalyptol: As the name suggests, it smells like eucalyptus.

● Nerolidol: Fresh bark, earthy, and slightly woody.

Besides terpenes, cannabis contains other aromatic compounds that can contribute to its distinct odor. One group of compounds particularly noteworthy in this context is the thiols (Mercaptans), sulfur-containing organic compounds with strong and often pungent odors. In cannabis, thiols can contribute to the “skunky” aroma often associated with certain strains. Sulfur compounds can be potent odorants, some detectable at extremely low concentrations. The interplay of terpenes, compounds like thiols and potentially other yet-to-be-identified molecules play a role in crafting the intricate bouquet of scents we associate with the plant.


The Challenges of Neutralizing/Masking the Odor of Cannabis Terpenes

Neutralizing or masking the odor of cannabis terpenes presents multiple challenges due to the complexity and potency of the aromatic compounds involved. Some of the challenges include:

● Variability of Terpene Profiles: Different cannabis strains have distinct terpene profiles, producing different odors. A solution that works for one strain might be less effective for another.

● The potency of Terpenes: Terpenes can be very potent odorants. Even in low concentrations, they can produce strong odors that are perceptible to humans. This potency can make it difficult to neutralize their smell completely.

● Interactions Between Terpenes: The combined effect of multiple terpenes can produce a unique scent different from the sum of its parts. This interaction can make it harder to effectively predict and neutralize the overall odor.

● Presence of Other Odorants: Compounds like thiols can contribute to the cannabis aroma. Neutralizing or building a formula inspired by terpenes alone might not address the full spectrum of odors.

● Environmental Factors: Factors like humidity, temperature, and airflow can influence the volatility of aroma chemicals and, consequently, the intensity of their odor. These factors can complicate odor control efforts.

● Masking vs. Neutralizing: Simply masking the odor with another fragrance might not be effective in the long run. The masking scent can wear off, mix with the cannabis odor in an unappealing way, or might not cover the cannabis scent uniformly. On the other hand, neutralizing agents aim to chemically react with odor molecules to reduce their presence or perception. To do this well, be sure to work with an expert to formulate thoughtfully and effectively.

● Costs: Effective odor neutralization might require sophisticated equipment, especially in large-scale cultivation facilities, adding to development and operational costs. Despite these challenges, various ready-to-use solutions exist to address cannabis malodor, including carbon filters, ozone generators, neutralizing sprays, and odor-eliminating gels. However, the effectiveness of these solutions can vary based on the specific context and requirements.

Smoke Odor Eliminators & Mechanisms to Counter Cannabis Odor

● Absorption/Carbon Filters: Carbon filters, particularly activated carbon filters, are popular for odor control in cannabis cultivation areas. They work by adsorbing the odor-causing molecules onto the surface of the carbon. These are often incorporated into the exhaust system of indoor grow rooms or tents, ensuring the air leaving the area is free from the strong cannabis scent.

● Ozone Generators: Ozone generators produce ozone (O₃), which can neutralize odors by breaking down odor-causing molecules. However, it’s essential to use ozone generators with caution. Ozone can harm plants, humans, and pets if used improperly. It’s best to use them in unoccupied spaces and ensure thorough ventilation before re-entry.

● Chemical Neutralization: Some compounds can react chemically with odor molecules to produce non-odorous or less odorous products. For instance, zinc ricinoleate reacts with and neutralizes certain odor-causing acids. Biodegradable and plant-based neutralization technologies like Cosmo International’s ScentSilent Natural are powered by artificial intelligence, which allows for the development of custom formulations tailored to each product’s specific needs and target audience.

● Negative Ion Generators: Devices that release negative ions into the air can help neutralize odors. The ions can cause odor-causing particles to clump together and fall out of the air.

● Air purifiers/exhaust systems and ventilation: Ensuring efficient airflow and ventilation can help disperse and dilute the odor. Pairing exhaust systems with carbon filters can be especially effective. Depending on the type and brand, they might use a combination of mechanical filtration, carbon filtering, and other technologies.

● Microbial and Enzymatic Solutions: Beneficial microbes can break down odor-causing organic compounds, and these microbes are sometimes incorporated into sprays or mists. Enzymatic solutions are especially effective in treating pet odors, food spills, and organic waste.

● Encapsulation: involves trapping odor molecules inside larger molecules, reducing their ability to evaporate and hence be detected. Cyclodextrins, the odor trapper used by Febreze, is an example.

● Humidity Control: By controlling humidity, one can affect the volatility of aromatic compounds. High humidity can reduce the volatility of some organic molecules, making them less likely to evaporate into the air and be detected as an odor.

● Scent Masking: New scent formulas can be created to mask the odor of cannabis rather than neutralize it. If you work with an experienced product developer like my Innovation team at Perfumarie, the Formulator would be mindful of the olfactory properties of various compounds and how they interact. A complex approach, as the perception of scent can be influenced by a myriad of factors, including concentration, other scents present, and individual differences in perception. While not strictly scientific, understanding market trends and consumer preferences can help develop an effective and appealing product.

A few things to note….

● Product Safety and Efficacy: Terpenes, when consumed at typical levels found in cannabis products, are generally considered safe. However, the safety profile can change when they are isolated and concentrated. Regulatory bodies are showing concern about the use of added or reintroduced terpenes in products like vapes, especially after concerns regarding vape-associated lung injuries. Formulators must be well-versed in ingredient safety and the environmental impacts of scented products. Different countries or regions may have varied regulations concerning the use of certain compounds in consumer products. Ensuring that a product is compliant is essential.

● Dermal Safety: Some compounds may cause irritation or allergic reactions when they come into contact with the skin. Product formulators must be aware of these risks.

● Respiratory Safety: Inhalation safety is crucial for sprays. Ingredients should not pose respiratory hazards or exacerbate existing conditions.

● Environmental Impact: Consider the product’s environmental effects, especially if it’s aerosol-based or contains non-biodegradable compounds. In areas with significant cannabis cultivation, especially near urban centers, odor from cannabis farms can concern local communities. Some jurisdictions have implemented or are considering regulations that require cultivation operations to implement odor control measures. This often includes carbon filtration systems or other odor-neutralizing technologies.

Looking Ahead

As the legal cannabis industry continues to grow and as societal interest in the plant’s therapeutic potential increases, research and innovation in these areas will likely accelerate.
Several emerging technologies and methods are being developed and refined to understand, manipulate, and work with cannabis terpenes and their odors. The next few years could see significant advancements in our ability to understand, manipulate, and work with cannabis terpenes. Here are some of the promising directions:


● Advanced Chromatography Techniques: As the cannabis industry grows, there’s increasing interest in refining techniques like gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to identify and quantify specific terpenes in cannabis strains. This can help breeders and producers fine-tune strains for specific terpene profiles.

● Genetic Engineering and CRISPR/Cas9: Advances in genetic engineering, especially CRISPR technology, might allow for the targeted manipulation of cannabis plants to enhance or reduce specific terpene production. This could lead to strains with tailored aroma profiles or strains that produce specific therapeutic terpenes in higher concentrations.

● Synthetic Biology: Synthetic biology offers the promise of engineering microorganisms (like yeast) to produce specific cannabis terpenes. This could pave the way for sustainable and scalable production of pure terpenes without cannabis cultivation.

● Nanotechnology in Filtration: Nanofiltration and other nano-structured materials are being explored for their potential to capture and neutralize odors, including those from cannabis. The small scale of these materials may offer increased efficiency in trapping terpene molecules.

● Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence: Machine learning algorithms are being employed to analyze large datasets related to cannabis terpenes and their effects, potentially uncovering patterns and correlations that might not be immediately evident to human researchers.

● Electronic Noses (E-Noses): These devices mimic the human olfactory system and can detect and identify odors. E-noses, with their array of sensors, could be used to detect and quantify terpenes in cannabis samples, providing a consistent and objective measure of aroma profiles.

● Odor-Reducing Cultivation Techniques: Research is being conducted to refine cultivation techniques that might naturally reduce the production of odors in cannabis plants. These techniques could include specific lighting conditions, nutrient regimens, or controlled environmental stressors.

● Bioinformatics and Cannabis Genomics: As the full genomic sequences of various cannabis strains become available, bioinformatics tools can help identify genes responsible for terpene synthesis. Understanding these genetic pathways can lead to targeted breeding or engineering for desired terpene profiles.

● Terpene Recombination: As we understand more about the individual terpenes in cannabis, there’s potential to recombine them in specific ratios outside of the plant. This could lead to custom aroma profiles for products or specific therapeutic formulations.

● Environmental Sensors and IoT: Integrating environmental sensors in cannabis cultivation environments, combined with the Internet of Things (IoT), can lead to real-time monitoring and adjustments to optimize terpene production or manage odors.

In scent design, effective formulations demand a judicious blend of scientific rigor, innovative thinking and a deep understanding of market trends. Experts will offer meticulous research, an intrinsic understanding of the chemistry involved, and an unwavering commitment to safety, efficacy, and environmental responsibility.

While we’ve covered a considerable expanse of the science behind cannabis and its odors in this article, the topic is vast and ever-evolving. With the industry’s burgeoning growth, there will continually be fresh challenges and new opportunities to innovate.

About The Author
Mindy Yang, an award-winning sensory expert, masterfully combines psychology, fine arts, fragrance, and flavor design expertise with an unwavering passion for innovation. Recognized for her trailblazing work in beauty, wellness, hospitality, retail and fragrance with Perfumarie and AvroKO Amenities, she’s transformed how people perceive and connect

Mindy Yang

with the world around them. If you find yourself grappling with the challenges of odor mitigation, be it in a product, facility, or another application, and require a nuanced, science-backed approach, Yang invites you to reach at Perfumarie to harness the power of science and innovation together. For consultations or engagements, please email Perfumarie’s Innovation Lab at

Yang is also the co-founder and chief engagement officer of the World Taste and Smell Association at TasteAndSmell.World, a distinguished 501(C)3 nonprofit organization. Under her leadership, the World Taste and Smell Association champions advocacy for those affected by chemosensory disorders and fosters innovation, bringing together global enthusiasts in the captivating domains of taste and smell.

Beyond her professional milestones, Yang is a devoted advisor, consultant, media contributor, change agent and philanthropist. Follow Yang on social media under @GoDolceVita.

Additional Reading

Scent Air’s New Neutralizer Targets Cannabis Odor

Weed Be Gone: Clorox Professional’s Odor Defense is proven to eliminate marijuana odors.

Dude, Pass The Wipe!


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