Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 13, 2023

Weed can smell incredibly acrid to non-users when they’re not used to its aromatic profile. In fact, when you were at the beginning of your weed journey, all weed probably smelled the same before you started recognizing its complexities. 

But even now, when you can confidently and fluently talk about all the aromas you can sniff in a weed strain, like a true connoisseur, there is one fact you can’t deny – sometimes weed smells like skunk.

So if you’ve ever been curious about why marijuana smells like a skunk, this article is for you. We’ll discuss what makes weed smell so good yet so skunky. Let’s go!

The Many Aromas of the Cannabis Plant Come From Terpenes

While the effects that marijuana is famous for are predominantly produced by the cannabinoids, namely, THC and CBD, there is another group of compounds that is just as important, and that is the terpenes.

Terpenes are organic compounds that give marijuana its distinctive aroma. They are present in most plants in varying combinations, but it just so happens that marijuana is laden with terpenes, which makes it so aromatic.

There are over one hundred identified cannabis terpenes, but only about a dozen of them are truly prominent in the plant. Each cannabis strain contains different terpenes in different ratios and combinations resulting in an endless variety of cannabis aromas (and consequently, effects).

What Terpenes Actually Do Except Smell

Terpenes don’t only give marijuana its distinctive smell. Originally, these compounds serve to attract pollinators and repel pests, or in other words, to protect the cannabis flowers in the wild.

But wait! There’s more. Terpenes also produce specific effects of their own, secondary to the cannabinoids, that enhance the overall benefits you get from weed. Cannabinoids and terpenes work synergistically to bring out the best of a particular weed strain. 

For this reason, terpenes are an important adjuvant component in medical marijuana because they possess analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, anti-depressive, and anti-microbial properties. 

Okay, But Why Does Marijuana Smell Like Skunk?

If the smell of skunk spray makes you go ew, the skunky smell of marijuana likely does not, but why do they smell so similar?

You may swear that skunk spray and weed share some similar compounds, but in reality, the answer is a bit underwhelming – they smell alike by coincidence.

Here’s the thing: skunk spray is composed of forms of organic sulfur called thiols which produce the foul smell that skunks emit to chase away predators. Some plants also contain thiols, including hops (cannabis and hops belong to the same plant family, by the way), but not marijuana.

As we said, the marijuana plant contains terpenes that make it so smelly, but the skunk smell comes from a particular terpene that’s present in most weed strains, called myrcene. There are also the terpenes limonene and caryophyllene as “the helpers” that contribute to the characteristic skunky aroma.

Not all weed strains contain large amounts of myrcene, though, so not all of them smell like a skunk, but those that do, have a very pungent skunky aroma (and they’ll usually have “skunk” in their name). But apart from being smelly, myrcene has some amazing benefits.

Myrcene, the Skunky Superstar

Myrcene is the staple terpene in cannabis, though not all strains have it in high concentrations. It has an earthy and musky aroma, and apart from cannabis, it’s also prevalent in bay leaves, hops, mango, lemongrass, and cardamom, among others. Once you learn to recognize its aromatic profile, you’ll no doubt smell it in other plants, too.

This terpene is largely responsible for contributing to the “couch-lock” sensation of some cannabis strains. It has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and sedative properties, and it’s a great muscle relaxant. 

If a cannabis strain contains more than 0.5% myrcene by weight, the effects will lean on the relaxing side, while strains with less than 0.5% myrcene will be more energizing.

Limonene and Caryophyllene, the Faithful Sidekicks

Limonene and caryophyllene are the second most prominent terpenes in cannabis right behind myrcene, and they also contribute to the complexity of the skunky smell. 

Limonene is a very common terpene found in most plants on earth. It has a fresh and citrusy aroma, and it’s most prominent in the oils of citrus fruit peels (lemons, limes, oranges, etc). Limonene is often used as a fragrance, in food flavoring, and as a supplement. It has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties. 

It also works great for reducing stress and anxiety – in fact, cannabis strains with large limonene content are often recommended for anxiety because limonene balances out the effects of THC. 

Caryophyllene has a sharp, spicy, peppery, and slightly warm aroma, and is also found in black pepper, oregano, clove, basil, rosemary, and cinnamon. Cannabis contains several forms of caryophyllene of which beta-caryophyllene and alpha-humulene are the most dominant. 

Just like THC, this terpene can bind to the CB2 receptors in the brain, and it exerts antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties. This terpene has very beneficial effects on anxiety, and it’s also good for pain relief and gastrointestinal issues. 

Other Common Terpenes Found in Different Strains of Marijuana

Here are some of the most common terpenes found in cannabis:

  • Pinene promotes mental alertness and is the terpene also prevalent in pine trees, rosemary, and basil, and it smells (you guessed it) piney;
  • Linalool has a sweet and floral scent and is also found in lavender and orange. It produces calming effects;
  • Borneol produces a distinctive earthy and slightly minty aroma. It fights inflammation and relieves pain; 
  • Eucalyptol has a minty smell and is abundant in eucalyptus. It can boost cognitive function;
  • Terpineol can help with pain relief and has anti-inflammatory effects. It’s also found in lilacs and lime blossoms, and it has a sweet and floral aroma with woody undertones;
  • Humulene is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory and its aroma is bright and spicy, akin to ginger.

What Does Cannabis Smell Like Before and After It’s Burned?

Growers know that fresh weed smells, well, fresh. Depending on the terpene profile of the particular strain, it can smell piney, fruity, musty, and so on, but the smell is still fresh and bright. There is an underlying herbal, earthy, and slightly skunky aroma nonetheless, but it’s not too overwhelming.

However, once the weed has been dried and cured, which is how it’s sold in dispensaries, the aroma becomes even more pungent. For a cannabis connoisseur, this is heaven, as you learn to distinguish and appreciate the aromatic complexities in cannabis (which only come with experience). 

Finally, smoking weed adds new layers to the smell. The natural aroma that cannabis has is now complemented by the smokiness of the burning cannabis buds which can be pungent. Some other aromatic notes may come forth that were faint before, adding to the overall smoking experience.

In general, it’s thought that Indicas have a more musty, skunky, and earthy aroma, while Sativas are on the sweeter and fruitier side, with just enough spice. However, this is in no way a rule since most strains available on the market are hybrids anyway, so you’ll find all kinds of terpene combos.

The Best Skunky Weed Strains 

Strains with the name “skunk” attached to them are likely to be very skunky and very potent. Most of them are hybrids that can produce some very specific effects, so if you’re a skunk lover, check out this list (or even if you’re not, maybe you’ll acquire a taste for skunky strains):

  • Skunk No.1
  • Skunk Hero
  • OG Skunk
  • Skunky Diesel
  • Johnny’s Tonic
  • Super Skunk
  • RainMaker
  • Northern Skunk
  • Shiva Skunk
  • Purple Skunk

The Takeaway – It’s the Terpenes

Marijuana and skunks may smell alike, but the similarities in their aromas are pure coincidence. Skunks produce thiol-containing gas which smells very similar to the terpene myrcene which is very prevalent in cannabis and thought to be responsible for the skunky aroma. 

The other two terpenes that contribute to the skunky aromatic profile of weed are limonene and caryophyllene, while the rest of the terpenes found in weed also lend a variety of smells to the different cannabis strains (and also produce beneficial effects of their own together with the cannabinoids).

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


The information presented on this page is provided as a public service to aid in education and is derived from sources believed to be reliable. Readers are responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed here. In no event shall Leaf Nation be held reliable for any injury, loss or damage that could happen if using or abusing drugs.