Perfume headaches and migraines

A perfume headache? Can perfumes really cause headaches and migraines?

They certainly can.

It seems like everybody knows at least one person who has allergic reactions caused by perfume, including headaches and migraines.

In this guide, we will delve deeper into perfume headache, aka olfactory migraine, and we’ll explore the following questions:

  • Why does perfume give you a headache?
  • What in perfume gives you a headache
  • How to get rid of perfume headaches?
  • Perfumes that don’t give headaches

Fragrance allergies are widespread and if you are suffering from severe headaches caused by perfume, you are definitely not alone.  Approximately 12-15% of the American population is allergic or sensitive to modern chemicals that are found in commercial fragrances. For more information, see our article on non-toxic perfume. For comparison, less than 2% of the population suffers from peanut allergies.

One report revealed that 34.7% of the population reported health problems, with allergy symptoms such as migraines, headaches and respiratory difficulties, when exposed to fragranced products. Research from the medical university UMS in Brazil has shown that for men, strong smells and odors were the second most frequent trigger of migraines, with stressful situations being the most frequent trigger.

Why does perfume give you a headache?

How is this possible? How can perfumes cause head pain? Perfumes are natural, right? And their ability to make you smell like a bouquet or field of flowers is unmatched.

What we hope it is…
What it usually is…

If those were your thoughts, sadly they are not 100% correct. Perfumes used to be made of botanical ingredients. However, these days, the perfume industry gets the vast majority of its components not from flowers and herbs, but from crude oil and turpentine oil.

In fact, it is a well-kept secret in the fragrance industry that 95-100% of the ingredients used in perfumes are synthetic (according to the Invisible Disabilities Association). What’s more is that the cost of the actual perfume (the liquid itself) is 2% of the total price of the perfume product on shelves For more information, read ‘Why perfume is so expensive”.

Apart from allergic reactions like severe headaches and migraines, other symptoms of fragrance allergies can include a runny nose, watery eyes, and even asthma attacks.

Are you starting to get worried about the health effects of these perfumes? Well, there is no need for panic, but there is reason to be careful.

While people who get perfume migraine can control their own use of perfume,  it seems that undesired fragrances can pop up anywhere. WebMD gives a couple of examples:

  • You smell a co-worker’s fragrance
  • You visit a house with scented candles
  • You walk into the beauty (perfume) section in the department store
  • You smell fragrance strips in a fashion magazine

How does perfume cause migraines?

How exactly do perfumes and other fragrances cause olfactory migraines?

Well, not surprisingly, it all starts with the nose. Our nose is an exceptional organ. It has thousands of receptors, and with a bit of training, it allows us to distinguish hundreds of different smells.

Our nose is also one of the few organs in our body which has a direct connection to our bloodstream and nervous system. It can act like a highway to our brain.

This powerful connection with our brain is important for our survival. Certain smells (e.g. smoke, fire or other toxic smells) can trigger an immediate alert in our brain and allow us to remove ourselves from the danger.

Unfortunately, commercial fragrances contain many chemical components. Some of these use that same super-highway to connect to our nervous system. The exact method by which odors cause headaches and migraines is still being studied, but there are several theories that exist.

Some researchers believe that strong odors cause blood vessels in the brain to grow and shrink (i.e. pulsate), causing a headache or migraine. Others believe odors can stimulate parts of the brain and nervous system that are responsible for feeling pain in the head. Olfactory chemical irritants (irritants that are smelled) are transmitted by the sensory nerves and can cause negative effects such as a perfume headache on the trigeminovascular system (the system that causes headaches!)

perfume and brain olfaction

Your brain and how it processes scents

This piece of research in the US National Library of Medicine tells us that some of the areas of the brain that process scent and odors are, unfortunately, also areas that are involved in migraine headaches and pain perception.

Researchers have also determined that people who have a strong sense of smell or are very intolerant to smell, who experience irritation in their mouth and nose from certain smells (like capsaicin in spicy food), have adverse reactions in their brains to many odors in general.

Why some perfume components trigger migraines for some people and others don’t is still a scientific mystery.  Some scents can even become part of the ‘aura’, visual symptoms like flashes or patterns that indicate a migraine is about to happen, which some migraine sufferers experience.

Which ingredients in perfume is causing these olfactory migraines?

The people at Excedrin (headache medicine) indicate that these migraines can be casued by a strong smell. The following range of smells can be problematic.

Olfactory migraine triggers:

  • Perfume
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Paint thinner
  • Cleaning products
  • Car exhaust
  • Gasoline

Indeed, research published in Clinical Science confirms nicotine, formaldehyde, capsaicin, ether, and cigarette smoke as verified triggers for chemical sensitivity.

Upon seeing the list above, perhaps you have noticed that practically all of these odors (including commercial perfume) are petroleum-based. Hmmm…are we on to something here?

With over 4,000 components regularly used in the fragrance industry, and with perfumes containing easily over 600 different chemical components, a lot of research still remains to be done in this field.

We get it, it’s overwhelming. But what we can say for sure is that most of the ingredients that have been found to be linked with migraines are typically found in synthetic, commercial perfumes.

In order to aid you in choosing fragranced products in the future, we will detail some components that the International Fragrance Association lists as commonly used in perfumery and that should be avoided.

What ingredient in perfume causes headaches?

  • Ethers
    • Anisole or methoxybenzene
    • Dimethoxyethane
    • Dioxane
    • Tetrahydrofuran

Ethers

Ethers are confirmed triggers for chemical sensitivity specifically migraines. Ethers are a broad class of compounds that contain an ether group. An ether group is the connection of one oxygen atom with two alkyl groups: R-O-R’.

Here are a couple of widely used ethers:

Anisole or methoxybenzene

anisole-perfume-migraine

Anisole has a phenolic, ethereal anise scent, reminiscent of anise seed. It does occur in nature but is mostly synthetically made. It is used to obtain more machinery/gasoline like notes.

Dimethoxyethane

1,1-dimethoxyethane has a sharp, sweet, alcoholic, green hay odor.

Dioxane

1,4-dioxane is not listed on labels as an ingredient but can be present as a trace contaminant, as it’s used as a solvent in the making of fragrance. It’s a by-product of commonly used derivatives such as Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Laureth Sulphate, PEG compounds, ceteareth and oleth, which in themselves are not necessarily dangerous.

1,3-dioxane, 2-(2,4-dimethyl-3-cyclohexen-1-yl)-5-methyl-5-(1-methylpropyl)- is marketed under the trade name Karanal and is widely used in fragrances. It has become recently heavily restricted in the EU.

Tetrahydrofuran

Tetrahydrofuran can be used to create a tobacco-like scent.

Specific odors

Aside from these triggering components that may be found in perfume, there are additional odors that you might be sensitive to. While you may not experience any problems with these scents, it is always best to test your reaction to them first.

The most common odors that migraine patients are tested for sensitivity include Rose, Japanese Cypress, and Vanillin. Research published in the ‘Cephalalgia’ Journal from the International Headache Society has revealed that migraine sufferers had a lower tolerance for vanillin.

Are there perfume headache treatments? What can you do when you suffer from perfume headaches?

The best perfume headache treatment is prevention. After learning a little about why and how perfumes can cause migraines, you may be wondering what you can do to prevent and eliminate perfume-induced migraines. Don’t worry – we have your back (or your nose…or your head!) and have compiled some perfume headache remedies you can take to lower your chance of experiencing a perfume headache.

Migraine diaries

First, determine if it is fragranced products that are triggering your headaches.

Start by keeping a ‘migraine diary’

A good way to find out what is causing your migraine is to keep a ‘migraine diary’. Recording when you start to have symptoms and examining what is around you will help you determine what the cause of your perfume migraine is: perfumes, air-fresheners, laundry detergents, or even essential oils…

Check with your doctor for testing & medications

You really should take your migraine diary to your doctor, who can perform tests to help you determine the specific triggers and find an effective treatment. The doctor may also provide you with over-the-counter medications to prevent, stop, or lessen the effects of olfactory migraines.

In the workplace

Second, some public places are moving to a ‘fragrance-free’ environment but what can you do if your co-worker Cheryl just won’t stop dousing herself in strong perfume? Start talking to your employer immediately when the issue arises and whenever you start a new job in the future. Most employers do not have a fragrance-free policy, but employers do care, since they lose money and productivity when their employees can’t work due to migraines. Share these accommodation ideas with your employer.

Make use of the support provided by the Job Accommodation Network which specifically discusses fragrance sensitivity. They walk you through steps you or your employer can take in the workplace to limit your exposure to fragrances. They even provide sample language for a fragrance-free workplace policy. Remember, it is within your rights to respectfully tell a co-worker how his or her fragrance affects you and request that they not wear that product to work.

Nose plugs & scent blocking

Third, nose plugs can help, but of course these are not practical most of the time. Alternatively, you may try to alter the environment close to your body. You can use a method called “scent blocking” where you place a scent that you can tolerate very close to you (maybe even on your body) in order to dull or block the scent of other fragrances. One of our friends uses Vick’s Vaporub to “scent block” because she can tolerate the smell of menthol. You may also consider purchasing an air purifier to neutralize the air in your workspace.

Use fragrance-free and/or natural products

Finally, for yourself, and for others, carefully consider the fragranced products that you use in your daily life and that you put onto your body. Take control and select unscented products when you can.

Natural perfumes

And, for your next new fragrance, try natural perfumes. Many buyers tell us that after switching to a natural perfume they can finally enjoy wearing a perfume without negative allergic reactions or side-effects. Are you ready to make the switch?

Headache free perfumes

So, if you’re currently suffering from perfume headaches, does this mean that you will never be able to wear fragrances again?

Well, what is absolutely certain is that you will need to pay attention and preferably do some research. Many people who have headaches from one perfume or from mainstream synthetic perfumes do not get headaches from another perfume or from purely natural perfumes.

How do you find perfumes or beauty products that will not give you a headache?

Finding a perfume that will not give you a migraine by trial and error can quickly become a very expensive search. A good way to make a shortlist is to start with looking at  the ingredients in the perfume. This will actually rule out most of the perfumes on the market. Practically all perfume manufacturers consider the list of ingredients they use a ‘trade secret’ and so they will not make the ingredients used public.

Avoid ALL products that do not disclose the ingredients. Unfortunately, this means practically all commercial perfumes.

Mostly, this secret list is labeled on the perfume packaging as ‘perfume fragrance’. Since you cannot know what is in this, the best option to avoid perfume headache is to only consider perfume manufacturers that publish a full list of ingredients.

Your next step is to look at the list of ingredients and check if any of the ingredients used is known to cause you a headache.

nose and allergies

What about natural perfumes?

We are, of course, big fans of natural perfumes, if only because the ingredients are well-known and studied natural components. This means that if there are natural elements that cause allergic reactions, such as sulphur (which of course would not be used in an actual perfume) then these properties are usually well-known.

And this is not the case for newly discovered or synthesized components. These lab-created components are tested in labs, and often on animals, and after a series of tests, are released to the public at large. The perfume industry has a long record of synthetic ingredients that were afterwards recalled, banned or severely limited, often after several years or even over a decade.

In sharp contrast to the general non-disclosure practices in the perfume industry, Splash of Scent offers you 100% natural perfumes and fully discloses the ingredients.

You can find a full list of the ingredients used in these natural perfumes here:https://splashofscent.com/ingredients/

Other perfume migraine sufferers have tried and tested Splash of Scent:

I don’t really wear perfumes because they give me migraines, however ALL 3 scents I was just fine with! No migraines or itching or rash at all!

I am very pleased with my order! All scents are just heavenly & do not give me a migraine.

Splash of Scent offers you a ‘Try At Home Discovery Kit‘ so you can try and test the perfumes without committing to a larger purchase.

One of the top sellers is PRIM: opening with fruity raspberry, bergamot orange and blood orange notes, Prim evolves into a delicious flowery scent with delicate hearts of rose and peony and ends in a sumptuously sweet woody, musky jasmine. Hints of patchouli and myrrh turn this classic scent into a more complex treat for your senses.

Over to you

We hope you found this overview informative and useful – I certainly put a ton of work into researching and writing it! If you think there is something I missed, please let us know.

Will you switch to natural perfumes? Or did you find another solution?

Let us know by leaving a comment below!


References & Further Reading:

“Migraine and the Environment”, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2009.01443.x

“Osmophobia in Migraine and Tension-Type Headache and Its Clinical Features in Patients With Migraine”, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-2982.2007.01421.x

“Increased limbic and brainstem activity during migraine attacks following olfactory stimulation”, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51508299_Increased_limbic_and_brainstem_activity_during_migraine_attacks_following_olfactory_stimulation,

“Odor processing in multiple chemical sensitivity.”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16767766?dopt=Abstract

“Osmophobia in Juvenile Primary Headaches”, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-2982.2008.01589.x

“Odors as triggering and worsening factors for migraine in men” http://www.scielo.br/pdf/anp/v69n2b/v69n2ba11.pdf

“Brain activation during odor perception in males and females.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11435941?dopt=Abstract

“Olfaction in migraine”,https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9399001

“Fragranced consumer products: exposures and effects from emissions.”,https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27867426

“Evaluation of olfaction in patients with migraine using an odour stick identification test”, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0333102411410612?journalCode=cepa

“Smells That Cause (and Cure) Migraines”,https://www.tmjtherapyandsleepcenter.com/blog/smells-cause-cure-migraines/

IFRA ,”http://admin-ifra.alligence.com/Upload/Docs/Transparency%20list.pdf


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