Perfume and headaches

Can perfumes really cause headaches and migraines?

Well, it would appear that they can.

It seems that everybody knows someone who has allergic reactions caused by perfume, including headaches and migraines.  In order to explore olfactory migraine in more detail the following questions are a must:-

  • 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 you headaches

Perfume allergies are common and if you are suffering severe headaches caused by perfume you are not alone. 

Approximately twelve to fifteen percent of the American population for instance is allergic or sensitive to modern chemicals that are found in commercial fragrances.

In comparison to nut allergies which is less than two percent this is a high number.

Video Playlist
1/4 videos
Can smells make you sick? Scent sensitivity could be dangerous
Can smells make you sick? Scent sensitivity could be dangerous
Why does fragrance make some people sick?
Why does fragrance make some people sick?
Toxins In Fragrances And Artificial Scents
Toxins In Fragrances And Artificial Scents

One report revealed that approximately thirty-four percent 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 odours were the second most frequent trigger of migraines with stressful situations being the most frequent trigger.

Why Does Perfume Give You a Headache?

Bad head

This is a question that the average person would not associate with perfume as most perfumes are deemed to be natural and their ability to make you smell like a bouquet or field of flowers is unmatched.

Unfortunately, this is not one hundred percent true as perfumes used to be made of botanical ingredients but in today’s age the perfume industry gets the 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 ninety-five to a hundred percent of the ingredients used in perfumes are synthetic and furthermore the cost of the actual perfume is around two percent of the total cost of the perfume product on shelves.

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.

There is no reason to become worried about the health effects of these perfumes but there is a reason to be careful.

While people who suffer from perfume migraine can control their own use of perfume, it would seem that undesirable fragrances can pop up anywhere in everyday life for instance:

  • You might smell a co-worker’s overpowering fragrance
  • You visit a house with scented candles
  • You walk into the perfume section in a department store
  • You smell fragrance strips in a fashion magazine
Scented Candle

How Does Perfume Cause Migraines?

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

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


Commercial fragrances contain many chemical components and some of these use that same roadway to our nervous system. The exact method by which odours cause headaches and migraines is still being studied but there are several theories that exist.

Some researchers believe that strong odours cause blood vessels in the brain to pulsate, causing a headache or migraine. 

There are however others that believe odours can stimulate parts of the brain and nervous system that are responsible for feeling pain in the head.

Olfactory chemical irritants that are smelled are transmitted by the sensory nerves and can cause negative effects such as a perfume headache on the system that causes headaches known as the trigeminovascular system.

How does the brain process scents?

Video Playlist
1/4 videos
Why Smell is More Important Than You Think | Holladay Saltz | TEDxRVA
Why Smell is More Important Than You Think | Holladay Saltz | TEDxRVA
Olfactory System: Anatomy and Physiology, Pathways, Animation.
Olfactory System: Anatomy and Physiology, Pathways, Animation.
Why you cant smell your own perfume, olfactory adaptation
Why you cant smell your own perfume, olfactory adaptation
Toxins In Fragrances And Artificial Scents
Toxins In Fragrances And Artificial Scents

Scientists have found that there are areas of the brain that trigger pain or migraine headaches, and this is unfortunate because they are also the areas that process scent and odours.

Researchers have also discovered that people who have a strong sense of smell are very intolerant to smell, who experience irritation in their mouth and nose from certain smells  that have adverse reactions in their brains to odours in general.

Why some perfume components trigger migraines for some people and others do not is a scientific mystery. 


Which Ingredients in Perfume is Causing these Olfactory Migraines?

Excedrin who has been around for fifty years and specialise in headache medicine indicate that these migraines can be caused by a strong smell which can become problematic.  The following range of smells are some examples:-

  • Perfume
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Paint thinner
  • Cleaning products
  • Car exhaust
  • Petrol/diesel

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

With over four thousand components regularly used in the fragrance industry and with perfumes containing over six hundred different chemical components a lot of research still needs to be done in this field.

What Ingredient in Perfume Causes Headaches?

In order to assist you in choosing fragranced products in the future below are listed some components that the International Fragrances Association commonly use in perfumery and that should be avoided:-

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


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.  A couple of widely used ethers are anisole or methoxybenzene.


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


Dimethoxyethane has a sharp, sweet, alcoholic green hay odour.


Dioxane is not listed on labels as an ingredient but can be present as a trace contaminant as it is used as a solvent in the making of fragrance.  It is a by-product of commonly used derivatives such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, ammonium, laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, ceteareth and oleth which in themselves are not necessarily dangerous.

Dioxane is marketed under the trade name Karanal and is widely used in fragrance. It has recently become restricted in Europe.


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

Specific Ordours

Beside the triggering components that may be found in perfume there are additional odours that you may be sensitive to. While you may not experience problems with some scents it is always best to test your reaction to them first.

The most common odours that migraine patients are tested for sensitivity include rose, Japanese  cypress and vanillin.  Research published in the International Headache Society journal has revealed that migraine sufferers had a lower intolerance to vanillin.

Are there Perfume Headache Treatments?

It could be said that the best perfume headache treatment would be to avoid them altogether. After learning a little about how perfumes can cause migraines and headaches you may be wondering what you can do to prevent and eliminate perfume-induced migraines and with that in mind below are a few perfume headache remedies you can try to reduce your chance of experiencing a perfume headache.

Migraine Diaries

In the first instance it is important that you ascertain whether it is fragranced products that are triggering your headaches.

A simple way to find out what is causing your migraine is to keep a migraine diary. Recording when you start to have symptoms and being aware of what is around you will help to determine what the cause of your perfume migraine is whether it may be perfumes, air fresheners, detergents or even essential oils.


Check with your Doctor for Testing and Medications

Allergy test

If your migraines are particularly bad it is a good idea to take your migraine diary to your doctor who can perform tests to help you determine the specific triggers and find an effective treatment to stop or lessen the effects of perfume migraines.

In the workplace


Some public places are moving to a fragrance-free environment but what can you do if a co-worker wears heavy perfumes?

 Well, it is a good idea to talk to your employer about the issue and also if 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 cannot work due to migraines. If you make them aware they can address the issue

Nose Plugs and Scent Blocking

Nose plugs can help but they are not practical especially at work.  Alternatively, you could try to alter the environment close to your body. 

You could use a method called scent blocking where you place a scent you can tolerate very close to you in order to dull or block the scent of other fragrances. You may also consider purchasing an air purifier to neutralise the air in your workspace

Use Fragrance-Free and/or Natural Products

For yourself and others consider carefully the fragranced products that you can use in your daily life. Take control and select unscented products where you can.

Natural Perfumes

For your next new fragrance try natural perfumes.

 Although they may prove to be a little more expensive it may help you to finally wear a perfume you can enjoy without negative allergic reactions or side-effects.

Headache Free Perfumes

Finding a perfume that will not give you a migraine by trial and error can quickly become a very expensive search.  A more effective way is to make a shortlist and look at the ingredients in the perfume.  This will probably rule out most of the perfumes on the market.  Practically all perfumers consider the list of ingredients they use a ‘trade secret’ and therefore will not make the list of ingredients public.

Mostly this secret list is labelled on the perfume packaging as ‘perfume fragrance’. Since you cannot not know what is in this the best option to avoid perfume headache is to only consider perfume manufacturers that publish a full list of the ingredients. Once you have found a perfume with all of the ingredients listed is would be wise to check if any of the listed ingredients used is known to give you a headache.

Rena Tatton - Nidara Perfumes

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