Why do some perfumes trigger headaches and migraines?

Perfumes, Headaches and Migraines

Credit photo: Andrea Piacquadio

It is not uncommon for some people to be cautious with perfumes as they can trigger headaches and migraines. In more severe cases, people may stop wearing perfumes altogether as they can’t find a headache-free alternative. Why do some perfumes trigger headaches? What alternatives exist for you if you are a headache sufferer but wish to keep wearing perfume?

What are headaches and migraines?

Headaches are very common. It is estimated that at least 75% of adults have suffered at least one headache in the last year. The exact mechanism of headaches is still not very well understood though. Nerves send pain signals to the brain and in the case of migraines, nerve cells are thought to overreact to the point of altering brain chemistry, resulting in debilitating pain.

There are many types of headaches though they fall into two broad categories: secondary headaches, which are related to another condition such as sinus congestion or head trauma, and primary headaches which are a condition on their own.

In the case of primary headaches and migraines, heredity seems to play an important part as migraines run in families. Triggers can be many such as eating certain foods, strong odours or exposure to allergens.

Why do perfumes trigger headaches and migraines?

Let's first reflect on how powerful our sense of smell is. Our nose is located very close to our brain and directly connected to it. Smells transit through this super highway to inform us about our environment. We can recognise a lot of scents and while some are pleasant, our sense of smell is primarily designed to detect danger and potential threats. Noses can be very sensitive to odours and it’s easy to see with such a close connection how what we inhale can send our brain into overdrive.

Scientists seem to agree that the more likely cause of perfume-triggered migraines and headaches is allergy or sensitivity to perfumes. Sinuses become irritated and swell up, provoking pressure build up leading to headaches.

It is however important to remember that the composition of a perfume can be complex. Many fragrances may be combined to create a signature scent but non-natural perfumes also often contain many odourless chemical components used for different purposes such as prolonging shelf life or boosting scent longevity.

As you can smell whiffs of perfumes throughout your day, you also inhale those chemical components. In many cases, such chemicals are thought to be the culprits for perfume sensitivity, migraines and headaches. If you are also experiencing headaches and migraines when smelling things such as petrol, cigarette smoke, paint etc, you are likely having a reaction to a chemical your perfume contains.

What you can do towards headache-free perfume wearing

It can be very frustrating not to be able to pamper yourself by wearing perfumes but there are a few things you can try.

The main thing to do is to identify the ingredient or ingredients triggering your migraines and headaches. This can feel like a daunting task but there may be a few things you can do to narrow things down.

Firstly, if you want to identify what you may be sensitive to, you need to be able to know all the ingredients going into the perfume you are testing. This is actually harder than it sounds. Many perfumers hide behind trademark and intelligence protection laws to keep their “recipes” secret. While some may be genuine, studies have shown many mainstream perfumes contain harmful chemicals, some linked to cancer. More information here

Luckily, a few perfumers understand the importance of being transparent and sharing exactly what people are putting on their skin and inhaling throughout the day.

Secondly, you can try natural perfumes. As mentioned before, you may be sensitive to a chemical component contained in the perfumes you tried on. If this is the case, the solution may be to avoid close contact with such a component while still wearing perfume. Genuine natural perfume brands design their products that way.

Ideally, you want to look at a brand that does both, being fully transparent about all the ingredients they are using and only using natural ingredients.

This may require some trial and error that you may have to pay with headaches so the process is not for the faint-hearted and there is no guarantee you will end up finding the one perfume you like that doesn’t give you headaches. However, if like for so many people, wearing perfume boosts your confidence, is a big part of your identity or is simply something bringing you a bit of joy you don’t want to miss out on anymore, it may be worth giving it a try.