April 27, 2021

Fragrances are such a prominent part of our lives and pleasant smells can have many beneficial health effects. The holistic field of aromatherapy is dedicated to using pleasant scents to enhance health. But what about the negative side effects of certain scents, even the pleasant ones? Can they be unhealthy?

Headache (Photo: Pexels)

There are many people who develop severe headaches from smelling certain pleasant scents, such as colognes and perfumes. So why and how does this happen? Scientists believe a couple of different explanations may come into play.


“Well, not exactly.. on average, 80 % of fragrance formulations are comprised of synthetic compounds.”

How can perfumes cause head pain? Perfumes are natural, right? They are made of botanical ingredients, flowers and herbs, right?

Well, not exactly. These days, the perfume industry gets the vast majority of its components not from flower bouquets and herbs, but from crude and turpentine oil. Most commercial fragrances, colognes, soaps and laundry detergents are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum and natural gas, known as petrochemicals. On average, 80 % of fragrance formulations are comprised of these chemicals and in some cases, 100 % of a formula can be synthetic.

Herbs or petroleum? (Photos: Pexels)

A research published in Clinical Science confirms nicotine, formaldehyde, capsaicin, ether, and cigarette smoke as verified triggers for chemical sensitivity and most of these ingredients that have been found to be linked with migraines and headaches are typically found in synthetic, commercial perfumes.

A person may be allergic to a chemical element in a perfume, creating the smell. Similarly, a person might have a fragrance sensitivity to certain odors that irritate the senses, causing allergy-like symptoms, including watering eyes, runny noses, and headaches.


“There are several theories, but some scientists say, it’s smell sensitivity or overwhelm that causes the pain.”

It all starts with the nose. Our nose is an exceptional organ that contains thousands of receptors, and with a bit of training, it allows us to distinguish hundreds of different smells. It has a direct connection to our bloodstream and nervous system and it can act like a highway to our brain. The exact method by which odors cause headaches and migraines is still being studied, but there are several theories that exist.

Some scientists say fragrance sensitivities are on the rise, thanks to the numerous products available today that come in a wide variety of different scents. From air fresheners and laundry detergents to dishwasher detergents and fabric softeners, the air you breathe, the clothes you wear, and even the dishes you eat off of can smell like a citrus grove or a mountain breeze.

Citrusy detergents (Photo: Pexels)

In the case of strong odors, such as cologne and perfume, experts believe these intense odors, even if they’re otherwise pleasant, may cause a person’s blood vessels to swell and shrink (i.e. pulsate), and, in turn, stimulate the nerve system in the brain, causing a headache or migraine. Very powerful odors tend to over-stimulate these nerves and cause head pain, explains Dr. Hirsch. That explains why »about 20 percent of migraine sufferers say smell is enough to trigger a headache«.

However, while some scents may cause you a headache, others eau contraire, may relieve it. The green apple aroma for example, was found to reduce the severity and duration of headaches in those who suffer from migraines and »the results were equivalent to taking a prescription drug«, says Dr. Hirsch.

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.

Yet why some perfume components trigger migraines and head pain for some people and not others, is still a scientific mystery.


“The best two tips we can give: first try out natural perfumes or perfumes with high quality ingredients, second try lowering the intensity of the fragrance by applying less of it.”

So, if you’re currently suffering from perfume headaches, a good way to potentially avoid them is to start with looking at  the ingredients in the perfume. However, the problem might be that practically all perfume manufacturers consider the list of ingredients they use a »trade secret«, so they will not make the ingredients they used public.

So, avoid products that do not disclose the ingredients and only consider perfume manufacturers that publish a full list of ingredients. Unfortunately, this means avoiding practically all commercial perfumes. 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 or other allergic reactions.

You can also try out natural perfumes, if the ingredients are known and if their natural elements do not cause you any specific negative side effects.

Natural perfume (Photos: Pexels)