October 25, 2016

The "F Word" That Could Be Causing Your Headaches

Woman in front of Lavender Fields

It's no secret that we live in an odor-obsessed culture. From the moment we wake up until our heads hit the pillow, we surround ourselves with scents we enjoy (and work to eliminate those we don't!) For most of us, hundreds of the personal care and cleaning products we use in our homes, at work, and on our bodies all have one thing in common: they contain a fragrance. And these fragrances may be the culprit of your nagging headaches (and other ailments) that you haven't been able to figure out.

When you consider the list of common products that often contain fragrances, it adds up quickly: body lotion and cream, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, hairspray, soaps (bath soap, hand soap, dish soap, and laundry detergent), fabric softener, deodorant, cologne, aftershave, perfume, air fresheners, deodorizers, sunscreen, cosmetics, face wash, insect repellent, industrial and household cleaners, furniture polish, mouthwash, dental floss, toothpaste, nail polish and removers, baby diapers and baby wipes, potpourri and scented candles, some toys, scented markers, and the list goes on!

This becomes a problem when we confront the fact that studies have shown roughly one in five people in the United States report health problems from exposure to fragrances and there is evidence that certain ingredients found within fragrance mixtures have be linked to negative health impacts, including1,2:

  • Neurological—headaches, migraine headaches, nausea, and dizziness
  • Respiratory—allergic asthma, non-allergic asthma, reactive airway dysfunction syndrome
  • Skin—rashes, eczema, itching, discoloration, and swelling
  • Eye—tearing and inflammation
  • Reproductive—hormone disruption, early breast development, infertility, and low sperm count

Making matters more challenging, to protect trade secrets, companies are permitted by the Food and Drug Administration to withhold disclosing what ingredients are used to make a fragrance. Instead, companies will use words like "fragrance" or "parfum" on a product label to represent an undisclosed mixture of chemicals as well as ingredients like phthalates that can be used as fragrance dispersants. Now look back up at the list of products you use every day that contain fragrance—you can almost picture the "chemical cocktail" that we are swimming through daily! It gives me a headache just imagining it.

Even "unscented" products can contain fragrances used to cover up unpleasant smells inherent in the product. "Fragrance-free" products are good to keep an eye out for because they usually do not contain fragrances of any kind.


Popping pills may alleviate your headache triggered by fragrances, but that might not be an ideal long-term solution. The easiest way to prevent headaches triggered by fragrances is to avoid them all together. If you enjoy the smell of fragranced products but want to understand what you are using on your skin, in your home, and around your family look for products that disclose the fragrance ingredients in their products. That's right, some companies voluntarily list their fragrance ingredients. This way you can look out for ingredients you know are triggers for yourself or your family members.

  1. Know what you're buying, or avoid them all together. Choose fragrance-free products in personal care products like lotions and hand soaps and in your cleaning products like laundry detergent and fabric softeners.
  2. Learn your trigger. Allergies and sensitivities vary among individuals and it's always helpful to know the cause. When you experience negative symptoms, do a little detective work on the products you've come in contact with to see if there is a common culprit. Products that list out their fragrance ingredients can help if want to do this!
  3. Make sure to vent. If you know you have a fragrance sensitivity, try to spend time in well-ventilated environments. When available, sit near open windows or doors to reduce your exposure as much as possible.
  4. Promote a fragrance-free workplace. Open a discussion at work about the impacts of fragranced products. While every person has their own natural scent, your co-workers may not realize that their enthusiasm for patchouli oil or celebrity-branded perfume can give others a headache. (Check out this sample of a fragrance-free workplace policy.)
  5. Spread the word. The person sitting next to you on the bus using hand sanitizer, your great aunt with her intense perfume, and the vacation house host with all the scented plug-ins—none of them are trying to assault your senses on purpose. Try to gently let them know how their choice of products impacts you, and you'll slowly but surely find yourself with a lot fewer headaches.

Have you experienced the challenges of fragrance sensitivity? What are some of the strategies you've used? Share on Facebook!



  1. Bridges, B. (2002), Fragrance: emerging health and environmental concerns. Flavour Fragr. J., 17: 361–371. doi:10.1002/ffj.1106
  2. http://www.national-toxic-encephalopathy-foundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/annie1.pdf