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Why Certain Smells Trigger Headaches, Allergies & Asthma…

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Headaches, unfortunately, are something many people deal with on a daily basis. I have suffered from neck problems and headaches for as long as I can remember.

But aside from my neck causing headaches, certain smells trigger headaches for me as well.

For me, many smells trigger headaches like:

  • Walking through the perfume department at a store.
  • Walking through the detergent aisle at the grocery store.
  • Cleaning with conventional cleaners.
  • Wearing perfume or opening a magazine with a perfume sample in it.
  • Febreze and other air fresheners.

I don't know why it took me so long, but I finally decided to looking into these smells that were triggering my headaches.

And the results weren't pretty.

Perfumes, detergents, conventional cleaning products and air fresheners contain a myriad of toxic chemicals that are harmful when exposed to. But the one I want to talk about today is “Fragrance”.

It is such a simple word and it sounds so innocent, but according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: Fragrance is considered a trade secret, so companies don’t have to tell us what’s in it – often dozens or even hundreds of synthetic chemical compounds….

So basically companies can put whatever they want in their products to make them smell *good*, call it “Fragrance” and they don't have to reveal the ingredients.

What chemicals are found in “Fragrance”?

Some of the chemicals found in fragrances are cocamide dea (as a detergent), acetone, ethanol, propylene glycol (industrial antifreeze), and sodium lauryl sulfate.

What are the side effects of “Fragrance”?

Some of the side effects of these fragrances when inhaled include various respiratory irritations such as asthma, allergies and headaches.

According to site, the EPA conducted a study that found:

Numerous chemicals and organic compounds commonly used in fragrance products, including, among others: acetone; benzaldehyde; benzyl acetate; benzyl alcohol; camphor; ethanol; ethyl acetate; limonene; linalool; methylene chloride, one or all of which, or in combination with one another, cause , when inhaled, ‘central nervous system disorders, dizziness, nausea, incoordination , slurred speech, drowsiness, irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs and GI tract, kidney damage headache, respiratory failure, ataxia, and fatigue, among other symptoms and illnesses.

Certain chemicals in fragrances may even cause hormone disruptions and they may even accumulate in breast milk.

What safer options are available?

Some alternatives to chemical fragrances include essential oils or botanical fragrances made from raw materials obtained from nature, such as from flowers or fruits or even tree bark.

Making your own cleaning products and personal care products is another great option.

Check out these helpful links for more ideas and tips to eliminate those smells triggering headaches and other harmful side effects:

15 Tantalizing Essential Oil Perfume Recipes

Is Your Perfume Poisoning You?

50 Non-Toxic DIY Cleaning Recipes (Love the all purpose & laundry recipes in this guide)

Not So Sexy  – The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance

DIY Face Serum for Aging Skin - Pronounce Skincare & Herbal Boutique

Friday 19th of January 2018

[…] of undisclosed chemicals linked to allergies, asthma, respiratory, and reproductive problems. More info on fragrance side effects.Butylparaban & MethylparabenButylparaban & Methylparaben are both part of the paraben […]

DIY Fun Fruity Essential Oil Perfume Roll-On Recipe •

Thursday 14th of December 2017

[…] And one of the biggest offenders: the innocent sounding ingredient “Fragrance.” It sounds like a simple ingredient, but it’s side effects can include headaches, allergies and asthma. […]


Sunday 24th of January 2016

A "smell" or scent is actually caused by tiny molecules of chemicals (both natural and synthetic) in the air around us, they also embed in furnishings, clothes, hair, skin, dust etc, and are stirred up when we come into contact with these things. We cannot see them but they continue to circulate and can do a great deal of harm when they are breathed in.

Your article is great, except that you left out a very important group of sufferers, people like me, who are prisoners in their own homes because the chemicals in perfumes, deodorants, aftershaves, hairspray, household and personal care products, as well as pesticides, glues, traffic fumes and all the other chemical pollutants out there, make the environment an incredibly dangerous place to venture into.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, or Environmental Illness, is one of the fastest growing health concerns of our time and usually occurs after several years of exposure to these dangerous chemicals, the reactions in the body build up and become more and more sensitive. (Although it can happen after a sudden, severe exposure as well). People start to notice that they react to certain "smells" and have symptoms such as you describe. After a while they can become extremely disabled and no longer able to function in Society. There is no cure for this and only avoidance helps. Thus, we become shut off from functioning as normal human beings, work, socialising, shopping, eating out, going out in public and even associating with family becomes next to impossible.

Symptoms vary from the ones you describe in your article all the way to anaphylactic reactions, and even death. Essential oils can also be a problem, as, unless they are certified organic, they can still contain artificial elements, even if the company claims they are "all natural", and the immune system can still react to them if it recognises that particular scent molecules as a danger.

Mindy Benkert

Tuesday 26th of January 2016

Heather, thank you so much for sharing this information. I am so sorry that you are dealing with these sensitivities. :(

Top 10 Calming Essential Oils (and how to use them!) | Scratch Mommy

Wednesday 2nd of December 2015

[…] is important to distinguish essential oils from synthetic fragrances, which have no therapeutic effect, just pleasant aromas. Unfortunately, most candles and air […]

DIY Face Serum for Aging Skin | Scratch Mommy - Life, From Scratch

Tuesday 6th of October 2015

[…] Fragrance alone can contain hundreds of undisclosed chemicals linked to allergies, asthma, respiratory, and reproductive problems. More info on fragrance side effects. […]

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