Why Conventional Perfume is Giving You a Headache

Posted by Liz Cook on

Contrary to what you might think, side-effects from exposure to synthetic perfume are actually really common. Around 33% of us experience almost immediate effects after exposure to synthetic fragrance in the form of perfume, room sprays, candles and diffusers. These side effects commonly include headache, nausea and breathing difficulties, but they can also include gastrointestinal symptoms, brain fog, heart palpitations and even anxiety.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long admitted that poor air quality, poisoned by chemicals, does contribute to neurological ailments including fatigue, dizziness, migraines, and forgetfulness, and research by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics links the chemicals in perfume to short term memory loss, central nervous system disorders, and even severe depression due to an alteration the brain’s biochemistry.

​In some countries fragrance sensitivity is so widely acknowledged that it is now considered a disabling health condition covered under disability legislation, affecting around 9.5% of the population.

Studies have shown that fragranced consumer products can be primary sources of human exposure to potentially hazardous compounds in both indoor and outdoor air. In fact, fragrance is now considered to be as problematic an environmental pollutant as cars on the road.

So how exactly do synthetic fragrance ingredients cause headaches and other symptoms? And why does natural fragrance not trigger the same reaction?

There are several mechanisms by which synthetic fragrance negatively impact our wellbeing, including:

GENERALISED INFLAMMATION - any molecule that our body is exposed to that it doesn't recognise biologically is going to cause an inflammatory response: the body's way of trying to evict a substance that might do us harm. This inflammatory response can cause any symptoms such as aching joints, headache, fatigue and more.

IMPACT ON HORMONES -  EDCs (endocrine-disrupting chemicals) such as xenoestrogens interfere with our health by displacing, mimicking, blocking or stimulating various hormones. They can also cause inflammation, and direct dysfunction of organs and body systems.

SINUS IRRITATION & LOCALISED INFLAMMATION - it can happen with both synthetic and natural molecules (spring hayfever, anyone?), so in reality anyone might be susceptible to sinus irritation from fragrance molecules, but the reaction to synthetic molecules is much more common and pronounced than to synthetic. This could be to do with:

  • A systemic inflammatory response and our body's resistance to these synthetic chemicals, or a localised inflammatory response via the  trigeminal nerve (the nerve closely interconnected to the olfactory system)
  • vasodilation that occurs in the blood vessels in our sinus region.  Vasodilation also activates sensory receptors embedded in the blood vessels, which is perceived as headache pain if the blood vessels in the head and neck are widening, or
  • an increase in mucus production as our body tries to eradicate the offending molecules, which results in allergy-like symptoms, including headache (and blocked sinuses, itchy nose, brain fog and fatigue)

AN OVERACTIVE NERVOUS SYSTEM - if your nervous system is already suffering and in a state of hyperactivity from prolonged or even intense acute stress, your body will be more sensitive to odour generally. Add this to the inflammation and hormone interference caused by synthetic molecules and you have the perfect environment for synthetic perfume to cause you to feel really unwell.

If you think your frequent headaches might be caused by synthetic fragrance, the best thing you can do is get rid of synthetic fragrance from your home and habits in all of its forms. Put away in a sealed box (or give away) all perfumes, candles, room sprays, diffusers and personal care products that are not made from 100% natural ingredients, and see if you feel better after 30 days. If you're still not convinced, try putting everything back in its place and using them as you did previously and see if there is a difference.

Just be warned, most people tell us once they make the switch to natural, they never go back!



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