Does Perfume Give You a Headache? Natural Scents to Ease Your Pain

Have you ever gotten into an elevator and been overpowered by someone’s perfume?

Though it may smell intoxicating to some, a waft of fragrance can be unpleasant for those who are sensitive to synthetic scents. In fact, conventional perfumes can cause headaches, sneezing or breathing issues in some people, preventing them from wearing the latest olfactory offering from Britney or Beyonce.

Stacy Malkan, co-founder of California-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of ‘Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,’ says about 30 per cent of the population reports adverse effects from fragrance exposure, with the number much higher for people with asthma.

“Perfume and synthetic fragrances of all kinds are a big problem,” she says. “For one thing, the companies are allowed to keep the ingredients a secret, so we don’t know what’s in them. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics conducted a study last year in which we analyzed 17 top-selling fragrances at a lab and found that all of them contained multiple chemicals that can cause allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing, breathing difficulties, etc. And many contained hormone-disrupting chemicals.”

Malkan says the most important thing is whether a company discloses what’s in their fragrance, whether it’s natural or synthetic. Many small companies are doing this and there is a list of more than 100 companies at the end of their fragrance report that have agreed to disclose their ingredients.

“Eventually, we will get all companies to do this, but it is going to require a change in federal law,” says Malkan. To that end, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is advocating for a U.S. Safe Cosmetics Act, which would make full disclosure of cosmetic ingredients mandatory and would require companies to phase out chemicals strongly linked to cancer and reproductive harm.

Here in Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation has a similar campaign, which calls upon citizens to email Prime Minister Stephen Harper and demand stricter regulations on the disclosure of ingredients in fragranced body products.

In the meantime, the best advice for women who have problems with synthetic fragrance, says Malkan, is to simplify: “Choose products with fewer chemicals, avoid synthetic fragrance and use fewer products overall.”

According to Malkan, essential oils are better, though some people can have sensitivities to them as well. Plus, some so-called “natural” products aren’t as pure as you might think.

Lynn Shulman, owner of Elixir Organic Spa in Toronto, warns some product lines billed as “natural” or “organic” actually include synthetic perfumes. For example, popular fragrance brand Pacifica markets itself as natural and lists what’s not in them: Phthalates, parabens, sulfates, propylene glycol, benzene, etc. That’s all good, but the company doesn’t disclose all their ingredients. And in a recent interview, the founder admitted they do include synthetics in their line.

As Shulman says, “If it smells larger than life, if it smells too good to be true, it is. There’s nothing in nature that smells like that.”

Shulman recommends a Canadian company based in Guelph called Essential Botanicals. On their website, the company lists the ingredients in each of their scents, which have names like lemony verbena and rose neroli. “The jasmine one is beautiful,” says Shulman. “Every time I get into a cab they say, what is that perfume?”

Another line that might be worth checking out: Demeter “Naturals” featuring geranium, mimosa and lavender scents. Demeter is a New York-based company known for creating wacky scents like dirt, grass, laundromat and gin and tonic, but in this line, they claim to be 100 per cent natural with no synthetic fragrances, dyes or phthalates (note: I couldn’t find an ingredient list online).

Alternatively, you could just skip the blend and buy 100 per cent pure essential oils from Clearwater, B.C.’s Clearwater Soap Works, which offers everything from lemongrass and sweet orange to lavender and ylang ylang.

Or you could always go “au natural” — who said we have to smell fruity or flowery, anyway?