Category Archives: My experiences

My experiences living with headaches triggered by fragrances.

What is a migraine and why do fragrances trigger my headaches?

When I often tell people that fragrances can give me migraine headaches, they say something about allergy issues. Most people do not understand that a migraine headache is a neurological disorder and can be triggered by fragrances.

I get migraines because my brain easily gets over stimulated. It’s this stimulation that tells my brain to increase production of certain chemicals. These chemicals can cause other reactions to happen which can result in nausea, throbbing pain, blood vessels dilating and constricting, difficulty concentrating, and a range of other unpleasant side effects.

The best way for me to manage my headaches is to avoid my triggers, keeping the stimulation under control. I think of it on a point system. It takes 100 points to get a headache. Not sleeping 7 hours is worth 25 points, eating poorly is worth 25 points, chocolate is worth 10 points, smelling strong perfume is worth 65 points, drinking 2 cups of coffee is worth 15 points, stress can be worth 35 points and so on. If I combine too many triggers in a day I’m done for. And yes, fragrances would be the trigger I assign the most points to.

With certain perfumes/ fragrances all it can take is a whiff of a passerby and my brain starts to tingle. I know I have to be extremely careful the rest of the day or I need to take Excedrin as a preemptive strike.  I am in complete control of most of my triggers except fragrances. People close to me avoid fragranced products but all the acquaintances I run into in a day, well that’s a different story. I don’t expect everyone to stop wearing fragrances but I would hope people would keep them a little more to themselves. You should not be smelling them unless you are in their personal space. When they walk past you and leave a scent trail, well that’s a bit much.

Why is my nervous system so sensitive? I suspect genetics has something to do with it but I’m not certain.

There are good resources out there that give more details about the chemicals involved in migraines, here are a few….

A short video that contains animation which shows the biological process of a migraine headache happening and explains which chemicals are involved…

Magnum – Migraines awareness group detailed article about myths and facts of Migraines…

HealthCentral- a website that has lots of good information on migraines….


It’s all in your head

How do you know it’s not all in your head? Yep, I hear that often when I talk to acquaintances about my headaches. People are actually bold enough to question my sanity out loud.

These are the people who after I confide to them that fragrances give me headaches, they respond with I LOVE my perfume. After I assure them that their perfume isn’t bothering me, they start questioning me. It’s probably hard to believe that something that gives them so much pleasure can bring others so much pain.

I read a blog entry on MSN’s Workbuzz recently which discusses this issue of fragrances in the workplace. Hundreds of comments were from people who suffer like I do but there are some who just don’t understand and label us as whiners and crazy. If you would like to see the blog…

It’s well known that some people are affected negatively by perfumes. Fragrances can cause asthma attacks, allergic reactions, and migraine headaches in some individuals. It’s a physical response not a mental one.

Here are some links to established medical associations about migraines and fragrances…

Top 5 Stores I’d Like to Shop in but CAN’T

Since fragrances trigger headaches for me, I won’t be wandering in a Yankee Candle store and you can bet I only visit stores like Perfumania in my nightmares. While I avoid the stores that are obvious olfactory overloads, there are some stores I avoid that seem too fragranced for what they sell. These are shops that the idea of browsing them is out of the question for me. This is my list of the top 5 stores I’d like to shop in but can’t.
  1. Bed, Bath & Beyond
  2. Pier 1 Imports
  3. Joann Fabrics & Crafts
  4. Victoria Secret
  5. Macy’s
Bed Bath & Beyond and Pier One Imports are in a league of their own. These two stores are so fragrant that I can get a migraine headache within minutes of stepping inside.
BED BATH & BEYOND– A year ago, there was a frying pan I wanted and the only store I knew had it was Bed, Bath & Beyond. It was on sale and I had one of those $5 off coupons. So on a good weekend day I decided to do a strategic strike with no time for browsing…. get in & get out. I quickly found the frying pan and grabbed a plastic spatula on the wall next to it and off I went. The spatula has a rubber handle that absorbed the store’s fragrances. I washed that spatula at least 50 times now and it stills smells of the store. It’s over a year old and still reeks. Why is their store so smelly? Is it just the candles they carry? I think they must also pump a fragrance through the store as well. Next time you walk in one of these stores notice how the smell greets you. I find it overpowering. Until they change their stinky ways, I am not going in their store again.

PIER ONE IMPORTS– Big time olfactory offender. When I just walk past their doors the smell wafts out and attacks me. Scented candles galore, air fresheners being tested and who knows what else is contributing to the cloud of fragrances. I can’t even window shop this store without being at risk for a headache.

JOANN FABRICS & CRAFTS– Joann is in a different class as the first two offenders. I can on occasion make a mad dash in there to grab one supply. I just hold my breath when I’m near the candles and I don’t linger. I do not shop there when I’m feeling migraine-y. I do wish they would tone it down with the smells.

VICTORIA SECRET – Some stores are better than others. I think it depends whether the associates are actively spraying their perfumes in the air or not. It’s really hard to avoid the perfume section since it is located with the cash registers. And it’s not just the stores. I have ordered clothes from their catalog and some had to be aired out because they reeked of perfume.

MACY’S– I’ll still step into a Macy’s on occasion. I stay far way from the perfume counters. If I buy an item from their store I must quarantine it to the guest room for weeks to let it air out. I would love to shop Macy’s like most people and wander about the store but doing that is risky business for my head.

Are there stores that bother you because of their use of scents? Please comment.

The “who’s gonna reek?” game

Airplanes are the worst for my condition. I like flying Southwest because you can choose your seats. My husband and I try to size up who’s most likely to reek of fragrances. We are getting better at this game. The easily identifiable ones are men who wear jewelry, ladies with hair that defies gravity, older women with lots of bling, men who look like they visit the tanning booth weekly, teenage girls wearing Victoria Secret Pink sweatpants, airline attendants, and Paris Hilton wanna be’s. I tend to look for the outdoorsy types, I find they seem less likely to reek. If we don’t succeed, I may have my jacket covering my nose a good bit of a trip and I am definitely popping pain pills.

A few trips ago, a young woman walked past me in an airside store and I immediately started to have a reaction. I quickly made my purchase and fled the store. That woman later boarded our plane. I intently watch her every eye movement and hope she doesn’t notice the empty seat in our row. As she approaches her eyes light up and she proceeds to sit next to my husband. The smell is attacking me again. In a gut reaction, I forcefully exclaim “you can’t sit next to me.” Her appropriately confused response “huh?”  My husband explains,”My wife gets headaches from perfumes and yours is affecting her.” “Uh, okay” and she politely moved a few aisles down. I  couldn’t beleive I just did that and yet I was so relieved that I did. I can only imagine the stories she told her friends when she got off that plane.

The worst plane experience was on another airline, one that doesn’t let you pick your seats. I was already in a mild migraine state due to the perfumes around me. I had taken an Excedrin and it had not really kicked in. About an hour into the flight, a passenger sprayed some air freshener on the plane to block some unpleasant smell. Why would someone think it is acceptable to spray fragrance in a confined area? My headache went from manageable to unbearable and that day of our trip was ruined. I plead with everyone, please do not spray fragrances in public spaces.

I don’t wash my hands in public bathrooms!

I admit it. I am the one in the public bathroom who doesn’t always wash her hands. [Insert groans here!] Most public bathrooms use scented liquid soaps. If I wash my hands with it, I’m sure to get a headache. I will test the soap first on a paper towel and smell it. If it’s a food based smell, I’ll probably give it a try. If not, I reach for my Burt’s Bees aloe & witch hazel hand sanitizer. I am so happy I found a purse sized sanitizer that I can use.

If you manage a store and can choose which soaps to use, please pick the fragrance free version or natural food based scent. Method brand, sold at Target, has a great unscented soap. Those of us who are scent-challenged, thank you.

UPDATE 2012: Wet Ones makes a fragrance free version of single packet wipes that fit perfectly in my purse. I found them online at

Wet Ones offers fragrance free versions

My fragrance free revolution begins…. smellinc, the perfuming of America blog

Going out in public can be a challenge for me. The person standing in line behind me can cause a tingling sensation in my brain. Hours later that feeling leads to a debilitating headache. I suffer from Migraine headaches and my main trigger is fragrances.

I hate this condition. It’s so awkward to request that a coworker or a new friend not wear that perfume or use that shampoo or that body lotion when they are going to be around me. I feel so imposing. I often do not speak out when I should because I do not want to make others feel uncomfortable. I am working on being more assertive.

When I explain my condition, I get a bunch of different reactions. There’s the “yeah, yeah, yeah, she’s over exaggerating” look. I  loathe drama and I promise you I’m not. The “I really do not understand her issue” confused look. My issue is neurological and not allergies. The “oh geez, is she saying I smell bad?” horrified look. It’s not that I find the smell of your lotion unpleasant, it’s that my brain has some sort of chemical reaction to it.

Our society embraces fragrances. There are everywhere. It is nearly impossible for me to escape. Fragrances are pumped through stores, they are in laundry products, make-up, soaps and cleaning products.

I am starting this blog to create awareness of my issues with fragrances. I hope others will join me and share their issues too. I will also be posting tidbits about scents and our society’s obsession with them.

Please be a part of the fragrance free revolution.