Migraines, Headaches & Other Neurological Effects of Fragrance

Millions of Americans suffer from migraine and tension headaches.

Fragranced products are frequent triggers for headaches, migraines and other neurological symptoms. For some the symptoms are minor, for others they have a major impact on health and quality of life. The phenomenal increase in the use of fragranced products over the past few decades has made these products a part of daily life. For those negatively impact they have become a serious health concern.

Fragrances are often reported as being triggers for migraine headaches. The widespread use of fragranced products makes this an extremely difficult trigger to avoid. To further complicate matters, fragrances are often encountered in the workplace and other locations where avoidance is impossible.

There is a general lack of understanding of the potential for fragrances to impact health. While other indoor air pollutants such as cigarette smoke are recognized, most do not realize that the widespread use of fragranced products effects air quality and may have a major impact on the health of others. There is supporting information in medical literature, but not widespread general knowledge on the neurological effects of materials used in fragrances.

Throughout history, essential oils and botanicals have been used for medicinal purposes. Proponents of “aromatherapy” tout the ability of fragrance oils to change mood, relax, and stimulate. Studies on chemicals found in essential oils support the pharmacological action of these materials.

Modern perfumery usually contains synthesized versions of the chemicals found in nature. While the source of the material may be different, the pharmacological action remains. Materials can effect the brain and nervous system via olfactory pathways, trigeminal stimulation, or absorption into the blood stream via the lungs.

Changes in cerebral blood flow are thought to be involved in the triggering of migraines. Some materials used in fragrances have the ability to alter blood flow in the brain. 1,8-cineol, a common chemical in fragranced products, was shown to increase cerebral blood flow. It was readily absorbed from the air with changes in blood flow resulting after 20 minutes of exposure. (1)

Citral, another common fragrance material has been shown to have vascular effects on organs of lab animals. Initially there was slight vascular dilatation and then a short period of constriction. The third phase was vascular dilatation that persisted for 24 hours. (2) If these vasoactive effects also occur in the brain, citral could act as a trigger hours after the exposure.

Another study indicates there are EEG changes in response to low level exposures to fragrances to alter neurophysiology. Such exposures can affect mood and behavior. (3) Some fragrance chemicals act on the same receptors in the brain as alcohol and tobacco suggesting these materials can alter mood and function. (4) When mice were exposed to certain fragrance compounds, motility was decreased by 30-40%. (5)

Such studies strongly support that fragrances can directly affect cerebral circulation, have neurological effects, and supports anecdotal accounts of central nervous system effects.

Those that suffer migraines from exposures to fragrances have a difficult time. Often even brief exposures will trigger problems. With the widespread use of fragranced products, it is difficult, if not impossible to avoid exposures. Many Migraineurs can identify specific products that act as triggers, while for others fragrances in general trigger problems. Onset can vary from a few minutes of exposure to hours after. Natural based as well as synthetic based products causes problems.

There is a need for increased awareness of the serious impact of fragranced products on Migraineurs. Others need to know this is a serious health concern that is not based on liking or disliking the odor of a fragrance.

There needs to be an awareness of the impact on health, productivity, and quality of life.


  1. Chem Senses 1994 Aug;19(4):359-64 Functional imaging of effects of fragrances on the human brain after prolonged inhalation. Nasel C, Nasel B, Samec P, Schindler E, Buchbauer G
  2. Scolnik M, et al. Immediate vasoactive effect of citral on the adolescent rat ventral prostate. Prostate. 1994 Jul;25(1):1-9.
  3. Toxicol Ind Health 1994 Jul-Oct;10(4-5):579-86 EEG and ERP studies of low-level odor exposure in normal subjects.Lorig TS
  4. Aoshima H, et al. Potentiation of GABAA receptors expressed in Xenopus oocytes by perfume and phytoncid. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 1999 Apr;63(4):743-8. PMID: 10361687; UI: 99290038.
  5. Jirovetz L, et al. Investigations of animal blood samples after fragrance drug inhalation by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry with chemical ionization and selected ion monitoring. Biol Mass Spectrom. 1991 Dec;20(12):801-3.

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