For about the first 10 years of my adult life, I wore the same perfume every day. I won't name it here, but it's a popular, high-end, powdery, floral, woody musk that's been around for nearly 20 years. The first time I smelled it, I was obsessed. I got complimented constantly. Eventually, I got so used to the fragrance I couldn't even smell it anymore, but the compliments kept coming, and I could remember how much I initially loved it, so I had no desire to change things up. It was my signature scent.
In my late 20s, I started getting sporadic migraines for the first time in my life. I didn't know why (though they do run in my family), and they weren't happening frequently enough for me to worry or see a doctor. Shortly thereafter, I moved across the country to Los Angeles. Before the move, I put myself on a strict budget, and when I ran out of that perfume, I didn't replace it. After the move, I thought I might play around with different scents — new city, new me, I guess! I combed the fragrance aisles of Nordstrom and Sephora. I bought travel sizes and discovery sets here and there. I got the occasional press sample. I even once had legendary perfumer Frédéric Malle himself choose a scent for me. But after a while, I noticed that an hour or so after I spritzed on one of these perfumes, I felt ill — lightheaded, headache-y and sometimes nauseous. The migraines continued and became a bit more frequent. Perhaps it had been a mistake to diverge from my signature scent, I thought; but after putting back on that old standby, that I'd once been unable to detect on myself at all, I noticed the same symptoms. Suspecting that there was a link between the days I wore perfume and the days I got migraines, I came to the sad conclusion that I just couldn't wear perfume anymore, so I stopped entirely. The headaches pretty much stopped, too.
How does perfume cause headaches?
Along with cigarette smoke and gasoline, perfume is among the most common odors that are known to precipitate migraines. There's also evidence that this sensitivity is more common in women. It can sometimes be hard to tell, though, whether aversion to smells — scientifically referred to as osmophobia — is a trigger or a symptom.
"I see patients in whom what they interpret as a trigger is actually an initial manifestation of their migraine attack," explains Dr. Andrew Charles, a professor of neurology and the Director of UCLA's Goldberg Migraine Program. "For example, when people are interpreting light as bright, the [migraine] attack has already started, but they interpret that as a trigger rather than understanding that there are many symptoms of these sensory sensitivities that actually come before pain." This could be the case if you notice your reactions to a scent are inconsistent. But that's not to say that scent can't also be a trigger.
"There's a plant called the 'headache tree,' where the aromas or the vapors from it, if you inhale them, it induces an intense headache," Dr. Charles says. "So we know that things that you inhale can be triggers and the mechanism of that is believed to activate these things called TRP channels, which are these channels that respond to substances." It's believed that these channels can either turn off or turn on the migraine mechanisms.
It's also normal to, like me, develop new sensitivities and triggers, and lose them, throughout one's life, says Dr. Charles. He's also seen instances of people being effectively treated for migraine through medication or some other form of therapy, then being able to experience things they previously had to avoid, be it drinking a glass of wine or dabbing on some Chanel No. 5.
What's the bad stuff in perfume?
Over the years, fragrance has become an increasingly contentious subject and target of the clean beauty community. In 2010, the Environmental Working Group published an oft-cited report that found "secret" chemicals in popular perfumes, including chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, along with several that hadn't been assessed for safety at all. A 2016 study found that more than a third of Americans suffer adverse health effects from fragranced products, including respiratory difficulties and skin irritation, with migraine being the third-most common effect.
The reason many fragrance ingredients are "secret" is that companies can simply put "fragrance" in a product's ingredient list without disclosing what chemicals make up that fragrance. Organizations like the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) have worked to assess fragrance chemicals for safety and provide guidelines to brands, and the EU has identified 26 fragrance ingredients believed to be allergens, which brands, and allergenic individuals, often reference. Still, legally, companies remain free to list fragrance as an ingredient without disclosing what's in it.
"It's a major loophole in the beauty industry," explains Mia Davis, VP of Sustainability & Impact at Credo. "It could be anything from a couple of ingredients, like pure essential oils, to dozens of synthetic fragrances, some of which may be 'toxic,' many of which have not been assessed for safety." The most commonly accepted reason for this secrecy is competition — brands wanting to protect their formulas from being knocked off. But Davis maintains it would not be conspiracy theorizing to believe that many of these brands, and their manufacturers, are "hiding something."
Two years ago, Credo introduced its Fragrance Transparency Policy, which requires all the brands it carries to, at the very least, categorize the source of their fragrance ingredients, i.e. natural vs. naturally derived vs. synthetic, etc. It also encourages them to be fully transparent and list all their ingredients; the majority of its fragrance brands comply. Credo also supports something called the Cosmetic Fragrance and Ingredient Right to Know Act, which, if passed, would legally require the disclosure of fragrance ingredients at the federal level.
Is 'clean' perfume better?
It's important to note that just because a fragrance chemical is synthetic or is sensitizing to some people, doesn't necessarily mean it's fundamentally "bad" or more likely to cause a headache or other negative reaction for everyone. Even with known allergens, most testing is focused on skin reactions, as opposed to reactions to inhalation. There are also allergens that are completely natural. Little is known about what individual ingredients might cause headaches, but the more transparent brands are about listing those ingredients, the easier it will become for individuals to troubleshoot and connect the dots between chemicals and negative reactions.
Credo has become a go-to resource for more transparent fragrance brands that describe themselves with language like "clean," "natural" and "non-toxic," more and more of which have popped up in recent years.
There's Los Angeles-based unisex brand Dedcool, which discloses all ingredients and is transparent about the fact that it uses what it calls "safe synthetics" (those approved by the IFRA) alongside natural ingredients.
"Safe synthetics are alternatives for traditional synthetics used in fragrance (parfum)," explains Founder Carina Chaz. "We use a process called 'nature identical.' Nature identical means that we manipulate plant hormones and matter by extracting certain components of plants we're altering from its natural form, which then creates a 'synthetic' process and this tends to be safer for sensitivities." The brand also excludes water from its formulations, replacing it with certified organic plant extracts that may have functional benefits, from anti-inflammation to skin hydration. It also runs its own tests for allergen safety.
Longtime New York Times beauty columnist Bee Shapiro started Ellis Brooklyn because she became sensitive to testing fragrances while she was pregnant. She began by looking into "clean and non-clean ingredients" and how they impacted sensitivities, but ultimately took things a step further.
"There are fragrance allergens out there that are both caused by natural and synthetic notes. I wanted to create something that put aside the debate between natural and synthetic, which sometimes can hijack clean beauty conversations, and really focus on allergens," she says. Two of the brand's scents are billed as "allergen-free." Another factor she feels isn't discussed enough is the percentage of these ingredients. "Certain ingredients are fine at low levels, but can become irritating at higher levels," she explains. "It's not a blanket no-no list. There are shades of gray. It's about trusting the brand and perfume creator to share their behind-the-scenes process and also trust their principles in scent creating."
Phlur is another burgeoning fragrance brand that discloses all of its ingredients, which include botanicals and "safe synthetics"; another noteworthy one is Sigil, a super-chic genderless line that describes itself as "100% natural." It follows IFRA and EU's safety guidelines for formulations, using only whole flower and plant extracts (no synthetics), but does not disclose all of its ingredients. Heretic, another genderless line, also uses only naturally derived ingredients, and discloses all of them. Credo's customer service team says Heretic is popular among shoppers with sensitivities.
There's also Henry Rose, a transparent fragrance line that's made many headlines thanks to its famous founder, Michelle Pfeiffer. It boasts thoroughly vetted ingredients and official approval by outside organizations: It's been named Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified and Cradle to Cradle Certified at the Gold level, with a Material Health score of Platinum.
While all of this certainly sounds great, there's sadly no guarantee that any of these brands won't give you a migraine, and as much as they might be conscious of sensitivities, none of them can claim anything different. Simply put, migraines are tricky.
"There are all kinds of anecdotal stories in migraine all the time," UCLA's Dr. Charles tells me when I ask about patients being more tolerant of some scents than others. "The whole problem with migraine is just that everybody is a little different and so there's not any one consistent thing that we can recommend for all people other than to explore their own experience and really try and systematically come up with an understanding of what, for them, is problematic versus potentially helpful."
For me, given the thought, care and transparency they put into their formulations, and anecdotal evidence, "clean" and transparent brands like those mentioned above felt like the right place to start. I've been cautiously (just one spritz, on one wrist) testing some of these brands and the results have been mixed. One gave me an instant but very minor headache. One gave me a headache a few hours later. And after testing another one, I had my first migraine in over a year. This could have been directly linked to that specific perfume, or simply the fact that I was reintroducing myself to perfume after years of abstaining from it.
There was one, Heretic's Florgasm, I really loved that caused no negative reaction whatsoever, but the scent dissipated in just a couple of hours. This is a common critique of natural formulations, but if you're okay with frequent reapplication, that could be the way to go. There's one I am obsessed with, Phlur's Ameline, that didn't really bother me unless I held my wrist up to my nose for a long time. It's floral and woody, just like my old signature. Dedcool's Milk, which it calls a "layering fragrance," was also subtle and pleasant.
As Dr. Charles says, everyone's different, so your reactions could be nothing like mine. And you may even be able to find relief with a totally conventional fragrance. But if you want to try the clean/natural/transparent route, shop a few of my favorites in the gallery below.
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