A Pounding Perfume Headache

The headache

The headache

One thing is for sure, I’m not the only one.  Increasingly I hear and read about people getting headaches from perfume.  It’s a very unfortunate side effect of being a perfume enthusiast.

Now you might think being someone who blogs about perfume  and smells generally, that I therefore spend my days drenched.  Not so.  In fact I generally only wear perfume after three p.m. if  I have nowhere to go in the evening.  No restaurant, concert or theater trips get accompanying perfumes .  I’ve been to those places and had my evening scented with someone else’s selection once too often.  I have also gotten what you might call  contact headaches from perfume saturated venues, and so steer clear of any powerful perfumes in public.

I find though that the perfume headache is frustratingly hard to predict.  I have discovered that modern oud synthetics often trigger them for me, so have learned to avoid men’s perfume counters these days because those notes are so common in masculines.  Bond Number 9 ‘s New York Oud really got to me, and ended in a double date with the Motrin bottle.  However those ouds are not the only sinus busters on the market.

Pain annihilator

Pain annihilator

Synthetic ambers can also be disasters.  Although I like Nest’s Midnight Fleur it gives me awful headaches, as does Bath and Body Work’s Pink Chiffon.  However my troubles do not end with  inexpensive perfumes. They extend to expensive bottles as well. Lolita Lempicka is very pretty but I cannot be around the first fifteen minutes without trouble, and some Pradas can be hazardous for me too, particularly the amber. Guerlains are hit or miss.  Guerlain’s last formulation of

This verion of Vetiver is pretty but potent

This verion of Vetiver is pretty but potent

Vetiver, the one in this bottle, was good but a sure headache inducer for me. (I ended up using it to deter moths in the winter clothes closet.  That worked)

Indie perfume houses can give me headaches, I’ve gotten them from many of them, with the notable exception of Mandy Aftel’s Aftelier, which is one of four totally headache free houses for me- the others are Parfums de Nicolai, Chanel, and so far, Parfums d’Empire.

I’ve even gotten headaches from natural perfumes, most memorably Strange Invisible Perfume’s L’Invisible which was a total headsplitter as far as I was concerned.  This was a bit of a shock since I had assumed that most of my problems were with synthetic ingredients, but that’s obviously not the case.

Cleopatra may have given perfume a reputation for over kill

Cleopatra may have given perfume a reputation for over kill

How to avoid headaches?  One solution I’ve found is not to wear perfume on your wrists.  I often wear it behind my knees or even on the soles of my feet, or on the back of my neck.  This works pretty well, the other is to avoid perfume on overcast or low ceiling days, when the atmospheric heaviness is likely to cause headaches anyway.  Dosage changes things, one single spray is enough if something is strong.

Another good bet is to avoid sprays altogether.  I once ran into a depressed SA at a Douglas Perfumery who told me she had to switch occupation because her sinuses were permanently inflamed by all the micro sprayed perfume she encountered at her job.  She had been ordered to move on by her ear nose and throat doctor and was sorry to go. I’ve learned from her story to opt for dab bottles, and sometimes even for oils instead of sprays.  The headache factor does not disappear but does diminish.

Sensitization is a causal factor here.  I  circulate among a small number of perfumes so that I don’t develop a problem with a favorite scent.  You can also spritz on kleenex or cotton balls for that waft but toss if it gets to be too much for you and I use this technique with new perfumes. ( The scent equivalent of It’s Only Lunch.)

I think it’s worthwhile trying to find the perfume house that makes things you can live with comfortably.  I’ve done this simply because of the length of my experiments with fragrance, but every consumer’s tolerance level probably varies. Finally, try to identify the notes that do it for you whether synthetic or natural and avoid them.

Have you encountered the perfume headache  and what set yours off?


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16 thoughts on “A Pounding Perfume Headache

  1. My husband gets horrible migraines from anything produced by Estee Lauder. Anything from Chanel is fine for him, so I tend to stick to Chanel if I’m going to be around him. Dabbing is much better than spraying.

  2. Really feel your husband’s pain. I too have gotten some humdinger headaches from ELs. So I tend to tiptoe around that brand pretty carefully.

    As for dabbing…it’s a whole lot easier on the sinuses than spraying, agreed. Wonder when atomizers became the rule rather than the exception?

    1. In the 80s I reckon. My mother got very upset because in the early 80s Yardley switched April Violets to an atomiser. She swore it smelled different. And I remember that Avon was releasing in atomisers at about that time. Maybe some of the prestige houses held out longer (Chanel and so on).

      1. Well there’s something else to chalk up to eighties excess!

        What I really dislike are the clamp on atomizers you can’t unscrew from the bottle because you can never re-use the bottle. (I do this. I admit it) If wines can have screw tops so can perfume!

  3. “It’s only lunch!”

    I don’t generally get perfume headaches, with one notable exception: lavender. Lavender is purportedly relaxing and calming and so gentle that it can be used on babies skin… but it gives me Monster Freakin’ Headaches.

    I’m pretty sure we’ve discussed this at least once in the past – even in blooming-flower format, it’s like an icepick to the eye socket, even though I think it smells rather nice. What is UP with that??

    A more common problem for me is nausea, which I get with most of the classic Estee Lauder scents after 2-3 hours on my skin. They smell GREAT (and all three of my aunts wear Lauder beautifully), but once we head toward the basenotes I’m three millimeters from tossing my cookies. I don’t know what it is. Urgh. Heavy balsamic orientals like the Dreaded Opium (or Tabu, or Youth Dew) have the same effect, although they also smell awful to me. I dunno.

  4. Do you remember Kate Walsh’ Boyfriend? Great idea, fun scent, but after awhile I got the nausea reaction you’re describing from the Lauders.

    Matter of fact, I do better with the Aerin line now than the usual Lauders and don’t know why.

    Lavender , yeah you did mention it and too bad. sometimes the pink and white lavenders smell milder and I used to grow the old pink “Jean Davis” to get a softer wash of lavender scent in the garden. HOWEVER if it’s ice pick in the eye I’m betting you’d rather forgeddaboudit, as we say in Jersey.

  5. I’ve never gotten a headache from a perfume (even nasty, over-applied celebuscents or synthetic fruity-florals), but if I wear alcohol-based fragrances too often, my skin develops itchy red bumps. At that point I have to back off and not wear anything with alcohol in it for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. I can wear perfume solids or oils while my skin is recovering; apparently it’s the alcohol that causes the problem (it happens with both mixed-media and all-natural perfumes).

    As long as I don’t apply alcohol-based perfumes (spray or dab) more than twice a day, I’m fine – but when I get a new shipment of samples, I’m sorely tempted to spray and spray and spray… I’ve learned the hard way not to give in to that temptation!

    I rarely get headaches (unless I stop drinking coffee suddenly). Apparently dermatological reactions (not neurological or respiratory ones) are my physiological weak spot, at least when it comes to perfume!

    The one time I came thisclose to upchucking in reaction to a perfume was with Chanel Coco Noir. The instant I applied it, I could feel my gag reflex kicking in and had to run to scrub it off! Very odd, especially since I adore most Chanels and they work beautifully with my skin chemistry.

  6. Well I guess Coco Noir is true leave alone territory for you! That’s extreme. I didn’t like it but didn’t get a gag reflex either.

    The alcohol reaction is a nasty one and can’t say I’ve run into it before reading your description, though I can’t wear most sunscreens without hives, so know what you are describing well enough.

    Have you tried any of Chris Brosius’s perfumes? He uses water instead of alcohol because he apparently thinks alcohol is nasty. A lot of his perfumes are really wonderful, I love Memory of Kindness and Tea/Rose.

    1. Yes, I have an FB of Russian Caravan Tea (brewed iced tea with lemon, it’s gorgeous) and decants of some of his others. Haven’t tried Memory of Kindness, will put it on my sample list!

      I tend to prefer his extraits because they’re much more long-lasting than the Water Perfume concentrations, but they’re a bit pricey (sigh).

      I’ve been toying with the idea of making my own solids and oils, so I have something to keep my nose happy if I accidentally overdo it with alcohol-based perfumes.

      Fortunately I don’t have a problem with alcohol when taken internally. 🙂

  7. I don’t usually get perfume headaches unless I already have one coming on anyway. But I recall applying many spritzes of Eau des Merveilles once, in order to conjure some sillage and longevity out if it. Got a headache, even though I could still not smell it much. Grrrr. ..

    1. Eau des Merveilles is a bit of a tease (like a lot of Hermes perfumes, although their Ambre des Merveilles is tops). I could smell EdM for about ten minutes, which was better than Jour, which sadly I can barely smell at all! At least other people had a similar experience.

      You would think that they would not cause any trouble at that strength-but no. You can get Hermes Headaches!

  8. Hermes Headaches sounds like an oxymoron, haha! My worst ever headaches were with Amarige, Narcisse Noir and Mona di Orio’s Nuit Noire – big florals, with fruit and spice and animalic notes and the kitchen sink are tricky for me. Tuberose is the worst offender in the bouquet, but I am finding a new liking for the note when it is carefully done.

  9. Ooh yup I got the Narcisse Noir headache too, also one with Amarige Interlude which made me rather sick. Don’t think I ran into Nuit Noire, maybe just as well.

    Tuberose is indeed tricky, I can only wear the one intermittently. Fracas and Carnal Flower I admire from a safe distance!

  10. I also liked that “It’s Only Lunch” line.

    Luckily, I don’t get any headaches – perfume-induced or not. But every time I do have a headache I carefully document it in the database – to check later if I have repetitive reaction to the same perfume. So far I didn’t find any culprits.

    1. You have been lucky! I do find that the more chemical the perfume and the stronger, the worse the headache.

      Mind you, part of the problem in this part of the world seems to be particulates in the air and I never know how much is industrial blow off-we live near a railway line- and how much is perfume.

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