Posted on: January 12, 2024 Posted by: Comments: 0

Reading the list of things that trigger my migraines is almost as exhausting as recovering from one. Sugary food, bright lights, my period, Super Noodles (yes, really), too much screen time, stress, and a lengthy list of perfumes. Ironically, my first ever job was as a sales assistant in the perfume department of Boots. The air was thick with a sickly and heady amalgamation of hundreds of scents combined, which would linger on my uniform and in my hair even after I’d left work. Needless to say, I ended up transferring to a makeup counter on the opposite side of the store as my sick days accumulated, and I find it hard to spend time in fragrance stores or to smell multiple perfumes in succession even now. 

Still, as a beauty editor, one of my favourite subjects to write about is fragrance, which can make things challenging to say the least. I recently posted on Instagram about the fact that the risky business of testing perfumes as a migraine sufferer is the only occupational hazard of my job, and I was surprised by the number of responses I received from my followers who also suffer fragrance-induced migraines. “It’s always been a struggle to find a perfume that didn’t trigger a migraine that lasts all day,” said one follower. “Only in the last year or so have I been able to wear fragrances.” Many messages were from people who said they’d had to give up on wearing perfume altogether. This got me thinking, why exactly do some perfumes trigger migraines while others are totally safe to wear?

My knee-jerk reaction to this was of course to do what any self-respecting beauty editor would. I called in the experts to understand just why fragrance can be such a significant trigger for migraines and started to compile a list of “safe” and “risky” fragrances, tried and tested by me and the migraine sufferers in my DMs.

“We have two trigeminal nerves on either side of the forehead, which link to the eyes, nose and mouth and certain scents can activate this nerve,” explains Sonia Garçon-Pichon, practitioner in olfactory therapy at Edeniste. “All humans have olfactive receptors, but our sensitivities can vary from person to person,’ she continues. “Migraines can be triggered by intense, concentrated smells, which are linked to an individual’s sensitivity.” Unfortunately this means that there’s no easy to way to figure out which fragrances cause an individuals’ migraines specifically without actually smelling them first.

“There is not much definitive research around migraines and odour, but studies show that 25% to 50% of migraine sufferers have an increased sensitivity to odours during their headaches,” adds master perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek (who is a former migraine sufferer herself). “Your sinuses can be irritated by a single component of a smell that causes them to swell. Once swollen, the sinuses do not drain properly, and the resulting build-up of pressure can cause a headache,” she continues. 

On top of this, Garçon-Pichon adds that hormones can also trigger migraines. “This is more common for women especially, as changing hormone levels can influence your olfactive perceptions,” she says. For me personally, I’ve definitely noticed that my migraines are more likely to occur in the week after my period, so it’s useful to know that this is also connected to scent as it means I can stick to my “safe” perfumes during this time and avoid experimenting with anything new.

“As a former migraine sufferer myself, I know it’s important to become aware of your own personal triggers across the senses,” says Mastenbroek. “From a fragrance perspective, start with individual note fragrances rather than complex ones, then as you build up a repertoire of ‘safe’ smells, you can branch out into the more adventurous and complex,” she adds. “Eventually you can build up a bank of fragrances that you can feel secure in.”

“I would also recommend not smelling scents too close to the nose, as the high concentration can trigger migraines,” says Garçon-Pichon. This is something echoed by the migraine-sufferers who reached out in my DMs. “A trick I also learned a few years ago to lessen my chance of getting a migraine is to spray either in my hairline or behind my hair,” says one follower. “This means it’s not too close to my nose, or I will spray it directly into my hair after styling it.”

“I also find that buying the perfume oil version of fragrance, rather than the eau de toilette or eau de parfum is much safer,” says another follower. “When I smell a perfume, I have to take a very small amount on my wrist and then spend the day wearing it. Usually, I know from the start when one will trigger a migraine, but sometimes I need to wear it for a few hours.”

For most of my life, I’ve had to be mindful of my diet, my environment, and my stress levels to keep my migraines at bay, but when it comes to fragrance, I’ve always found it hard to know exactly which types of fragrances to avoid. When discussing the subject with my followers, a common theme that a number of people raised was the increased likelihood of cheaper, synthetic fragrances triggering their migraines. I pose the question to Mastenbroek, who explains that a material that does feature regularly in cheaper fragrance is synthetic vanillin (not the vanillin molecule present in natural vanilla). “It is possible that migraine sufferers may have a lower tolerance for vanillin,” she explains. “Rose oil and Japanese cypress have also been mentioned, but with such complex ingredients, it is a huge challenge to understand the mechanisms involved.”

Above all, it’s evident that everyone’s triggers are likely to be slightly different. “Migraine triggers are so personal, so this will come down to an individual’s experiences,” explains Garçon-Pichon. “If you’ve experienced migraines in the past as a result of wearing a certain fragrance, then this perfume should obviously be avoided.” Mastenbroek agrees, saying, “The key must be to find exactly what triggers your migraine and avoid the types of fragrances that include those kind of notes,” she advises. “But since vanillin can be a common possible trigger, it could be good to avoid overtly sweet and gourmand scents at least until you find out if it is a definite trigger for you.”

Both Garçon-Pichon and Mastenbroek agree that lighter scents are best for migraine sufferers. “Fragrances that have been created with a calming effect in mind, or that are using principles of aromatherapy, are likely to be soothing to the nose and not stimulate the receptors,” explains Mastenbroek. The most sensible advice I would give is to be stick to citrus (orange, lemon, grapefruit, lemongrass), herbs (lavender, chamomile, rosemary, thyme) and mint notes (peppermint and spearmint). Based on aromatherapy knowledge we have, we can safely say these will not have an adverse effect on the majority of people including migraine sufferers.”

As a migraine sufferer, I know that paying a visit to a fragrance counter can be overwhelming, time-consuming and straight-up risky. However, I’ve spent enough years testing fragrances to have figured out the ones that are safe and the ones to avoid. Of course, as we now know, everyone has different triggers, so I’ve also drawn upon recommendations from the fragrance experts and from my fellow migraine sufferers.

Scroll down to discover the best fragrances for migraine sufferers plus the ones to avoid.

Molecule 01 famously isolates the synthetic skin scent molecule, Iso E Super. Developed in 1973, it smells softly musky and woody, but stays close to the skin and is only occasionally detectable by the wearer, despite drawing compliments from those nearby. On days when I’m feeling preemptively headachey, I wear this.

If you’re keen to try a Byredo perfume but don’t know where to start, look no further than Gypsy Water. Part citrus and part woody, it’s somehow simultaneously fresh and smoky thanks to a delicate melding of bergamot, juniper, lemon, pepper, pine, amber and sandalwood.

Although sweet and vanilla-based scents are often noted as migraine triggers, many of those who reached out to me mentioned Diptyque Eau Duelle. Perhaps because the sweet vanilla is balanced out with crisper notes of spicy pink peppercorn and papery cypriol. “I love Diptyque Eau Duelle,” says one follower. “It’s not heavy once it’s settled on the skin. No migraine triggers at all.”

With a base of Iso E Super, this alluring skin scent melds with your unique chemistry to smell different on everyone. There are hints of fruity and floral notes, but it’s above all cosy and buttery, which means it’s subtle and not remotely overpowering.

Like Molecule 01, Missing Person is a skin scent. In fact, it’s inspired by the lingering scent of a loved one’s skin. Formulated to be subtle and sheer, it’s the kind of scent that seems to be invisible but occasionally whispers up throughout the day. It’s a very delicate blend of white musk, jasmine and orange blossom which smells familiar and comforting, quite unlike a conventional perfume.

“If you suffer from migraines, I would recommend choosing a lighter scent like Edeniste Neroli Sensuel,” says Garçon-Pichon. “Edeniste’s Eau de Parfums contain a patented Destress accord, which is scientifically proven to reduce cortisol levels and regulate stress.”

This was the most popular perfume with the migraine sufferers who reached out to me on Instagram and also happens to be one of my favourites. Formulated to smell like your skin but better, it’s light and intimate but has a little bit more body than some of the other fragrances in this list thanks to louder notes of iris and pepper.

Commodity was another crowd favourite since all of its scents are available in a Personal version, which sees the original notes lightened and softened into a subtle, intimate fragrance. Milk is a creamy and calming scent with notes of marshmallow, mahogany and tonka bean.

“Our newest collection of eau de toilettes is based around natural essential oils grown and distilled in the UK,” says Mastenbroek. “Zephyr is an uplifting scent centred on a refreshing peppermint oil from Hampshire.”

“This is the one perfume I can wear easily all day,” says a follower who previously couldn’t wear fragrance at all due to her frequent migraine attacks. “It’s fresh and light, a proper ‘clean girl’ scent without any powdery notes. I love it because it’s mellow and wraps around me without triggering the slightest headache.”

Light and airy, this vibrant green fragrance is fresh and uplifting but not overpowering—a great floral for migraine sufferers. Bergamot and iris are the dominant notes, while vetiver, oakmoss and leather add a woody warmth.

Juniper, black pepper and vetiver combine to form this gin-and-tonic-inspired scent that warms subtly on the skin. Since it’s neither musky, floral or woody, it doesn’t fit into any of the traditional fragrance categories. Instead, it’s familiar, wearable and quite unique, which in my opinion makes it a must-try for migraine sufferers.

I recently discovered Aesop’s newest fragrance, Eidesis and have struggled to wear anything else since. It’s the most subtle of Aesop’s perfumes, but extremely addictive and alluring. It is a unisex fragrance, so there’s a touch of spiciness (thanks to notes of black pepper and cumin) but cosy cedar and vetiver round it out.

There are over a hundred Jo Malone perfumes, which can make choosing one quite an overwhelming decision. However, several of my Instagram followers suggested this one, and I can also personally vouch for it. It’s fresh and clean (without being sterile), the very opposite of sickly and overly sweet scents, which migraine sufferers commonly identify as triggers.

Marc Jacobs’s fragrances received several nominations, in particular Daisy. “It’s not an intensive perfume,” said one follower. “So I can spritz away without feeling like I’m going to trigger a migraine and be in bed all day.” Whispers of violet, grapefruit and strawberry are at the perfume’s forefront while touches of gardenia and jasmine follow, drying down to a musky base.

“I’ve received so many compliments from people when wearing Maison Margiela Whispers in the Library,” says one follower. It’s easy to see why, as this woody, amber scent is light and delicate, designed to evoke time spent in a library filled with old books.

Citrus oils are said to be an effective natural solution for targeting the nausea that often accompanies migraine, so a citrus blend like this—it’s sharp and zesty—will be perfect. The fragrance paintbrush applicator is a great option for migraine sufferers since it means you can apply just the lightest touch of scent and target it to a specific area.

I once opened up an incredibly generous mailer from Mugler Angel and triggered a three-day migraine within seconds of opening the box. It’s a hugely popular fragrance, and I know this because I smell it frequently when I’m out. It’s at once sweet, spicy and fruity, and with strong notes of patchouli, I love it, but it’s probably one to avoid if, like me, you suffer from migraines since sweet base notes are often triggers.

I love and wear Chanel No5 and have never experienced any issues with it, but I received several DMs from people who said this was a trigger for them, likely because it’s a very powdery fragrance with traditional floral notes of iris, jasmine and lily of the valley, which are often a no-no for us migraine sufferers.

Another popular submission from followers, Black Opium launched during my fragrance department days. Fans of high-impact, glamorous fragrances will love it, but the strong vanilla and coffee notes may be a trigger for some.

I love this scent. It’s powerful, rich and indulgent, perfect for winter, but I also know not to wear it on days when I feel a headache coming on, and several followers mentioned that they too, despite enjoying it, find it frequently triggers migraines.

Violet Orchid is another scent I adore and used to wear frequently before I realised it was triggering me. It’s the perfect evening fragrance, rich, luxurious and heavy, but unfortunately just a little too heavy for me.

Oud is one note I know will automatically trigger my migraines, no matter how it’s served in a fragrance. While this is a hugely popular fragrance, and wearers claim it has great longevity, it’s best avoided if, like me, you’ve identified oud as a trigger.

Next Up: The Perfumers Behind These Luxe Scents Also Made These Affordable Fragrances

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