More Migraine Headaches Caused by Cleaning Products: From N=1 to N=2

At Thursday’s Quantified Self Silicon Valley Meetup (where I gave a talk called QS + Paleo = ?), Alexandra Carmichael introduced herself with the three words “no”, “headache”, and “today”. About five days earlier, she had started having migraine headaches every day. Before that, she hadn’t had a migraine headache in a year. After the headaches began, her husband, having read my Boing Boing story (about a woman whose migraines were mostly from cleaning products), suggested that her headaches might be caused by the Febreze they had just started using. They stopped using it. Because it can linger in carpets, etc., they cleaned their whole apartment with vinegar and baking soda, to get rid of all traces. That’s when Alexandra’s headaches stopped.When they started using Febreze, one of their daughters became very cranky. After they stopped using it and cleaned their apartment, she returned to her usual self.

Other people have found that Febreze gives them migraines. For example, R. Haeckler:

[Febreze] gives me terrible migraines. . . . Whenever I go to someone’s house who uses it I get a headache almost immediately that lasts the rest of the night.

And this woman (“No Febreze EVER. Gives me a headache and makes me dizzy”).

This is a good example of why n=1 experimentation is so important. The woman I wrote about for Boing Boing (Sarah) figured out, beyond any doubt, that certain cleaning products caused migraines.  Yes, Sarah’s results were unusual. They “don’t generalize” to most people in the sense that most people don’t get migraines from cleaning products. But, as Alexandra’s story shows, they were still helpful — they helped Alexandra avoid migraines.

My writing about n=1 experimentation has emphasized learning widely-applicable truths — how to lose weight, sleep better, and so on. But this other use — learn stuff that is true only for you and perhaps a small subset of people (1%?) — is also important. Sarah’s n=1 experimentation doesn’t fit in the standard healthcare system. It was not suggested or encouraged by her doctors. No professor or researcher could write a paper about it — it’s too small. But it made a difference — first, to herself, now, to Alexandra. The results of n=1 experiments can be spread, however, in the new patient communities, such as the ones at PatientsLikeMe, MedHelp, and CureTogether (started by Alexandra and her husband).

When I submitted for publication my long self-experimentation paper, one of the referees decided he would find out if fructose water would help him lose weight (one of my examples). He discovered that fructose water made his fingers ache — he had a sensitivity to fructose he hadn’t known about. In his review, he said that these sorts of individual differences were not an argument against my method but actually favored it: We need n=1 experiments to fully understand human variation in health.

15 Replies to “More Migraine Headaches Caused by Cleaning Products: From N=1 to N=2”

  1. Febreeze and most colognes and perfumes have always given me a headache too. (My dad is the same way so perhaps there’s a genetic component.) I always avoid them.

  2. some chemical in Tide makes me unable to sleep if i am around it too much. it’s the scent, not the detergent as I often use Unscented Tide (at the very least I don’t like cleaning scents whether they are harmful or not) and have no problem with it.

  3. Strong chemical smells also give me headaches. but I don’t think they’re migraines (i.e. they’re annoying but not debilitating). My daughter had some fresh finger nail polish on the other day and very quickly I had a headache. So the proposition that the smell of certain chemicals trigger migraines in some people sounds quite plausible to me.

  4. This is interesting. Thinking back, I always have headache when using most of the perfumes, and my friends never believe about my claims that the perfumes are causing me headaches. After reading this, I’m relieved that maybe it is not just my imagination that the perfumes are causing me the headaches.

  5. I would venture that it’s the fragrance component of the Febreze that’s offensive and probably not the b-cyclodextrin. I’m actually very curious to know if these migraine sufferers react the same way to unscented Febreze? I think the cyclodextrin molecules are too big to get properly airborne?

    Of course this would require a double blind randomized trial. (I’m a scientist so even with self experimentation I run the control. My doctor made fun of me for doing that last time I had an appointment.)

    Also, “natural” cleaning products are usually just similar surfactants with some citronellol to make it smell “natural.” I’ll grant that I’d rather the citronallol than the artificial scents, but still. The marketing of this stuff drives me bonkers.

  6. I haven’t been able to use any scented cleaning products for 30 yrs. For many with these headaches (and other types), inhaling natural peppermint oil eases them. It’s cheap. Or you can grow mint in a window box.

  7. The Febreze / headache case is not an outlier. Here is an example of a WHO meeting in May where Spanish physicians demanded inclusion of multiple chemical sensitivity in the WHO ICD10 code list.
    What is interesting is the number of people affected — estimated at around a 15% prevalence worldwide. Then add in the migraine sufferers, asthmatics, people with chronic respiratory conditions… chemical triggers are very common in these illnesses, as well as less obvious illnesses such as chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. For some reason doctors refrain from informing patients about such common irritants, and most people have no idea of the epidemic happening right in front of them.

  8. A trial study involving only one subject can’t demonstrate that Febreze causes migraine episodes in some people, because a trial using only one subject can’t rule out coincidence.

    People who blame their migraines on odors are mistaking symptom for cause. Migraine symptoms can include “olfactory aura:” olfactory amplification, olfactory distortion, and even olfactory hallucination. Olfactory aura, like visual aura, often precedes the headache phase. Many migraine patients notice and remember strong or unusual odors right before onset of headache, and mistakenly conclude the odor must have caused or triggered the subsequent headache. The truth is, by the time they noticed the odor, the migraine episode had already been developing for some time.

    It’s not

    odor —> headache

    but rather

    odor amplifies headache.

    1. Barry, in my story about a woman who cured her own migraines, the woman discovered that if she avoided chemicals called artificial fragrances her migraines became less common. Cause and effect was shown beyond doubt. In this case, I think the chances of it being a coincidence are very low.

  9. It may be that some people have olfactory auras, but I absolutely get headaches, and migraines from artificial, and even some natural fragrances. Every year when the lilacs bloom, hyacinth and lily of the valley too, I have constant headaches. I am not hallucinating flowers, and the life-long consistency of the response is pretty telling. However, it is interesting to me that I can lower my sensitivity in other ways. For years any strong floral scent gave me migraine, but changing my diet, exercising enough but not too much, taking magnesium and B vitamins, etc. have lowered my sensitivity so now only lilac time and stores that sell many scented products give me migraine. Any way, it’s hardly n=1, google fragrance migraine trigger and there are thousands of hits. (I use only unscented household products because I also get serious eczema from scented products.)

  10. My migraines are without a doubt CAUSED by aerated Chemical cleaning products. Caused. Not amplified. I use natural liqui cleaning products only. I can without a doubt prove this if given a scientific environment. I can’t be around any aerated artificial scents either such as junk perfume (and some ‘nice’ ones) febreeze air fresheners etc.
    The funny thing is, Ive found that if I have a bad migraine I usually have a severe sneezing attack at some point. At which time the headache, auras, nausea and bleariness start to dissipate. For the life of me hough I can’t force myself to sneeze before that hough. I wish I could.

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