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Are Cleaning Supplies Triggering Your Migraines?

Posted by Mark Khorsandi, D.O. on Dec 19, 2018 8:00:00 AM

migraines when cleaning

If you’ve ever stepped into an elevator that reeks of smokers who used it, or been seated beside someone who overdosed on aftershave, you’ll know how easily an overpowering scent can trigger a migraine or an allergy attack. This occurs so often that many public institutions, nonprofits and healthcare organizations are starting to ask visitors to refrain from wearing any form of scent, because so many people are affected by these.

Those same healthcare institutions are as guilty as many other companies when it comes to cleaning supplies, however, and if you’ve experienced a migraine as a result of going to visit someone’s home it might be a result of the cleaning products they are using. Many chemical compounds exude a destructive odor, and even if you can’t avoid the smells in public, you can certainly make choices that help you avoid the triggers in your home.

Here’s how to determine whether certain cleaning materials are likely to trigger a migraine, and what you can do about it.


Cleaning Products to Avoid

Many cleaning materials release chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are gases released into the air during use. These are found in products such as:

  • Solvents, including paint strippers, propylene glycol, ammonia
  • Detergents, such as oven and household cleaners, bleach, dishwashing liquids, disinfectant solutions,
  • Specialized household solutions, for example rug and upholstery cleaning products, dry-cleaning chemicals, pesticides, aerosol sprays, and air fresheners.
  • Even cleaning supplies with so-called “natural” fragrances like citrus can react with ozone to create harmful particles in the air, causing conditions such as asthma and other respiratory problems.

VOCs can irritate mucous membranes such as your eyes and throat, cause headaches, and even contribute to contracting various forms of cancer, according to the American Lung Association.

How Cleaning Supplies Cause Migraine

So, why do these products cause migraine episodes? First, smell is a primary trigger for many migraineurs. The sense of smell is exceptionally powerful, and influences both how your body feels and what your mind thinks. Research indicates strong odors can cause blood vessels to swell and dilate, as well as stimulate areas of the brain that relate to the nervous system. In addition, some migraine patients are susceptible to allergic reactions, and strong smells can cause inflammation and kick-start other symptoms of allergy. There’s a close link between migraine and allergies, and patients who suffer from sinus and rhinitis are all too familiar with how easily a reaction begins.

Products to Use Instead

You can avoid public places just after typical cleaning times like first thing in the morning and refrain from going into homes that set you off, but unfortunately you can’t simply stop cleaning your own living space. What you can do instead, however, is find suitable replacements for any commercial cleaning products, and to use them in a well-ventilated area.

Here are some of the natural substitutes we like:

  • Hydrogen Peroxide

    This is an effective household cleaner that has very little odor and doesn’t contain harmful VOCs. It’s not as pleasant as a nice-smelling option, but it won’t leave you writhing in pain either.
  • Vinegar

    One of the most versatile substances in existence, vinegar can be used for anything from washing windows, baths and sinks to cleaning floors, disinfecting equipment and dissolving plugs of debris in a bathroom sink. Use the strongest blend you can get followed by boiling water where appropriate, and you’ll never need to resort to bleach again.
  • Jojoba Oil

    This is unscented and ideal for cleaning wood and leather. You can also try mineral oil for this purpose, but avoid using cooking oils on this kind of materials.
  • Coarse Salt

    There’s little you can clean with scouring powder that you can’t clean with coarse salt, especially when you combine it with vinegar or concentrated lemon juice. From polishing your antique silver to getting old paint off a wall, coarse salt has a scouring ability second to none.
  • Baking Soda

    This is another extremely versatile product that forms the basis of a multitude of household cleaning supplies. It removes stains, kills odors, gets rid of grease, deodorizes furniture, banishes mildew, brightens up laundry, eliminates garbage odors, and even cleans jewelry. Mix it with various liquids for stronger, pain-free cleaning power.

    When in doubt, warm water and soap suds will often do as good a job as any other cleaner, and as long as you use an odorless soap you should have no after-effects.


Brand Name Products

Over the years the migraine community has come up with this list of brand-name products less likely than others to trigger an attack, but it’s still important to proceed carefully. What works for one patient may not work as well for another.

Print this list out and take it with to the store to do a smell test when you don’t have a migraine, and buy the ones you think might work for you. Remember, scent-sensitivity is a very personal thing.

  • Lysol Unscented Wipes
  • Simple Green
  • Norwex
  • Method
  • Dawn
  • Bona
  • Fantastik with Clorox
  • Borax

Read the label on anything you buy, and be sure to choose products that have minimal quantities of the VOCs listed above. Manufacturers aren’t obliged to list all the ingredients in products, and those materials labelled “green” aren’t necessarily safer. Do your research using reliable sources, such as the EPA’s Safer Choice website.   

Tips for Cleaning

Headache-free housecleaning isn’t only about the odor of the products you use, though. Doing—and not doing—certain things can make all the difference to your day. Here are some housecleaning tips for migraineurs:

  • Work in spaces with good ventilation. If you can’t open the windows because of the heat or cool air escaping, stand a desk fan nearby and have it blowing the dust and odors away from you. Never use cleaning products in a small, enclosed area.
  • Wear a surgical face mask while you’re cleaning. This not only provides a barrier between your nasal membranes and the scent, it also protects you from inhaling fine dust particles that could bring on an allergic reaction.
  • Avoid trying to do everything in a short amount of time. Gauge your energy levels and your migraine status and pace yourself, taking frequent breaks to rest.  
  • Always follow directions for a brand-name product to avoid using it in a way that can cause harmful reactions. For example, oven cleaner used on the stove top can cause the surface coating to disintegrate and give off unpleasant particles.
  • Never mix cleaning products, because the wrong combination can not only trigger a migraine but potentially poison you.

It’s worth buying only the quantity of a product you plan to use in a foreseeable period. Storing any chemical cleaning products can lead to spills or degradation, which can result in the materials giving off even worse compounds.

Treating a Migraine

If you do develop a migraine episode as a result of housecleaning, stop immediately and follow your usual treatment protocols. Try to identify the product or activity that led to the attack, and make a note in your migraine diary so you can aim to avoid making the same error again.

Chemical products have made our cleaning much easier, and many people appreciate them tremendously. For migraine patients, however, using these can make housecleaning worse than it already is. Substituting commercial supplies with natural products with fewer ingredients and no fragrance can literally mean the difference between a clean home and a day spent lying down in a darkened room.

migraine diary 

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Topics: Migraine, Causes, Prevention

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