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Are Your Cleaning Products Making You Sick?

For those of us who are headache sufferers (especially those of us with migraines), the chemicals contained in many cleaning products can serve as a headache trigger. These compounds can cause headaches by direct chemical irritation to the trigeminal nerve receptors in the nasal lining. Migraine sufferers are particularly sensitive to any trigeminal stimulation.


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A cleaning product may contain any or all of the following trigger chemicals:

  • Fragrance
  • Solvents (alcohols, propylene glycol, glycol ethers, many others)
  • Irritants (like kerosene or formaldehyde)

These chemicals enter the air as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). To avoid headache, minimize your exposure. If you suspect a particular cleaning product is a headache trigger for you, first be certain you are using it in a well-ventilated area if at all possible. Heat increases the volatility of VOCs, so using cleaning products in the cooler portions of the day will decrease your exposure.

Many cleaning products are now available in non-fragranced versions. You might think that this would reduce your VOC exposure, but this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes, a masking fragrance is used in products labeled “fragrance-free” or “unscented” to cover up the scent of a solvent or other VOC in the product.

In addition to using fragrance to hide a solvent odor, manufacturers also indicate a consumer preference for fragrance over cleaning ability in product market testing. Consumer tests, however, rarely offer real life conditions or ask complex questions. If consumers were asked if they wanted fragrance that caused a headache, ended up in wastewater and accumulated in fish, it’s more likely they would select the product with cleaning ability, and less irritation and toxicity potential.


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Are Your Cleaning Products Making You Sick?:  Created on September 11th, 2007.  Last Modified on June 12th, 2014


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About Christina Peterson, M.D.

Christina Peterson, M.D., Neurologist, is a member of the American Academy of Neurology with twenty years experience in treating patients and promoting effective health and wellness programs focused on prevention of neurological problems such as headaches. Peterson's work involves identifying nonfood triggers, such as ingredients in cleaning products, that may contribute to headaches.

She is also the medical director of the Oregon Headache Clinic, and a frequent speaker in the field of migraine and other headache disorders, and their prevention and management.



Information provided by The Healthy House Institute is designed to support, not to replace the relationship between patient/physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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