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Somebody Stinks: Perfume, Cologne, and Other Smells in the Workplace

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

You might be making coworkers, clients, and friends sick if the eau de "you" includes scented beauty products, heavy body odor, cigarette smoke or other strong smells.

You might be making coworkers, clients, and friends sick if the eau de "you" includes scented beauty products, heavy body odor, cigarette smoke or other strong smells.

Does Your Scent Enter the Room Before You Do?

Okay, friend, it's gone on long enough.

  • You douse yourself with your favorite perfume or cologne. You add deodorant with a completely different scent, then use a contrasting hand lotion.
  • You eat hard boiled eggs and tuna sandwiches in your cubicle.
  • You exercise at lunchtime but skip the shower. Or you don't believe in deodorant.

If you think no one notices, you have another thing coming. You aren't being "scents-itive" to coworkers, clients, and friends.

Friend, your office mates are suffering. They complain, struggle to ignore it, or offer you hints that are apparently too subtle for you to comprehend.

But I'm giving it to you straight up: You stink. (No offense, of course.)

Pepe Le Pew ... Is That You?

This skunk's odor can last several weeks and is notoriously difficult to remove.  How long does your smell last?  Nearly 1 in 3 people report being irritated by the scents others wear.

This skunk's odor can last several weeks and is notoriously difficult to remove. How long does your smell last? Nearly 1 in 3 people report being irritated by the scents others wear.

Sensory Overload: Fragrance Allergies and the Workplace

Before you get all puffed up and indignant, let me explain. A recent study found that 31% of the general population is irritated by the scented products that other people wear. And 19% experience negative health effects from air fresheners.1

Thus, in your attempt to smell good, you may be annoying others. You may even be making them sick.

As a former HR investigator for two Fortune 500 companies, I've reviewed multiple cases involving this "scent-sitive" topic. I've found that when there are smell-related conflicts in the workplace, one or more issues is usually in play:

  • lack of awareness: The offender is oblivious that their smell is overwhelming, offensive, or even harmful to others
  • entitlement: Often out of embarrassment, they feel they have a right to their own personal habits and
  • health problems: On occasion, personal hygiene is a symptom of a physical or mental illness.

Reader Poll: You Smellin'?

Eww, Is That You Smelling All Funky?

Irritating scents in the work environment can trigger  asthma, allergies, and migraines.  About 37 million American adults suffer from migraines, often causing them to miss work.

Irritating scents in the work environment can trigger asthma, allergies, and migraines. About 37 million American adults suffer from migraines, often causing them to miss work.

Common Scent Irritants That Can Trigger Hypersensitivity

These are common examples of smells that can trigger hypersensitivities.

Personal HygieneEnvironmental

perfume or cologne

air fresheners


first and secondhand smoke


cleaning products



thirdhand smoke


lotions and aftershave

food items

shampoo and soap

laundry products

heavy body odor

glue or adhesive

Fragrances Can Trigger Health Ailments

Odors in the workplace can trigger allergies and asthma, migraines, and other health problems. Worse yet, health symptoms don't always go away once the odor is out of range.3

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Read More From Toughnickel

Fragrances (such as the ones listed in the table above) can result in symptoms that include

  • sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes2
  • dizziness and lightheadedness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • confusion and difficulty concentrating
  • shortness of breath and wheezing
  • depression and anxiety
  • loss of appetite and
  • skin irritation.4

Before you dismiss these health concerns as trivial or simply not your problem, consider this: fragrance sensitivities can be regarded as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees who have a disability, a record of a disability, or are regarded as disabled.

Employers covered by the ADA are therefore obligated to take fragrance sensitivity complaints seriously. Some employers have even instituted scent-free policies as accommodations.

Is That a New Perfume?

Fragrances can set a variety of health problems off like dominoes.

Fragrances can set a variety of health problems off like dominoes.

Packing a Lunch? Foods That Make You Go "P U"

You may enjoy these, but these smelly foods and beverages can trigger allergies, migraines and other health problems in others. Consider enjoying them outside the office.

MeatsVegetables & CheesesOther


Certain cheeses (limberger, parmesan)

Burnt popcorn

Hot Dogs




Cooked asparagus or broccoli

Garlic, Curry

Boiled eggs, egg salad

Raw onion


The Nose Knows: Our Powerful Sense of Smell

Humans can detect an estimated 1 trillion odors, although there is great variability in individual performance.5 Many odors are detected through nerve endings that are associated with pain and temperature sensation rather than smell.

Women have a keener sense of smell, especially during their reproductive years. With repeated exposure to a substance, they become even more sensitive.6 (They're also more likely to suffer from asthma and allergies, and nearly three times more likely to experience migraines.)7

We rely on our sense of smell to

  • recognize one another
  • interpret what we're tasting
  • alert us to danger (e.g., gas leaks, fire, food spoilage) and
  • recall emotions and memories (e.g., your grandmother's home).

Our sense of smell is so refined that we can distinguish old age through odor alone.8 (Yes, there is an "old person smell," and scientists believe it is the result of a breakdown of fatty acids in the skin.)

Research has also found that obesity is detectable by scent, as small amounts of methane that are emitted through the breath of people who are overweight.9 (Intestinal microbes are the culprit.)

A wide range of medical conditions and substances can impact our sense of smell and thus how we experience the world. Between the ages of 65-80, approximately half of the population experiences some loss to their sense of smell.11 After age 80, the proportion rises to three-quarters.

The loss of smell is a significant sign of possible neurological damage. For example, 90% of Parkinson's patients suffer olfactory loss. The loss of smell is also an early hallmark of Alzheimer's disease, and the number of brain lesions in patients with Multiple Sclerosis significantly correlate with loss of smell. Wearing too much perfume has also been found to be a sign of depression and deficiency in zinc.

Therefore, if you suffer at the hands of someone in the office who wears too much fragrance, consider that they could potentially have a medical reason they wear too much scent. That's all the more reason to approach the situation with care and avoid jumping to conclusions.

Is That You Smelling Like That?

You might think your lunch of hot dogs with sauerkraut and raw onions is delicious, but what about the rest of the office?  Scents linger, you know.

You might think your lunch of hot dogs with sauerkraut and raw onions is delicious, but what about the rest of the office? Scents linger, you know.

Factors That Can Impact Your Sense of Smell

Tread softly in dealing with the office fragrance-lover. There may be medical reasons your co-worker wears too much fragrance. The above list is not all-inclusive.


Diseases Affecting the Hormonal System - Diabetes, Cushing's syndrome, Hypothyroidism

Diseases Affecting the Nervous System - Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis, migraines, brain tumors, Epilepsy, Korsakoff syndrome, Schizophrenia, Parkinson's

Drugs - Some depressants and stimulants, some antibiotics and blood pressure medications

Other Diseases and Conditions - Asthma, Sarcoidosis, Chronic Rhinitis, Cystic Fibrosis, Leprosy, Depression, Zinc deficiency, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency

Exposure To Industrial Chemicals - acids, pollutants, heavy metals, inorganic and organic compounds

Radiation and Chemotherapy

Do You Smell What I Smell?

His face says it all.

His face says it all.

5 Signs You're Wearing Too Much Perfume or Cologne

You love your signature scent, but do other people? Perfume and cologne shouldn't be so overpowering that others suspect you bathe in it.

Because you can easily become desensitized to your own aroma, learn to recognize when you're wearing too much fragrance. And if you know that you have one of the above medical conditions that can affect scent (see table), explore the possibility that you might be wearing too much cologne or perfume.

  1. If you receive comments (even if they are meant to be compliments) such as "you make the whole room smell nice" or "I smelled that you were here," you're probably wearing too much. Someone should be within an arm's length before they remark how nice you smell.
  2. If you apply perfume directly onto your skin and the area remains wet a few seconds later, you've overdone it. Or, if you use more than two sprays, it's probably a bit much — especially for the work environment.
  3. If more than one person has ever told you that you smell strong, ask a friend for feedback. Seriously, a little dab will do you.
  4. If people sneeze, cough, or complain of migraines around you, or if they avoid standing next to you, that's a big clue. Your scent may be making them sick.
  5. At the end of the day, if you can still smell your own fragrance, you've probably overdone it. A person's scent receptors become immune to his/her own smell.

A Humorous Salute To "Mr. Way Too Much Cologne Wearer"

How to Deal With a Smelly Co-worker

If you're an employee who is negatively impacted by a coworker's scent, here are suggested guidelines for coping.

  • Consider involving HR or your manager—especially if there is a known medical issue involved.
  • Although it is possible to send an anonymous text message or an anonymous e-mail, you're likely to receive superior cooperation if the situation is handled face-to-face.
  • If you choose to handle the conflict yourself, address the situation with your co-worker privately.
  • Be direct in describing the issue.
  • It's okay to acknowledge feeling awkward about the situation. Understand that your co-worker may feel embarrassed and defensive.
  • Know exactly what you are requesting (e.g., do you want co-workers to stop wearing all scented products or just a certain one?)
  • Ask for their help, rather than making a demand.
  • Avoid making judgments. Describe behaviors rather than attitudes and motivations. It's entirely possible your co-worker is unaware. It is inappropriate to suggest that a medical condition may be influencing their scent choices.
  • Treat your fragrant co-worker with the same respect and courtesy you want from him or her.
  • Thank him or her for understanding.

An example conversation:

"Susan, I wanted to talk with you privately about something that's been bothering me. It's a little uncomfortable for me to share this. When you wear perfume and paint your nails at your desk, I find that the scents trigger my migraines. Would you be willing to help me out by avoiding scented products like perfume or cologne and painting your nails outside of the office? I appreciate your hearing me out."

Reader Poll

Advice For Confronting A Cologne-Loving Teammate

Solutions For Dealing With Chemical Sensitivities at Work

In dealing with chemical sensitivities in the workplace, you will need to be creative as well as patient. Options may need to be tested via trial-and-error.

The Job Accommodation Network offers the following possible solutions for dealing with chemical sensitivities, aside from adopting a scent-free policy at work. (The Job Accommodation Network is a source of free, confidential and expert advice on workplace accommodations.)

  1. Change the location of your workstation. Move your work area away from the irritant. Being in contact with fewer people should reduce your scent exposure.
  2. Work from home several days a week. Telecommuting can reduce overall exposure. It can also alleviate symptom severity during times when you must be physically present in the workplace.
  3. Adjust your work schedule. Modify your work hours by going into work and leaving a few hours early.
  4. Use a portable fan or air purifier. Fans can redirect offensive odors elsewhere. If you have an office, an air purifier with a good gas or carbon filter might help.
  5. Interact with smelly co-workers via phone, e-mail, or teleconferencing as much as possible.

Be "Scent-sitive," Will You?

Avoid jumping to conclusions regarding the cause of a co-worker's overpowering scent.  Describe behaviors rather than motivations or attitudes.

Avoid jumping to conclusions regarding the cause of a co-worker's overpowering scent. Describe behaviors rather than motivations or attitudes.

Quotes About Scent, Smell, and Fragrance

"I don't use deodorant. If you drink enough water, you shouldn't have to. I think I smell pretty good without it."

- Simon Baker, Australian actor and director

"The lovesick, the betrayed and the jealous all smell alike."

- Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, French novelist

"I judge people on how they smell, not how they look."

- Jennifer Lopez, American pop diva

"People who wear fur smell like a wet dog if they're in the rain. And they look fat and gross."

- Pamela Anderson, Canadian-American actress and model

"Smell is incredibly important and sensual. It communicates who you are."

- Sean Combs (P. Diddy), American rapper

"I smell of sweat. I don't like people smelling of all these weird things. I think deodorant is disgusting."

- Rupert Everett, English actor and writer

"The sense of smell explores; deleterious substances almost always have an unpleasant smell."

- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French politician and gastronome

"Smell is a long-distance sense, a way of stretching time and finding out in advance what lies ahead."

- Lyall Watson, South African writer and scientist


1Caress, S. M., & Steinemann, A. C. (2009, March). Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from

2Bouchez, C. (2008, January 11). Fragrance Allergies: A Sensory Assault. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from


4Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (2013, January 28). Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace : OSH Answers. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from

5Williams, S. C. (2014, March 20). Human Nose Can Detect a Trillion Smells. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from

6BBC News (2002, February 4). Women nose ahead in smell tests. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from

7Sember, B. (n.d.). HowStuffWorks "Why do women have more migraines than men?". Retrieved March 28, 2014, from

8Honeycutt, D. (2013, November 11). Science Confirms That Old People Really Do Have a Smell. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from

9Park, A. (2013, March 27). Can You Smell Obesity? Retrieved March 27, 2014, from

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is there a cure for fragrance sensitivity? I have allergic rhinitis and lately, perfumes in the office and gatherings are getting out of hand for me to handle. All the doctors I've seen so far have given me medicines to mitigate the problem but no actual cure. They ask to avoid the trigger. Is there a better fix like a permanent solution?

Answer: If you have an allergy, there's some chemical in the fragrance that is apparently triggering it and you can must adjust accordingly. That may or may not involve medication for you. Perhaps it's more of a solution that involves one of the following: a change in diet, meditation and breathing when you're faced with the trigger, chewing strongly flavored gum or using Listerine strips, using a saline nasal spray or neti pot, Vick's vapor rub or scent eliminator (a number of varieties are available), etc. I'm sorry but I don't know of a cure.

Question: A coworker doesn't wear deodorant and sometimes he stinks like hot chicken noodle soup. I want to gag. What should I do?

Answer: For some workers, it's their sweaty armpits, and for others, it's their breath. What a difficult situation!

There are some general tips available in my article "Somebody Stinks: Perfume, Cologne, and Other Smells in the Workplace" under the heading "How to Deal with a Smelly Coworker," but these may be less applicable to your situation since you're dealing more with a yucky body odor issue rather than a perfume and allergy problem. There could be cultural, religious, mental health, or age issues involved as well so tread carefully.

If you have a good relationship with your coworker and feel comfortable doing so, approach him directly but respectfully and explain the issue as nonjudgmentally as possible. Examples: "Frank, when the weather is hot, your deodorant stops working, and the odor is very distracting to me. Do you mind wearing an antiperspirant to reduce sweat and body odor?" or "Sam, when you exercise during lunch and don't shower before returning to the office, the sweaty odor is very distracting for the rest of the afternoon. Do you mind rinsing off before returning to work so I can concentrate on my job?"

If this is not a conversation that you feel comfortable having, then approach your manager immediately. This is what managers get paid the so-called big bucks for. Tell him or her these things:

1) Ask if the manager has noticed the smell. Describe what stinks (armpits, breath, feet, etc.) and just how bad it is.

2) exactly when the coworker stinks and how long this has been going on (every day? in the summers? since your coworker's father died? in the afternoons following exercise at lunch?)

3) who has noticed the body odor (coworkers? customers?)

4) what the impact has been (hard to focus on work, can't invite clients in without being embarrassed)

5) what solutions you've tried and how that's worked out for you, and

6) what you want the manager to do about it (propose a solution).

It's an awkward situation, but a good manager will handle it discreetly and professionally so that you can all concentrate on your work. A wimpy manager will not want to get involved. (It's his or her JOB to get involved.)

© 2014 FlourishAnyway


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on March 22, 2018:

Acosta - I would hope that you could explain that you became nauseous at the smell of a scent that a coworker was wearing. There seems to be more going on in the story.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on March 12, 2018:

Violet - Ah, Canada. Ok then. So you can either attempt to stay with your current employer, working with them to the extent that they will cooperate, or look for other work. If you seek to stay, be forthright with HR that 1) this fragrance sensitivity stems from (asthma, allergies, chronic bronchitis, COPD, or whatever your diagnosis is ) and is a disabling condition that you did not choose to have and it's doctor-verified, certainly not a matter of your personal preferences of certain odors; 2) you are good at your job (assuming that's true), enjoy your work, and are committed to the company and serving your customers; 3) you want to simply do your job without being ostracized by coworkers for your medical condition and you need their help in making some adjustments so that you can do so. Suggest a number of possible accommodations in concert with your doctor. The Job Accommodation Network lists a range of possible options, some of which may or may not help you or even be appropriate for your situation. If they don't want to work with you, think hard about whether you want to voluntarily resign. I don't know what options Canada has that are similar to unemployment, workers compensation, or short term disability but you may want to consider them instead of voluntarily quitting unless you can easily find a suitable replacement job. I assume you need some money coming in, right? In the mean time, you may want to start looking for another job. You may be pleasantly surprised. Small business owners may be more understanding regarding personal situations, especially if you repay their understanding with loyalty.

Violet Moscovici on March 12, 2018:

hello FlourishAnyway

Thank you so much for your reply- I believe completely failed to specify I am in Canada...probably nothing listed below applies here in Canada.


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on March 09, 2018:

Violet - Depending on your medical details, this may very well be considered a DISABILITY and thus fall under the ADA. Assuming your employer is large enough to be covered by the ADA, the company needs to engage in an interactive process with you regarding your requests for reasonable accommodation. Make sure they know that and put your requests in writing (email), directed to HR or the assigned contact person. See the following link and its associated links for a relevant overview: Allowing co-workers to shun you is retaliatory behavior. Consider filing a new complaint about that and be ready to name names and provide specific examples. These folks need to grow up and just get to work. Just like you didn't get to pick your medical conditions, you won't get to pick the accommodation that your employer settles on. However, you can suggest any preferences you might have. Express a desire to work positively towards a solution. Engage and educate even though they are jerks. One never knows who will come down with migraines or allergies or need chemotherapy (which often makes people sensitive to fragrances). For all one knows, the company may have customers that are affected and they don't even know it! I wish you the best of luck.

acosta12 on March 09, 2018:

I have been accused of discrimination because a coworkers wears some oils that makes me sick. We were in a meeting and i was sitting behind her i started to feel sick so i went out of the room and pick up some alcohol wipes and started to smell them. I did not make a face or non of the above and moved my self from the area. Well someone saw me and accused me of discrimination. i was call into the office and told that. were are my rights? if something makes me sick I have to deal with it??? somebody please explain

Violet Moscovici on March 09, 2018:

I need help to deal with a "stinky" situation. I am working for an Ophthalmic Lab for the past 14 years. While I've never suffered of any allergies, I've developed a high sensitivity to fragrances and strong odors. I addressed the issue several times, first with my co-workers directly, my Manager, company's Management and ultimately with HR. It doesn't seem to help, and HR said would be impossible to be fragrance free environment. I quit the job a year ago because of that, however after 3 weeks I was reinstated. I started an allergy treatment back in September 2017 that would take 18 months. I started feeling better and have a good response to the treatment, however end of January 2018 I had a major setback and started to feel very ill. I addressed the issue with Management, and HR all over again however they seem not to have a solution for me, and I got a letter from my specialist where says that being exposed to fragrances the treatment won't help....My work colleagues are treating me as I have leprosy, not even talking to me and

W hat to do?

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on October 15, 2017:

Mel, That's a "stinky" situation for sure. If you are the owner of this business, obviously you can choose to either 1) keep her business/support but risk your comfort and health or 2) be frank and honest and risk the possible consequences of her being offended. If customers and employees are also complaining, that should help inform your choice. There are discreet and respectful ways to have this conversation, if that's your choice. A local dry cleaner in my community, for example, asks people not to bring in items with cat hair on them because the owner is so allergic that she was hospitalized. Both my mother and I were customers there and had cats. Although we were a little miffed at first, she does such a good job and her prices are reasonable that we do continue to go there, and we clean off all the traces of cat hair before we go. Kindness, respect, and providing adequate explanations pay dividends. Good luck with your situation.

Mel on October 15, 2017:

Can anyone advise on this sticky situation? I run a tiny spice & tea shop and we have a regular customer who uses an absurd amount of perfume. I can smell her before she even comes in the shop, and the scent builds up in the tiny room while she is here. It is suffocating...and it lingers in the shop for hours after she is gone. Even worse, she pays with cash and her cash reeks too! It really bothers me, it makes me feel dizzy and nauseous. I often get headaches on days she comes in. Not to mention, we sell spices and tea, so scent is really important here! But like I said, she is a regular customer--one of our biggest supporters--so I don't feel comfortable talking to her about it. Do I just have to suffer a few times a week?

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on May 10, 2017:

memyselfandI - To some they just smell bad while to others they induce migraines and other strong physical reactions. Go to any allergist (and some neurologists) and they'll have signs posted that require you not to wear any scented products while in their office for this reason.

memyselfandI on May 10, 2017:

It not that these things cause headaches, it that they just plain smell bad.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 13, 2016:

Olivia - Sounds like you have some stinky folks in your place of business. Thanks for sounding off. Wish you had shared more.

Olivia on November 13, 2016:

I feel you angry coworkers!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on July 30, 2016:

Tired of Smells - Ultimately, it's YOUR house and you and your partner have the say as to who stays and for how long. Agree with your partner on your approach and create a united front.

Then matter-of-factly tell your unkind father-in-law via Skype well in advance of his visit that you are serious, that you do want him to visit, but there are key conditions and it's a medical matter. Give him no more than 3 alternatives. For example: Alternative 1: Don't visit. Alternative 2: He can leave the cologne at home and stay with you. Alternative 3: Stay in a hotel or another relative's house (decide who pays) and he can visit with your family on days when he's not wearing cologne.

Because this is your husband's father, he needs to step up strongly, supporting you and taking the lead in answering any pushback by his father. I had a similar situation with my husband's mother who was a chain smoker. She was rude about doing it anywhere she pleased -- in a car, in your face, in your house, etc. Giving someone choices is better than giving them a request or an ultimatum. Emphasize that you want to see him and love him and it's about the cologne and medical condition, nothing else. I hope this helps!

Tired of Smells on July 29, 2016:

Well what if it's my fil, not a co-worker that douses himself A FEW TIMES A DAY. Yeah you read that right. And get this, he puts it on HIS HANDS first and rubs it all over his body. Yea, I don't live with him, but he visited from abroad so he stayed with us for 6 weeks. That crap was everywhere. Then the breaking point- I noticed it was all over the washer and dryer, as in stuck! It took like a million loads of vinegar to get it out. And for the dryer it was a soak a towel in vinegar and let it run a million times deal. I was about to buy new ones! Listen if someone can PLEASE give me tips for prevention because he's supposed to come over again and I feel overwhelmed. And yes, we've already asked him not to wear it this time. His response was "hahahhahaha". The worst part is I have asthma and last time it even bothered my baby's skin. I didn't really even want him to hold her (which is sad because he's not a bad guy otherwise). Any ideas folks? Thanks!!!!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on July 22, 2016:

Jenni - The most obvious and congenial method of solving the issue is talking directly with the co-worker, but if that and going to management have failed, then you might try the Americans with Disabilities route. Check first that your workplace is covered by the ADAAA (see the EEOC website). Work with an allergist or other medical specialist to get a diagnosis first (e.g., asthma, multiple chemical sensitivities, COPD). An impairment such as asthma that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity such as breathing when active.

Get your diagnosis and talk with your doctor about your work environment, other triggers, and severity of your reaction. Ask the doctor for his/her take on recommended accommodations (which you will use when you approach HR). Assuming you have a qualifying disability, then approach HR again with your medical diagnosis and a request an accommodation (e.g., to be moved, to require the coworker to cease use of the oils, etc.). If you have a disability, the accommodation request should be an informal interactive process between you and HR. They may request documentation, and their final accommodation may not be what you requested (e.g., they may want you to do something silly like wear a mask). Here is some basic information that may be helpful: Best of luck to you.