Somebody Stinks: Perfume, Cologne, and Other Smells in the Workplace
What Smells Good To You Might Stink To Someone Else
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?
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'?
How are you smelling at work?
Eww, Is That You Smelling All Funky?
Common Scent Irritants That Can Trigger Hypersensitivity
perfume or cologne
first and secondhand smoke
lotions and aftershave
shampoo and soap
heavy body odor
glue or adhesive
Are You Scent-sitive?
Tell us about your experience with fragrance and smells in the workplace in the Comments Section below.
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
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
- 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?
Packing A Lunch? Foods That Make You Go "P U"
Vegetables & Cheeses
Certain cheeses (limberger, parmesan)
Cooked asparagus or broccoli
Boiled eggs, egg salad
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. Also, loss of smell is 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?
Factors That Can Impact Your Sense Of Smell
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?
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.
Sign #1: If you receive even positive comments 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.
Sign #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.
Sign #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.
Sign #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.
Sign #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."
How do you approach difficult conversations?
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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Adjust your work schedule. Modify your work hours by going into work and leaving a few hours early.
- 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.
- Interact with smelly co-workers via phone, e-mail, or teleconferencing as much as possible.
Locations with Smelly Names
Celebrity Fragrances: Scents and Scents-sibility
Take the Quiz: Name That Celebrity Fragranceview quiz statistics
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
Be "Scent-sitive," Will You?
1Caress, S. M., & Steinemann, A. C. (2009, March). Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19326669.
2Bouchez, C. (2008, January 11). Fragrance Allergies: A Sensory Assault. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/fragrance-allergies-a-sensory-assault.
4Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (2013, January 28). Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace : OSH Answers. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/hsprograms/scent_free.html.
5Williams, S. C. (2014, March 20). Human Nose Can Detect a Trillion Smells. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/03/human-nose-can-detect-trillion-smells.
6BBC News (2002, February 4). Women nose ahead in smell tests. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/1796447.stm.
7Sember, B. (n.d.). HowStuffWorks "Why do women have more migraines than men?". Retrieved March 28, 2014, from http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/women/general/women-more-migraine.htm.
8Honeycutt, D. (2013, November 11). Science Confirms That Old People Really Do Have a Smell. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from http://gizmodo.com/science-confirms-that-old-people-really-do-have-a-smell-1472502978/all.
9Park, A. (2013, March 27). Can You Smell Obesity? Retrieved March 27, 2014, from http://healthland.time.com/2013/03/27/can-you-smell-obesity/.
10Doty, R. L. (2007, March). Smelling and Tasting Problems. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from https://www.dana.org/Publications/GuideDetails.aspx?id=50045.
Questions & Answers
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