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4 Ways to Survive Fragrance Sensitivity in the Office

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Around 5,000 different fragrances permeate our personal care products. What smells clean and fresh to one person is a harbinger of an allergy attack for someone with fragrance sensitivity, which can result in sneezing, headaches, skin reactions, even difficulty breathing. Antihistamines can help, but the best treatment is reducing exposure. The question is, how far does your employer have to go to accommodate your condition?

Scent-sensitive at the office

(Photo Credit: patpitchaya/freedigitalphotos.net) 

Fragrance sensitivity hit the news recently in the case of Brady v. United Refrigeration. Christine Brady claims that her former employer discriminated against her because of her sensitivity to chemicals, perfumes, and lotions.

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The case is proceeding to trial, but its existence highlights an issue that many workers experience. An initial NIH study, and a subsequent study by the University of West Georgia, indicated that as many as 30 percent of Americans suffer from scent sensitivity. As many as 45 million workers are affected by chemical sensitivity, according to MCS America

You may have already experienced it yourself: that noxious aroma of perfume or cologne that permeates the office. It may become so bad that you can’t stop sneezing, or you just can’t concentrate on your work – all because the smell is overpowering.

The increasing prevalence of issues related to scents and chemical allergies has caused some companies to take a more proactive approach, particularly now that allergies to fragrance or multiple chemical sensitivities may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Yes, there is some ambiguity about whether a “sensitivity” will rise to the level of a disability, under the ADA. That’s partly because the issue may still seem rather minor. Jonathan Mook, an attorney with DiMuroGinsberg, clarifies that individuals with medical conditions that make them fragrance- or irritant-sensitive may now be covered by the ADA as having an actual disability and entitled to reasonable accommodation

With all that in mind, then, what can you do to survive those noxious smells in the office? 

1. Be friendly.

Yes, the first step is usually a direct approach. Have you tried talking to the person who is pouring a gallon of scent on themselves every morning? Even if they aren’t a personal friend, many fellow employees are willing to make adjustments to their fragrance selection, or make do without. At the very least, they might lighten up while they’re at work.

2. Research office policy.

If your initial approach doesn’t work, find out if there is a policy about fragrance or scent products. Some companies have already put a clause in their employee handbook, and that could make life much easier for you. The policy often relates to colognes, after-shave lotions, perfumes, deodorants, body/face lotions, hair sprays or similar products. But, some human resource departments have extended the policy to any fragrance in the office, including cleaning solutions, air fresheners, and other scented products. 

3. Ask for intervention.

Even without an official policy, you can still approach your manager or HR representative to ask for help. Your manager can often offer simple solutions that will dramatically improve your situation, whether it’s by moving you to a different location in the office, letting you wear a mask, or even arranging for the fragrance-issue to be corrected. (They might even send out a company-wide email, banning the use of fragrance). 

4. See if you can have a flexible schedule.

Depending on your job function, and the flexibility of your office environment, you may be able to re-orient your work space: work from home, move to a different office, or complete your tasks on a different schedule. Your boss may even be open to allowing you to Skype in to meetings. And, there may be other options available to you that are specific to your company and working relationship with your manager. 

When you demonstrate that you want to work, and that you’re willing to be flexible – to make it work for everyone – your employer will hopefully respond in a positive way. 

Tell Us What You Think

Are you sensitive to fragrance in the workplace? Is it affecting your work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter

Esther Lombardi
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Dori
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Dori

This article shows no awareness of the reality of how debilitating chemical sensitivity is. You would not write this way if the person was in a wheelchair. We have not been afforded the same rights as other disabilities . No other disability is shown so little respect. This is not a slight allergy. It is traumatically life altering.

Silver
Guest
Silver

Chemical Sensitivity is a real and growing problem. Many of us have had to give up trying to work because of environments that are so toxic for us. I tried for years to create a fragrance free work environment, and finally had to face the fact that I could not work. It broke my heart. I loved my job. Many people confuse chemical sensitivity with allergies. This is not a “take an antihistamine” and get over it situation. Chemical sensitivity produces TOXIC reactions in the body – and the longer the exposure, the more intense the symptoms: brain fog, muscle… Read more »

mec
Guest
mec

i think when it becomes part of the environment, it becomes a problem, allergy or not. i don’t want to smell someones perfume all day while at work just like i don’t want to hear someone’s music at work all day. it’s not right to impose your self on others.

Susan
Guest
Susan

I tried all,in the above suggestions. I suffer anaphylaxis from scents and many chemicals. Air fresheners, hand sanitizer, laundry soaps, personal care products etc. I also have Asthma and have been known to collapse. A kind approach is nice but people get angry when,asked to give up,something they enjoy…which unfortunately could take my,life. I have lost my job, my friends and some family due to my health issues. Please help us ,get the word out to….we are so misunderstood. Thank,you

Daw Boot
Guest
Daw Boot

Sadly I’ve seen when employers ask people not to wear perfumes they react hostilely and put on even more. After reading the whole law suit, apparently after her boss issued a no perfume policy she had someone spraying her cubical with it.

I know this sounds bad, but this is why I don’t like to work in a workplace with a lot of women. Men will be out with it and open if there is a problem. Women on the other hand will tell you things are great but behind your back hate you.

Barbara
Guest
Barbara

I developed allergies to perfume several years ago at the age of 40. I haven’t found any medication so far that helps me. I’ve had to change tables at restaurants, movie theaters, etc. This allergy has affected my career miserably. Most people show empathy once they understand that it’s the chemicals that make me sick, not the smell of the perfume. However, there always seems to be that one person in the office who wears perfume that leaves a trail (you smell him/her before you see them) and takes offense when asked to refrain from wearing it, even when they… Read more »

Ashley
Guest
Ashley

So far asking the wearers to tone it down has lead to retaliation (someone sprayed perfume on my coat) and hostile attitudes. Asking my employer for help has lead to me being moved. I am now in the same situation again. My head hurts, my throat hurts from coughing and I still have a nasty chemical taste in my mouth, my eyes burn, and I am fumbling and foggy like I have been poisoned, even when I am off work. I have asked to be moved again, but I suspect the answer will be no. I have two fans to… Read more »

Tresia
Guest
Tresia

I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) it started out so simple avoid Gain laundry products, and air fresheners. Then P&G came out with Tide with Febreze and Bounce with Febreze, and I got sicker and sicker at work due to the disrespect from my co-workers. I had all the right paper work as MCS is a recognized disability in Canada (2000), and there is a duty to accommodate to reasonable undue hardship. Yet, my workplace lacked knowledge and support and some co-workers would not change their products making it impossible for me to do my job. It most definitely is… Read more »

seriously "sensitive" to pollution
Guest
seriously "sensitive" to pollution

Thank you for writing about this growing problem. Fragrance chemicals are polluting indoor air and having adverse health effects on people much the same way smoking does, because both smoke and fragrance contain numerous health harming chemicals, and just like there’s no such thing as a smoke free area in a space where smoking is allowed, there’s no such thing as a fragrance free area in a space where fragrance is allowed. Light fragrances are as healthy as light cigarettes. It’s not just about the smell. It’s what makes up the smell. One of the ways fragrance chemicals affect people… Read more »

Sacagawea
Guest
Sacagawea

When scents make you have an instant asthma attack that makes it impossible to breathe, I think your right to stink does not equal my right to breathe. No, the inhaler does not help. Benadryl does not help. Also, your stench gives me debilitating migraines. So just smell like yourself and stop leaving gobs of neurotoxins in your wake.

lori
Guest
lori

I work for a large insurance company in a call center. I have asked nicely etc and to no avail. they think its a joke and people around me continue to use it knowing it affects me. wish employers cared more.

Vicky
Guest
Vicky

I also am suffering from this problem. I work at a very famous hospital and they could care less if I’m suffering. they told me to take the perfume wearers to lunch and very nicely ask them to stop wearing so much. That is ridiculous!! I have complained a hundred times and they all know it but could care less. I’m almost at the stage I will also have to stop working. i can’t breathe, then I get a headache, then brain fog, then complete exhaustion due to this problem. But the people who wear this stuff are ignorant people… Read more »

Jackie
Guest
Jackie

I truly wish that all medical facilities had a “no fragrance” policy. For those of us with severe fragrance allergies who must go to the doctor or be in the hospital, we become even sicker with exposure to nurses, doctors, and techs who wear fragrances of any kind. Of all places, a medical facility dealing with sick individuals, should strictly enforce a “no fragrance” policy.

Rose Rivera
Guest
Rose Rivera

Yes, my worst nightmare (i am 53) is that if I ever become incapacitated and need care, I will be at the mercy of whomever is my caretaker and his or her choice to wear fragrance! I had a night nurse after surgery once who insisted she was not wearing fragrance (hospital did have fragrance free policy) when I could clearly smell fragrance. some people refuse to acknowledge that perfumed lotions, hair products, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, count as “fragrance”….

Adorns
Guest
Adorns

Get a lawyer.

Sheri
Guest
Sheri

I am friendly, but I get “you silly complainer” looks. Quitting smoking is notorious for leaving many to fragrance sensitivity. Natural scents (mold, animal droppings) and common chemicals (bleach, ammonia) may (or may not) be no more or less annoying that usual, but fragrances make nasal passages clamp shut (if exercised and developed), the scent collects as a greasy film coating the tongue, and in worst cases can prompt uncontrollable coughing fits that can lead to severely throat distress. With all the anti-smoker and anti-smoking drives, why isn’t this effect given more attention and documentation? What I suffer is not… Read more »

Jan
Guest
Jan

I too suffer from MCS, as of late, I am 55 yrs old, a Registered Nurse/Certified Medical Coder who became ill over a year ago. Since then I have worked for 3 different Healtncare organizations that do not enforce their fragrance policies. I took a new job 3 weeks ago that stated that they had another employee that had this issue and that they had a strict policy in place, which of course turned out not to be true. I had to start wearing a charcoal mask at work to keep from getting exposed, but after several days I was… Read more »

Joyce Mancuso
Guest
Joyce Mancuso

I just saw my doctor for this today. Severe headaches, blinding eye pain and tearing up, eyes turning blood red then skin around them bruising from swelling, hoarse voice/laryngitis, sneezing and coughing, sore throat, skin itching and turning red, stomach churning and diarrhea. You finally go home because there’s no choice and fall asleep because it wiped you out. It gets worse with each back-to-back episode. I received two more prescriptions and 2 referrals to specialists today. I was so excited for new treatments to make this stop so I could just get through my days at work, until I… Read more »

Jo Fuller
Guest
Jo Fuller

I’m so glad I found this discussion board. Only in the last couple of years has this begun to affect me. But I’m in the full throes of this entire illness. And am on the heels of a co-worker situation as well, who still wears it. What I don’t understand is the shocking degree of animosity we receive from people. Like we are telling them their mere existence makes us ill. I do not wish this on my worst enemy. It affects my life in many ways. My poor 13 year old daughter is getting into body washes and lotions,… Read more »

Karen
Guest
Karen

I agree there needs to be education on what fragrances can do to ones health. Even if someone like us is not sensitive to it the person wearing it also can eventually have health issues such as cancer, the lymph system etc can be affected. I am no doctor but if there are chemicals in the fragrance then it is toxic to everyone. That is a no brainer. Perfumes are also addictive to people and sometimes people cannot go without it.There seems to be very little regulations from the FDA as to what can and cannot go into these.Or is… Read more »

Kay
Guest
Kay

FDA has limited ability with cosmetics, including fragrances while the EU is actively working to remove allergenic fragrances and harmful chemicals from products. There are currently three cosmetic bills that are under consideration by Congress, but they do nothing to address the chemicals in fragrances. If we all write our Congress-person maybe these can be added to the bill(s) before it is passed. Even after passing, FDA will have to codify the bill into a regulation and that will take about two years.

annie
Guest
annie

Just today had to come home early from work due to an attack. My co worker didn’t have much on this morning so we were fine working alongside each other, then she went to lunch and came back saturated, within minutes my stomach was killing and a migraine developed and heart palpitations etc. but as i left and drove home felt better, so the question is how can i even gain PROOF because by the time i would reach to doctor’s office there would be very little symptoms “left” after the attack, and most doctors’ think we are nuts anyway,… Read more »

Kay
Guest
Kay

Your doctor can write the diagnoses even if you can’t make it to their office before symptoms subside. If they think you’re crazy you need to find another doctor. It is not work the risk to not get the diagnosis and begin working with your employer for ADA accommodations.

susanne
Guest
susanne

i can not agree more with the previous comments. I am finally recovering from an intense perfume (the word contains “fume” for a reason) poisoning received three weeks ago in a hospital from a NURSE. The had no clue. Fellow employees don’t give a crap, even if you ask nicely. Even if they hear you hacking your lungs out. Even if you’re out for two days with a sinus infection caused by them. We should not have to plead to breathe clean air. Why should we have to leave? We’re not the ones polluting the area with toxins. THEY should… Read more »

Sarah
Guest
Sarah

Talking to co-workers does not work. I have approached everyone I work with in my small office and discussed my issues with them nicely. They act like they care, but they still wear heavy perfumed items or keep them in the office and reapply them through out the day. I am currently having a reaction and when they reapply it is intensified to the point that I can barley function without itching, sneezing or gasping for breath.

Adorns
Guest
Adorns

Get a lawyer. And they will start listening to you.

Fran
Guest
Fran

Have recently taken redundancy as I couldn’t continue to work because of something that sounds like this. My organisiation was great, but not others in the building, so fed up of not breathing properly. Found this article as I was googling for jobs I could do at home or wearing a mask, though I still haven’t found a mask that works well. This has not been mentioned by any of the specialists I have seen so far, so can now raise it at my next visit. Thank you all for sharing.

Kay
Guest
Kay

I have not found a mask that can 100% stop the chemicals either, the strong ones still get the charcoal. Even if I can’t smell it, I get headaches, my nose starts to clog, my chest gets tight, my eyes burn, or my scalp and face start breaking out in a rash and I itch uncontrollably. My coworkers and bosses have intentionally exposed me by applying more, spraying more, heating more, hanging out in my office so the fragrance fills the air, or spraying my desk surface or belongings.

Nancy Tevis
Guest
Nancy Tevis

My employers decided to add two pine wreaths in our office for the Holidays this year. My coworkers also take a bath daily in perfume. I sent a polite email to my HR department about my sensitivity to the pine wreaths and their response to me was for me to have my doctor send them a note that I am highly sensitive to the chemicals in the perfume and mold spores on the pine wreaths. Why can’t they just believe me? So they did nothing about removing the wreaths

Talmud
Guest
Talmud

I have scent sensitivity. My office has no policy regarding scent, and my boss and coworkers pour it on. I have asthma and it makes it really tough to breath when the air is polluted. When I came back from being sick, the office had been sprayed with fabreeze. It has given me a splitting headache all day and it makes the workplace hostile when you can’t be comfortable there. I have looked for work elsewhere, but there is nothing which pays well. I have aksed coworkers to stop and some do and some don’t. It doesn’t seem an effective… Read more »

Jill
Guest
Jill

I realized I had MCS when I was 25. I am now 48. 23 years! If I’m exposed too long I will pass out. It makes me sick!. I can’t breath, I have trouble functioning, etc. Going shopping, church, running errands, visiting are all difficult for me. I have tried to work but unable because so much was making me sick. My co workers tried to understand but it’s difficult to understand if you don’t live with this. I know I didn’t understand this before I had it. My poor mother suffered from it but it was really rare 35… Read more »

Debbie
Guest
Debbie

PLEASE we need more awareness and education on the seriousness of MCS. I am going through a lengthly dialogue (Landlord and cleaning person are not being friendly about it) in my apartment building due to the intense fragranced (Mr. Clean with added Freebreeze) floor cleaners that were being used in the common entrance way and hallways. After alot of intervention, including the police when I was being verbally assaulted to get out of the building and find a different place to live) the landlord has switched (unhappily) to an unscented enviro friendly cleaner. I do not even know if this… Read more »

CiCi
Guest
CiCi

I had a colleague use my chemical sensitivity to bully me at work. We shared a close workspace, and he started bringing in these air freshener pearls that evaporate a scent. Something in these products, a kind of VOC in the dispersal agent I think, triggers a reaction – I get swollen glands in my neck, and start feeling flu-ish at the end of the day. When I asked if he could switch to scented candles or wax tarts, which don’t produce the same issue for me – he ignored me, but removed the air fresheners from our area. About… Read more »

Carol
Guest
Carol

Severely fragrance sensitive. It has cost me probably hundreds of thousands in lost wages, benefits and social security over my lifetime. Many employers would rather just get rid of employee. As to article, how do I approach a person wearing a gallon of scent when it makes me severely & painfully ill? So dizzy I can’t stand? So nauseated I am throwing up my last meal?

Jo Fuller
Guest
Jo Fuller

I’m the same way, Carol. Why can’t they understand it’s not vanity? Do we have to physically throw up in their laps for them to realize it?

Debra
Guest
Debra

I have worked with a coworker for 29 years. We weren’t always working in a small space together though. She wears the same spicey and strong scent everyday. She also chews a strong minty gum at least once daily. I moved to a different department 11 years ago and she came in shortly after. Now we work in the small space together. After all of this time together, I have been feeling nauseous frequently throught my workday due to her scent and the mint for about one year. I spoke with my Occ Health and Safety person first then I… Read more »

Chemically Disabled
Guest
Chemically Disabled

The only polite thing I can say is to reiterate all of the above comments. I am another person who is chemically disabled, which includes severe and life threatening reactions to medications and prescriptions. Yes, even antihistamines. So it’s handy that I don’t have allergies. The article has a lot of potential to cause harm and I can only hope that your readers also look at the comments. I’m 37 years old. I have lost my entire life to MCS.

mommamaria
Guest
mommamaria

The problem is society now has a sociopathic mentality…they are going to do whatever they want to do, no matter who it offends, who it harasses, who it tortures, who it makes sick, who it kills…….THEY DON’T CARE! Companies and businesses have no consciousness of the damages they allow by letting these “toxic bullies” do as they please. The repercussions are endless. Companies and businesses lose billions of dollars a year in lost time, lost work, sick pay, sick leave, employees going slow because they simply cannot concentrate or see what they are doing because of these toxic bullies that… Read more »

FrannyD
Guest
FrannyD

In reading this forum, I see so many similarities in the symptoms that I am experiencing (blood shot eyes, nausea, dizziness, brain fog, debilitating headache (going on day 19 now), etc when I’m exposed to fragrances. My physician gave me a note to “restrict all fragrances in the workplace”. Our HR rep just smirked and said the doc has to be more specific to my limitations. I’m waiting to see a ENT specialist…my physician does not want to refer me to an allergist so I’m confused. He even sent me for a CAT scan stat to rule out a tumor… Read more »

Initially NO
Guest
Initially NO

too many people are being forced out of workplaces due to the unregulated, unnecessary toxins in perfumes, colognes… please sign #Petition #Australia
https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Petitions/House_of_Representatives_Petitions/Petitions_General/Petitions_List?id=EN0359

phre
Guest
phre

I live in France, and everyone wears perfume or cologne here. Being without is like going out of the house in your pyjamas. As opposed to the US, perfume here is not about your “image”, it’s about your own personal well-being. It’s actually proven by research that the right scent enhances the functioning of your brain, helps with anxiety and depression, boosts your mood, confidence and creativity. The French don’t pop as much pills as the Americans, maybe that’s not a coincidence, either. On another note, we also have a perfume culture – we prefer quality and we also consider… Read more »

Kay
Guest
Kay

You obviously don’t have fragrance sensitivities, but if what you’re saying were true, the EU wouldn’t be actively working to ban them.

Rose Rivera
Guest
Rose Rivera

there is not one thing psychosomatic about my symptoms….when I am not aware of where or how a scent is in the area, and not always even sure I smell anything but there is a niggling irritation that just gets worse because continued exposure, that is nothing psychosomatic.

GETANEWJOB
Guest
GETANEWJOB

If you can’t stand scents, GET A NEW JOB. You people have NO RIGHT to decide what other people can and can’t wear. It’s not everyone else’s fault you were born a freak.

Dietju
Guest
Dietju

Getting a new job is not that simple. Not using perfume is.

Lindsay Regan
Guest
Lindsay Regan

So that someone else can “smell nice” we should suffer. Ita called human decency.

I did not want to be that person
Guest
I did not want to be that person

You know I did not always have issue with perfumes so be careful, there is Karma…..and everyone does have the right to breath….the courts did rule on that…GOD BLESS YOU

Jo Fuller
Guest
Jo Fuller

Exactly, my sensitivity gradually appeared only a couple years ago. What is this person doing in this discussion anyway? They look like the freak here. Plus, I’ve been working at my job for 12 years, whereas my co-worker has for four months. Who has the right to do what now, GETANEWJOB?? Besides, I’d rather be born a freak as a horrible troll like you.

Adorns
Guest
Adorns

karma will get you, it’s just a matter of time. This could happen to your daughter, your son, your family or to yourself, it’s because you did not encounter yet the type perfume chemical that kills you.

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