(Design by Sara Bogovich; elements from Shutterstock)

(Design by Sara Bogovich; elements from Shutterstock)

Dilemma of The Month: Fragrance in the Work Place

Back Q&A Jun 3, 2016 By Suzanne Lucas

I recently developed a sensitivity to fragrances. I get headaches, suffer from vertigo and generally feel awful. My boss allowed me to post signs that say “Fragrance-Free Zone,” but some people persist in wearing fragrances. Once, a perfume-wearing coworker came to my cube and I felt a migraine coming on. I explained my problem and asked her to step back. She was offended and told my boss my behavior was completely inappropriate. I’m non-exempt and can’t work from home: Part of my job is to take notes in meetings, and the biggest fragrance offenders are in these meetings. What can I do?

You have a whole bunch of problems going on here.

1. Some people don’t believe in allergies or sensitivities. 

Some of these non-believers see it as their mission in life to prove they’re right. Hence, you get people hiding nuts in tuna casserole and putting perfume on in your presence, just to prove your allergy or sensitivity isn’t real.

2. Some people lie about having allergies or sensitivities

I knew a young man who declared he was allergic to fruit — all fruit. That seemed like a very strange allergy. I have one sibling and a niece that hate fruit with a burning passion — so much they won’t drink juice or even eat fruit-flavored candy. I said to this young man, “I have relatives with fruit aversion. Are you really allergic or do you just not like it?” He confessed he just didn’t like it, but it was easier to say he was allergic than to have people insist the only reason he didn’t like fruit was because he hadn’t tried their apple pie.

3. People don’t understand what “fragrance” means. 

They think it means perfume, which most people don’t wear. But washing detergent, body wash and even deodorant all can have fragrances. You’re undoubtedly just as sensitive to the fragrance from Secret deodorant as you are to Chanel No. 5. So, people think they are fragrance-free when they are not, and you look crazy because they aren’t wearing any perfume.

4. Some people just stink.

OK, so that’s the background. Here’s what you do about it.

Absolutely, positively, fill out the paperwork for an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation. You may think that disability means you need a special parking place, or you have heart problems, but fragrance sensitivities can be subject to ADA; it depends on the severity, but it sounds like yours would qualify (educated guess here). ADA requires that you ask for accommodations. Your employer doesn’t have to offer if you don’t ask.

ADA accommodations are “interactive,” which means you and your employer go back and forth about what would work. It sounds like your direct boss is supporting you, so that’s good. It’s the other people who are not.

What type of accommodations do you need? Do you need a general fragrance ban, or can you handle passing someone in the hallway wearing a strongly scented fabric softener? For some employees, the best solution is to work from home. But it sounds like in your case that’s not practical. Talk with your boss about what would and would not work for you.

Sometimes, simple things can be the best solution. For example, consider the note-taking: Since the biggest offenders are in those meetings, you can use your phone to record the meeting while you step out, or even Skype it to your cube around the corner. My guess is that after doing this a couple times, your biggest offenders will change their fragrance habits.

Nice people will, of course, be happy to give up their perfume when they hear of your problems. Unfortunately, depending on your level of sensitivity, you might have to ask people to change everything in their whole household — from deodorant to laundry detergent to hand soap. That’s a lot to ask, especially since most people don’t even think about how fragrances can impact others.

Make sure you keep your HR and manager in the loop. Talk more about yourself than other people. For example, don’t say, “Susan’s perfume gives me a migraine!” Instead, say, “I get migraines from the perfume that Susan wears.” There’s a subtle difference — in the first scenario, Susan is at fault and in the second scenario, you are. You don’t want anyone to feel attacked.

Good luck with the fragrance challenge. It can be really difficult for you and the workplace, but I’m confident it can come to a good resolution.


Suki Graves (not verified)June 3, 2016 - 11:13pm

Based on extensive experience with this situation I recommend that to the greatest extent possible MANAGEMENT and not the employee is responsible to inform, educate co-workers and follow-up with them. It should not be the job of the person with the disability to do so. This situation commonly results in stigmatization and even harassment of the person with disability so management needs to shoulder the burden and maintain as much privacy for the person as possible (and model that). For example, it's not, this is a fragrance free meeting because SUSIE gets migraine from fragrances, but THIS IS A FRAGRANCE FREE MEETING FOR THE HEALTH OF PARTICIPANTS.

The DOL Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has good resources to help with this.

Accommodations must be effective. Half a ramp is not effective for a person using a wheelchair nor is "toning it down" going to be an effective accommodation.

Ros (not verified)June 9, 2016 - 5:01am

But in this sort of case, it's also important for management to work with the person who has issues to figure out what accomodations are actually needed.

Strong smells are a 100% effective migraine trigger for me. Personally speaking: I can deal with lemon-scented or citrus-scented things, and food smells don't bother me but food-'inspired' smells (vanilla perfume or candles, say) are the WORST (even if vanilla cookies are fine). I have no idea why, but one leads to me throwing up and passing out and the other leads to me being hungry, so, let's work with it.

FOR ME: 'toning it down' would be fine. I've never reacted to, say, the scent of someone's laundry detergent or shampoo. Strongly-scented deodorant (especially men's), strongly-scented body creams, cleaning products if they've just been applied and aren't citrus scented (I'm fine if you let the room air out for a few hours!)... all of these are a no-go. Um... lillies are pure death, and most roses aren't much better, so bouquets of flowers need to be vetted for scents.

So, FOR ME, 'please don't wear scented creams/perfume/body products' would 100% be both fine and necessary for me to function. However, some people are significanly more sensitive, and some people are less sensitive, so I think it's important to pin down exactly what accomodations are required before implementing them.

Shell (not verified)January 17, 2017 - 2:53am

Vanilla used in food is usually REAL vanilla (from vanilla pod)...
Vanilla 'fragrance' is a man made chemical concoction - basically of petrol and maybe other toxic solvents etc to mimic the odour of vanilla. They are nothing to do with eachother. Do some research on "perfume" "scents" or so called "fragrance" --These can include any numebr of potentially 6000 plus toxic chemicals.

Shell (not verified)January 17, 2017 - 2:54am

Vanilla used in food is usually REAL vanilla (from vanilla pod)...
Vanilla 'fragrance' is a man made chemical concoction - basically of petrol and maybe other toxic solvents etc to mimic the odour of vanilla. They are nothing to do with eachother. Do some research on "perfume" "scents" or so called "fragrance" --These can include any numebr of potentially 6000 plus toxic chemicals.

Kimberly (not verified)June 9, 2016 - 6:07am

This is a serious question. What happens with 2 ADA needs are in conflict. An example I had a reaction to a dog in an airport. Sitting a couple seats away, my skin started blistering and I had trouble breathing. This dog was assisting a person who was partially paralyzed. It was well groomed and taken care off. I suspect it was actually the well groomed part that was the problem - I was probably reacting to the shampoo used on the dog or some type of flee/tick prevention treatment. Fortunately I was on a different flight. The boarding gate crew said I was not eligible for any accommodation (like moving me to a different flight). I think it was a case of visible disability vs "invisible" disability. The same airline has procedures to accommodate peanut allergies - which basically are the same an airborne allergen causing a dangerous reaction. (I know because those were in place for my flight because Peanuts are one of my airborne allergens.)

BTW I love your wording. The peanut accommodation on planes and in classrooms is often problematic. The reason people see it as a "fairness" issue. Kimberly can't eat peanuts so no-one is allowed to eat peanuts. That strikes them as unfair. That small particles in the air or on common surfaces can cause a deadly reaction is hard for people to wrap their head around. I don't refer to my allergy as a food allergy but as a contact allergy for exactly this reason.

Althea (not verified)June 9, 2016 - 11:30am

Just to confuse things, air travel isn't covered by the ADA at all; it's a whole different law called the Air Carrier Access Act.

Sarah (not verified)June 9, 2016 - 6:14am

I too am allergic/reactive to many fragrances, and they can bring on terrible migraines. I was working in a cramped corporate office and the woman who worked in the cube opposite mine would spray air freshner room spray in her cube almost daily. I asked her to stop several times, explaining that I was allergic and they bring on migraines. She didn't stop, and I had to ask my manager for help resolving the situation. There was no resolution, as she was promoted to HR and moved to the HR wing. Perhaps not surprisingly, I never received any promotions even after glowing endorsements from my manager and the VP we were under. My fragrance loving HR rep always explained gently that I didn't have the skills to work anywhere else in the company and eventually offered me a position that was several steps down with a pay cut.

VisitorTom Knight (not verified)June 9, 2016 - 6:35am

I have severe MCS caused by pesticide. I understand the struggle to keep employment, as I have have attempted dozens of jobs over 50 years of MCS.
This link is to JAN, a dept. of labor satellite, that may help mediate.

Visitormaria (not verified)June 9, 2016 - 3:17pm

I had a friend who had migraine and sinus reactions to heavy scents and she would just leave the room if someone came close to her with the heavy scents. But this reaction to scent in not just perfumes, certain chemicals used in soaps, sprays,etc. are harmful. I had to leave the room whenever the oven at work was cleaned because of the smell of the cleaning solutions would immediately cause me to start coughing and my eyes would start burning and tearing immediately. Some of the newer fragrances out today have harmful by-products in them which cause reactions in people. EWG site has a list of all products with harmful ingredients. I and my friend were lucky we had people around us who saw the reactions we would have and understood why we wouldn't stay in an area with that "scent" /or gas in air. No one has to stop wearing fragrance but realize others may not agree with your choice of airing the area. Besides fragrance should not be smelled before you enter the room but if you are very close to another.

Visitor (not verified)June 21, 2016 - 4:57am

I've had this problem at work for years now.. some people are quite rude to me, others disbelieve me, even though I have a letter from my allergist proving I have this disability. I'm not allowed to discuss this with any of my colleagues, I have even been put on an action plan for asking someone not to sit near me. One colleague even sprayed perfume near me on purpose. I suffer with allergic conjunctivitis, sinusitus and migraines which can take days to clear up meaning i have to have time off work so I dont get paid as I have run out of personal leave due to my allergy. You are right when you say the nice people will no longer wear fragrance..

Ellen condon (not verified)December 17, 2017 - 9:39am

I just left church due to perfume on other people. I don't know what to do. I sit in the back with the single men and my husband hoping no one will come sit by us with perfume on. Well, today was the worst. My nose felt like pepper spray way dabbed around outside and I had trouble breathing. Once in a dr office the assistant had perfume on but I tried to deal with it until she took my BP.It had gone up to 180/110. She moved me to another room, the dr came in took my BP again and within the 15 minutes or so it dropped to 130/80. I just don't know what to do. I can't live in a bubble.HELP!!!

Visitor Susan (not verified)February 11, 2018 - 11:15am

Suzanne, thanks so much for posting this very serious (to me) workplace dilemma. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a growing problem in my company. I worked with HR and ADA and even have FMLA if I have to leave a meeting due to fragrance issues and go home to recuperate. Depending on the fragrance, I can lose my voice, sneeze uncontrollably, get an instant migraine, cough—which triggers asthma (very serious), vertigo, pass out, or throw up, or any combination of these. MCS due to fragrance is not an allergy. It’s caused by sensitivity to toxic chemicals like fragrance (Parfum), smoke, and gasoline. Those of us with MCS are like canaries in a coal mine. We detect toxic chemicals. If only the public would use us in that capacity. I fear the people who are offended by us and, yes, will intentionally spray fragrance around their cubicles and offices, would also not take heed to a dead canary in a coal mine. Thank you for addressing this topic. It can be life threatening for me, particularly when I have an asthma attack.

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