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Nice Perfume. Must you bathe in it?

headline illustration and colorization by franke james; gas mask woman ©iStockphoto.com/Lise Gagne

Dear Office-Politics,
Nice Perfume, must you bathe in it?
That is what I want to say to her but I won’t. I have this co-worker. She is a very nice woman. In fact, she is the one who trained me. She got a promotion in the same office and I took her old position. She has taken to wearing a very heavy perfume/cologne or something (not sure what it is). She did not wear it when I was in training with her; at least not to this extent. It is enough to gag me out!! It’s the type of thing you can even taste it on your tongue a little. You can tell when she has been in the copy/work room because of the scent lingering. I think she also must reapply throughout the day or something.
I have only been in this division a little over a year now. I don’t want to make any problems for myself. I am in an admin assist position – low in the pecking order – and can’t afford to alienate or offend anyone and honestly don’t want to. I have been secretly hoping someone who is closer or better friends and has known her longer might say something in private to her but so far that hasn’t happened. I can’t imagine no one else noticing the strong scent surrounding this individual! I like her but it is difficult to me be even near her at all for more than a couple minutes because of this.
In addition, some other coworkers spray air freshener and use strongly scented lotions and essential oils.
Our office is on an upper floor of a downtown high-rise. Poor ventilation and obviously no windows to open. I have a cubicle, not an office. It is a small work unit of about 30 people. We share tons of common workspace and have to work closely together on projects and daily tasks. So, it isn’t a situation where I can just keep myself away from it. I am highly chemically sensitive and allergic. Things with these types of perfumes and ingredients in them cause my eyes to itch and water, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, my skin to get red and itch and even occasionally upset stomach. I do not tolerate it well physically at all! People who don’t have these problems don’t seem to understand how badly it can affect those of us who do.
What can a person with my condition do in a situation like this? Should I go to the woman wearing the offending perfume personally and talk to her? Should I mention the issue to our mutual supervisor ? Wear a gas mask in her presence as a subtle hint (just joking – er – sort of). Or, do I simply stock up on the Benadryl and continue to suffer in silence? I really could use some help on this one.


Gasping for air


franke james

Dear Gasping for air,
I’ve had firsthand experience with a perfume-bather so I know how touchy this issue is. We had an employee who also ‘bathed’ in it. Every pore oozed fragrance. It was so repulsive I gagged. You just had to enter the building and you knew whether she’d arrived.
And yet all of us were reluctant to mention it. I eventually figured out that she was using the perfume to mask the smell of cigarettes. But we all thought she was a nice person and nobody wanted to hurt her feelings… I was just about to break the bad news to her when she left (with no notice)! Oh well.

Now I wouldn’t hesitate to speak up! Perfume can make breathing difficult. (The American Lung Association says 72 percent of asthma attacks are caused by perfume.) But you’re not the boss, so I think your caution is very wise.

In your case, you need 3rd party ammunition, so no one will take it personally and you won’t feel you are being overly demanding as an administrative assistant. You don’t want to offend the person(s) — but on the other hand you do want to breathe!

One thing you have in your favor is timing. Environmental concerns are all over the media now so the awareness of issues like yours is much higher. I recently attended a women’s environmental meeting where we were told in advance that a woman attending had serious fragrance allergies and if we wanted to come, to please not wear perfume or any product that contained fragrance otherwise she might have an attack. I clicked the agreed button.
But even with the best intentions, not using fragrance products or deodorant that day was a behavioral challenge for me! Just as I was dressing, I reached for some light cologne and then caught myself! Yikes! I would have had to shower all over again if I’d goofed!

So, what 3rd party ammunition can you get?

1. Know what ‘fragrance sensitivity’ is:
“Fragrance sensitivity may be an actual allergy or a simple irritation. It can be difficult to diagnose which is occurring… Typical reactions to fragrances include breathing problems, asthma, and contact dermatitis (an itchy and inflamed skin rash). Once a person has developed fragrance irritation it is likely that the sensitivity will grow over time and with repeated exposure…” Source: JAN website

2. Get a doctor’s note
Getting a note from your doctor about your fragrance allergies is the perfect 3rd party ammunition. It takes the onus off you, and makes the issue ‘medical’. From what you’ve written below it seems a very straightforward solution.

“I am highly chemically sensitive and allergic. Things with these types of perfumes and ingredients in them cause my eyes to itch and water, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, my skin to get red and itch and even occasionally upset stomach. I do not tolerate it well physically at all! People who don’t have these problems don’t seem to understand how badly it can affect those of us who do.”

If you do go, make sure your doctor is knowledgeable about the issue — if he or she is not — find another!

3. Look into claiming fragrance sensitivity as a disability under the ADA
This is a serious step and one that you would not want to take unless absolutely necessary.

Some people with fragrance sensitivity will have a disability under the ADA and some will not. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has a pdf on the issue: Office of Disability Employment Policy of the U.S. Department of Labor. It is written to help employers determine what accommodations might be necessary, and to comply with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

4. Do your research
Use Google to search for articles on the topic. What’s that smell? is a very good article, and it quotes from JAN as well. One shocking stat from it, “The American Lung Association says 72 percent of asthma attacks are caused by perfume.”

5. Know your rights
You are in an entry level position so I can understand you not wanting to push too hard. However you should know for yourself what your rights are. In addition to the JAN pdf, get the official department of labor guidelines for your state. See what your rights are under the law — it’s changing as more environmental issues come to the fore. Search for the most recent academic research too! Google Scholar is a great tool for that. (Some articles are limited or by pay access, but many are available to anyone for free.)

6. Go to HR and Educate your coworkers
Give an educational package about your condition to HR. Assemble educational information and your doctor’s note into a package and give it to HR and your Supervisors. When your coworkers understand it’s a serious health issue, some (if not all) will be more willing to forgo the perfume.

An employer has the right to decide what is reasonable when making accommodations for a fragrance sensitive employee. JAN suggests that companies incorporate the accommodation ideas below into their company policy. This is a step that HR would probably have to take. The JAN document also includes sample policy language for companies to share with staff.

Accommodation Ideas:

- Maintain good indoor air quality
– Discontinue the use of fragranced products
– Modify workstation location
– Modify the work schedule
– Provide an air purification system
– Modify communication methods
– Modify or create a fragrance-free workplace policy

Good luck! I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Please let me know how things work out! Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

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