Can’t Handle Your Coworker’s Perfume? Read This.

Photo: Christopher Griffith/Trunk Archive

Working in close quarters can be challenging, but in some cases, smelling someone else’s perfume can be sickening—literally. For Danielle M. Henry, a marketing professional in Washington, D.C., one former colleague’s heavy floral scent made her dread going to work. “It made me congested, itchy, and sneezy,” she says. “It was like year-round hay fever.”

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Like Henry, New York-based writer Grace Gold has experienced health issues from a colleague’s overwhelming perfume. “A coworker who sat near me would douse herself in one of the strong floral fragrances,” she says. “I was getting these awful migraines that lasted for days at a time, and I was eating through medication to try to control them. I had to practice breathing in and out of my mouth whenever she was around.”

Henry and Grace represent countless people who struggle with fragrance in the workplace—and, says Alison Green, the author behind the popular Ask a Manager blog, employers are starting to pay attention.

“Purely anecdotally, my sense is that more offices are implementing fragrance policies, and people are becoming more aware of fragrances as a potential medical issues for some people,” she says. “There’s a growing understanding that fragrance sensitivities aren’t just about personal preferences, but rather can cause real and severe discomfort in people who are allergic to them.”

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Still, it isn’t easy for many people to raise their concerns—especially when fragrance sensitivity isn’t always taken seriously. “[My coworker] was such a nice person, and she backed up my work when I took vacation, so I tried really hard to just deal with it,” Henry remembers. Eventually, she talked with a supervisor, but the perfumed coworker said that because Henry was a smoker, she couldn’t possibly smell the perfume. “It was super awkward,” Henry says. “I explained my allergies, she laughed it off.” Eventually, she left the job, in part because of the scent situation.

Green acknowledges that speaking up can be tough, but she says it’s best to address the coworker directly before escalating things. “The key is to make it clear that it’s not about merely disliking a certain scent, but rather than it’s about a physical response that you can’t control,” she explains. “People tend to really bristle if it sounds like you’re saying they use too much perfume or that you just don’t like the scent of their lotion, and that’s when you’re more likely to see people digging their heels in.”

Instead, she says, an “it’s not you, it’s me” approach may get results. “A better approach is, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry about this, but I’m highly allergic to some fragrances, and unfortunately your perfume seems to be setting off my respiratory problems. It’s a lovely scent, but it’s making it tough for me to breathe.’” If that doesn’t work, Green says, it may be time to speak with a manager or HR—again, emphasizing that it’s a medical issue, not a personal preference.

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That point is important, because merely smelling a perfume isn’t the same as being made sick by it. “I once wore Jo Malone’s Orange Blossom into the office, and since it has a ‘perfume-y’ but not overwhelming smell, it got noticed,” says Barbara Herman, author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding A Century Of Provocative Perfume. “Someone said to no one in particular, ‘Who’s the old lady wearing perfume?’ It really annoyed me that a fresh scent was being called out, but it made me realize that anytime someone can smell you, it seems to be a problem.” Despite having a large collection of perfumes, Herman now rarely wears fragrance when working in an office. “I don’t want to deal with negative comments,” she says.

Of course, there’s the flip side of the issue: What if you’re the perfume culprit? “Certainly if a coworker tells you that a fragrance is causing a problem for them, you should be as accommodating as you can,” Green says. “Your right to wear perfume doesn’t trump their need to work in a space that doesn’t cause them physical suffering, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.”

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So, is it okay to wear any fragrance at work? Yes, says Herman, but less is best. “If you want to wear a ‘big’ perfume, do 1/4 a full spritz on your wrist so you can smell it—not the whole room,” she advises. And if you have even the slightest inkling that your perfume is “too much,” consider another eau—for your 9-to-5, at least. “Strong perfumes can really make some people sick,” Gold urges. “Save it for your date night.”