Perfume Odor


Do you know of any guidelines posted by OSHA concerning strong perfume in the work place?


Seeking An Answer


Dear Seeking An Answer:

We’re a workplace communication site, so we don’t have expertise in OSHA or other regulations of that nature. However, since workplace conflicts often involve such personal issues as odor, I can provide some information and suggestions that might be helpful. And, our archives may have some information that will be helpful as well.

The whole issue of fragrances, either personal or in candles, plug-in’s, incense, etc., comes down to four basic statements: 1.) There are no OSHA regulations about perfume or other fragrance odors, that can be applied to any workplace. Those would be far too difficult to develop and enforce, so the government stays out of that one!

2.) There is also no unalienable right to wear a perfume or to have fragranced items, so an organization can make its own regulations regarding fragrances.

3.) A formal rule against all fragrances isn’t needed in most places. Usually, the situation is that one or two people are wearing too much fragrance or someone has a fragranced item in their workplace that is problematic. So, coworkers or supervisors can bring it to the employee’s attention and ask that the fragrance be reduced or eliminated.

4.) The use of fragrance is a very personal choice, so criticizing it or telling someone to change it can create hurt feelings, anger and resistance. But, it’s the responsibility of a supervisor or manager to ensure an effective workplace, and fragrance issues are part of that.

It isn’t possible to have a completely fragrance free workplace, for those who are hypersensitive to fragrance (allergy conditions or for some other reason). Many office or business products have a discernible odor. Detergents, deodorants, shampoos, hand lotions, etc., often have fragrances. Most of us aren’t bothered by those in a normal situation.

But, many people are bothered by strong fragrances all of the time. And most of us are distracted by strong odors, even if we don’t get a headache from the chemicals in the fragrance. That’s why its appropriate for a supervisor or manager to get involved about odors or fragrances.

The best way to deal with, of course, is from the moment someone is hired. I think it’s appropriate to have a section in an employee manual that discusses problems relatd to fragrances and that provides requirements, restrictions or guidelines. It should be discussed in new employee orientation, whether that is done formally or informally. That way employees know the policy and also know that even if there is no policy, there is an unwritten rule that products with strong fragrances shouldn’t be worn at all.

I have spoken to dozens of people about their perfumes, hand lotions or strong fragrances in hair spray, deodorants and even their shower gel fragrance that lingers! I have a series of almost memorized statements that seem to work.

Employees nearly always protest that his or her fragrance is very light or that many have said they like it. But, I just stick to the message: It’s bothersome to some, including me, so you’ll have to reduce it significantly or not wear it at all. (Sometimes the specific fragrance is a problem, no matter how light it is, and sometimes the fragrance is OK but they’re wearing too much of it.)

Here’s some of the things I have said (which sound a bit awkward when written, but they worked in real life!)

“Hey, Jana, that fragrance you’re wearing must have a chemical in it that sets off my sinus reactions. Some of the best perfumes do! Whatever it is, it’s just too much. Could you find a way to wash some of it off now and then reduce it way, way down or not wear that one? I’ll really appreciate it.” (I keep a confidential tone, as though this is between them and me and I’m confident they’ll cooperate.) Or, “Ava, I usually like that fragrance, but it could be the recirculation of air in this office makes it get stronger. Could you help me out by washing some of it off now and either not having it so strong or not wearing that particular kind anymore? (Sympathetic smile) That may be one you’ll have to save for the weekend!”


“Vince, men’s cologne is nice for some settings, but, sad to say, I think the combination of it and a small work area is too much. Could you do me a favor and tone it down to about 1/10 of what you’re wearing today or not wear it at all? And for the sake of my sinuses could you wash some of it off in the next few minutes?” Or, “Bill, I don’t know what the fragrance is on your clothes or hair, but whatever it is, it’s really strong after awhile. Do some investigating and figure out what it is and reduce it or don’t wear it, OK?” (It turned out, that was the spray that stops static cling. It kills my sinuses and was bothering others too.)

If someone has been wearing too much fragrance for a long time, but nothing has been said before, I have called him or her aside and said something like, “Lisa, I’ve been meaning to say something about the level of fragrance I notice when I’m in your work area. Between the closeness and the air recirculation, it’s just too much. I even notice it a lot now, standing here next to you. You don’t notice it I’m sure, because you’re wearing it and used to it, but you’ll need to wash some off now and reduce it way, way down or not wear it at all. “

As a coworker I said, “Marge, my sinuses can’t handle some fragrances, and the one you’re wearing is one of them! Or maybe it’s layered up and too strong for me. But, could you please do me a favor and wash some of it off and lower the level when you’re at work? It would help my headache a lot!” I’ve had managers tell me that they simply went up to someone and said, “That perfume is too strong, go wash it off and don’t wear it again.” But, I keep in mind that I’m going to be working with this person the rest of the day and in the coming days. I don’t want to ruin our working relationship over perfume. I also want to apply the Golden Rule: How would I want someone to approach me about an issue like that? I would want them to use tact and to not talk to me as though I knew it was a problem but wore it anyway, of as though I was stupid to not realize it was too strong.

I try to put the blame on the perfume not the wearer. If I’ve asked nicely and they still don’t comply, THEN, it’s the perfume- wearer that is the problem!

I hope these thoughts have been helpful. Best wishes as you deal with this issue. If you develop techniques for handling this that are effective, let us know so we can share them!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.