Working your perfume (or not)

Throughout my career in the newspaper business I was involved in some aspect of fashion and style coverage, and in the last 10 years dealt quite a bit with beauty products and fragrance. Our style editor and our fashion writer would get samples of new products in the mail, call me over, and we’d huddle at one of their desks to explore whatever goodies had come in. If it involved a spritz of something, no big deal, as at that time I sat near a woman who didn’t care, and then later, for a while, sat by myself.

So when some personnel changes came along, and a sweet and lovely but very perfume-averse co-worker came to sit by me, I had a sinking feeling that things would be very different. “I can’t believe this happened to you, of all people — the perfume queen,” one buddy moaned. “What are you going to do?”

It wasn’t easy, but as in all aspects of life, you learn to adjust. I found I could very lightly spray my right wrist once early in the morning, just after my shower, and by the time I got to work after nearly an hour commute, I was pretty much OK. And a very light application of scented body lotion didn’t set off alarms.

But one day when a colleague got a little too enthusiastic spraying me with a potent new arrival, I knew it was going to be bad news. I scrubbed in the ladies’ room, stayed away from my desk for as long as possible, doing as much work as I could in other, less cramped departments, and ate an early lunch outside. It helped that it was spring (apologies to all you allergy sufferers) and there was already some coughing and sniffling about in the office, so when hers began, I joined in with a few faux sniffles myself (“Man, WHAT is blooming today?”) and silently vowed never to let that happen again.

Now in my new job there is a divider between me and my next-door neighbor, but I’m not tempting fate. If there’s something I’m dying to try and I just can’t wait until the evening or weekend, one dab from the sample vial on one wrist is all I allow myself. So far, it seems to be working.

How do you deal with scent in your workplace or in another area of your life in which you’re in close quarters with others?

Photo: Life
Inc. Today

  • CM says:

    Thankfully, I work in an office with no specific rules on scent. Every once in a while, I’ll notice a perfume on someone. I keep a few samples on my desk and sometimes spritz or dab at my desk with no one saying anything. I generally keep to light fresh and or low sillage office scents most of the time.

    What’s more annoying to me is the scent of bo wafting about. Yikes. We have a lot of people, men and women, in our offices who, frankly, reek. Spicy curry and garlic at lunch adds to the melege of scent. I would definitely prefer Chanel no. anything over ripe human scent.

    • Tom says:

      My last pod had one of those guys, I literally had to keep a fan blowing his funk back in his direction. He was a nice guy and nobody could bear to tell him.

      • Ramona says:

        “I literally had to keep a fan blowing his funk back in his direction.”
        OMG, this image made me bust out laughing! I’m sure I would have thought it much less comical if I had been in your position, but still- “…blowing his funk back…” My eyes are LEAKIN’ I tell ya!

  • Amy Bella says:

    I wear whatever I want to work… very lightly dabbed or sprayed. All my surrounding co-workers know that I’m a perfume junkie… and we’re close enough that they will tell me if I’ve overdone it or if something they hate something. No offense given or taken.

    I used to work with a lady who had “allergies”. There was one time I made a mess on my desk and needed to clean it up with some windex. I announced my intention to spray cleaner and she immediately started freaking out, complaining that “her eyes were burning and her throat hurt and she couldn’t breathe”! Yeah – I hadn’t sprayed anything yet!!!

    • Ann says:

      Oh, no, Amy! You’ve got to be kidding?! Guess she had allergies so bad that they acted up in advance at the mere mention of the forthcoming irritant? Glad you’re in a much better situation now and don’t have to put up with that kind of crazy anymore.

  • Musette says:

    I own our machine shop.
    I work in a space by myself.
    My guys are usually awash in the smell of hot metal and solvents so wouldn’t smell my perfume unless I poured it directly on their face.
    When I do have to deal with Gen Pop or any of my customers, I’m usually outside, in some ripe ethanol or petrochemical plant. Or at a foundry, with its fabulous molten-metal pungency.
    I’m in menopause.
    And I am a shrike.

    This is a fortunate confluence of events, as I would probably be in prison, were I to have to work with the kinds of folks you describe.

    (that being said, however, I remember one of the local business workers, awash in current Tabu. Brought tears to my eyes.

    xo :Devil:

    • Ann says:

      And we love you for it! We are so lucky that you do (work in your own space) — if you were in prison, who would make us spew our morning coffee or tea?

  • Poodle says:

    This topic hits a nerve with me. I won’t even say everything I think about it because I may blow a gasket. I don’t believe 95% of the people who say they have issues with scent. I agree with a lot of what everyone has said already. I also think these whiners have themselves so convinced that something bothers them that they talk themselves into having the symptoms. They all strike me a types of people whose parents told them they were special as kids and they believe it and want to be treated a s such even if it’s at the expense of someone else’s happiness. We have a few in my office. I don’t work too close to them and I wear whatever fragrance I want. One of them didn’t like the roses someone’s husband sent her on their anniversary so her cubical mate had to put them at my desk until she went home because the smell was “awful”. Another one objects to the weekly cleaning of the medical supply closet floor and shelves. No matter what cleaner they use she has a complaint. I’d love to know how the hell she cleans her house…

    • Ann says:

      Poodle, your post makes so much sense, especially about being “special” — that’s an issue not just fragrance-wise, but across the board. As we’ve chatted about in other comments, some people’s senses of entitlement have grown WAY out of proportion. I see it every day, especially with kids. When my son starts getting too selfish and wanting his own way, I have to remind him rather firmly that the world does not revolve around him.

      • Ann says:

        P.S. It sounds like you have one or more of those “not happy unless they’re complaining” folks at your office. Roses smelling “awful” — really? Most of them today you have to stick your nose right into the flower to detect any scent. So glad you don’t have to work near them.

  • ggs says:

    I worked a summer job at a Maryland bank office as a teenager in 1983 where the employee sitting next to me had an ashtray and smoked at her desk. I hated breathing her smoke, but I was glad to have the job, and complaining wasn’t an option. Agree with Tina that when there were smokers in the workplace and in public spaces– personal scents wouldn’t have been as noticeable!

    There is also a cultural shift (in the US) that people now have a right to have all accommodations made for them. I applaud the change to smoke-free buildings, which was an issue of public health & safety, but some of the personal scent complaints seem over the top, and more about preference than about health concerns.

    Some think that a lack of smells should be the norm, now, don’t you think? Yet my Pennsylvania town has many active farms –i.e. livestock and fertilized fields, and there are factories wafting smells of toasted cereal, pet food, strawberry candy (the Twizzler factory!), and chocolate– to name just a few. Don’t move here and expect that “fresh air” means no scents!

    • Ann says:

      GG, your comments about your town’s smells had me chuckling this a.m., so thanks for that. I’m with you 100 percent about the smoking and the cultural shift of moving toward a scentless environment. But as you pointed out, life is never going to be fragrance-free, so folks really ought to just relax and go with it, if they can.

  • Ramona says:

    I work from home now so I can wear whatever I want, whenever I want, lucky for me. But for most of my adult career life scent was taboo, and as a result I came into the perfume appreciation game a little late.

    I think there must be a middle path between people who feel so entitiled the entire world must accomodate them or else (!) and those who suffer genuine discomfort and/or severe symptoms from perfumes. Honestly, I have walked into business offices where the office scent spritzer on the wall was set on full throttle and felt like a fish out of water, breathing my last breath. In a hospital ICU in which I worked, they also installed a wall mounted “air sanitizer” and although we were prohibited from perfumes, this wall dispenser was enough to gas everyone out. EVERYONE was complaining- so one day, a person who shall remain nameless hopped up on a chair and disengaged the contraption!

    I certainly would not want to offend others but there comes a point where blinking can be construed as offensive by some. I still wonder why this wasnt a huge issue back in the 80’s (or was it and I just missed it?) when women and men seemed to shower in bombastic scents. If you love BIG BOMBASTIC fragrances, be considerate of others and DONTwear it to the office. If you are sensitive to fragrance and you are being hit with a mushroom cloud that is killing you, approach that person NICELY and explain your dilema. Most people try to be considerate of others, its just that usually they dont know there is a problem unless it is explained to them. To me it just seems like common scents! (WINK, WINK!)

    • Ann says:

      Hi, Ramona. Love your story about the office scent gizmo! It seems we were not so PC back in the ’80s, plus as Teri mentioned above, smoking was pretty common and I think that probably blunted the impact of the big-gun fragrances a bit.
      I agree with you, there’s got to be some middle ground. Some people genuinely have an issue with scent, but as you say, be considerate and understanding as a perfumista. And other folks need to ease up on their feelings of entitlement.

  • Lisa D says:

    I’ve only run into this issue on one occasion in my entire perfume-wearing life (it was Ava Luxe No. 23), and it was with a colleague who tends to be a bit of a whinger, so I’m sure that contributes to my bias against scent-objectors (well, I’m generally biased just in principle, perfume junkie that I am). I usually keep the liberal spray behavior for home, and “do the dab” on the days I teach or have office meetings. I’ve questioned friends about it, and they’ve commented that they can’t ever smell my perfume (unless, of course, I thrust my wrist under their nose and excitedly invite them to sniff).

    • Ann says:

      Hey, Lisa! I’ve gotta agree with you; some folks are naturally whiny and cranky and just not “happy” unless they’ve got something to complain about.
      Love your “do the dab” – I’m a “little dab’ll do ya” girl from way back!

  • OhLily says:

    This whole ‘perfume ban’ thing is ludicrous – Everything around us is fragranced! I didn’t use the word scented on purpose, it’s gone far beyond that. They used to scent household products to mask how unpleasant the actual ingredients smelled, now everything has it’s own fragrance gallery of choices and everything is fragranced. I, personally, like Pine-Sol to smell like Pine-Sol, and I’m not entirely convinced that we won’t be seeing a Gain body spray in the near future.

    I think that all the sensitivity and outright allergies, in terms of ‘perfume’, are largely caused by total overexposure to everything around us being over-scented, and smelling oh so ‘Fresh!’ and oh so ‘Clean!’ It’s doubly weird because back when all those goodies the IFRA has succeeded in banning were in use, many people also smoked. I’m not arguing that smoking is anything but bad for you, but it’s weird given that that back then there just weren’t many people with allergies to scent. Perfume/cologne is something that’s been around for a very long time indeed, so why now? Is it the predominant current use of synthetic ingredients? Synthetic ingredients that may actually be worse(but way more profitable) than what they were supposed to replace?

    Who knows. Maybe we all just spend less time outdoors. 😉

    • Ann says:

      OhLily, I think your observations are spot-on, especially the one about us not being outdoors so much. Kids are indoors a lot more, playing video games, etc.
      Yikes! Even the thought of a Gain body spray just scares the dickens out of me!

  • Teri says:

    I’m going to throw another theory out there. I think the decrease in smoking has something to do with it. For years, people smoked so heavily in offices, restaurants or other public places that you had to have a perfume with the the potency of mustard gas to penetrate the constant smoke haze. I believe that once that haze was removed from most public places and people nasal passages cleared and their ability to distinguish scents returned, they began to perceive them more acutely…..and found that there were some they didn’t particularly like.

    Of course, all the other mentioned factors are valid, too.

    On the occasions when I’m in my office, I’m lucky. There are only a few women here and they are all on the floor below me. My floor has all guys and like Jillie above, I get a parade every morning of guys coming by to offer their opinions on the SOTD. I take shameless advantage and wear whatever I please. One interesting observation I’ve made is that the fragrance most popular among my office mates is PdN’s Fig Tea. Everyone here seems to love it and comment whenever I wear it. All ages, too.

    I’m not in my office much, though. I’m usually traveling around the world and visit pretty much every country that has an oilfield. I’ve learned to be very cautious with fragrance when traveling as cultural differences really matter. I wear my more innocuous fragrances, mostly gentle florals, when visiting until I’m absolutely certain I won’t offend anyone inadvertently.

    • Ann says:

      Yes, Teri!! You’re really onto something there — I never thought about that, but it certainly makes sense. I’ve heard that when people quit smoking, their sense of taste comes back with a vengeance, so it would seem to follow that their sense of smell would be enhanced, too.
      Lucky you — it’s so nice that your perfume choices are celebrated in the daily parade of co-workers — very fun!

  • Disteza says:

    I wear perfume with impunity both at the office and while I’m teaching fencing. I try not to wear the hefty skank monsters out on hot days (HeellLOOooo, Marquis de Sade), but other than that it’s more about what I’m feeling like wearing than concerns for others’ nasal safety. I am not, however, a serial over-applier, and I do tend to destroy most perfumes within 2-3 hours anyway. I do, however, tone it down for dance classes and workouts, mostly because I’ve had the distinct displeasure of huffing my own cloud in a room full of people who are acutely aware that I am the producer of said smell.

    • Ann says:

      I hear you on the classes and workouts; I’ve done that a time or two as well. Hope they didn’t give you the evil eye too much. You’re smart to tailor your scent to your activity though.

  • Julie says:

    I have the opposite situation – work is the only place I can wear perfume! My husband gets migraines, and scent is often a trigger so I am mostly scentless at home. So there are people out with genuine problems, but I think they are the minority. I’ve seen my husband suffer when we are at restaurants seated next to someone who with a lot of perfume on, so I can sympathize. Like with everything, moderation is the key!

    I think there are several things at work – people overdoing it with perfume in the 80s & 90s (Giorgio, Red Door, Poison, Angel), an increase in PC’ness and not trying to offend anyone, less people in general wearing perfume and an increase in chemicals in everything, not just perfumes, which has maybe led to more allergies/insensitivities to all kinds of things. I am a light spritzer by nature and no one in my office ever comments on my scent.

    • Ann says:

      Julie, I agree that all those things you mention, taken together, have likely helped bring us to where we are today regarding perfume in work/public places. But you’re doing your part by being a light spritzer. The few times when I do spray, it’s usually one hit on one wrist and then I touch it gently to my other wrist, back of neck, etc. Sorry about your husband’s migraines though. Is there anything you can wear that’s safe around him?

  • Eldarwen 22 says:

    I do understand that there are those with genuine allergies but I sometimes think this allergy thing when it comes to perfume is a little overblown. At one of my jobs, a manager tried to ban everybody in the store from wearing any kind of scented product. I had to mention that you cannot control the fact that there are going to be customers that are going to wear perfume or scented body products (retail establishment) no matter what you do or say. He had the nerve to say that he had an allergy to perfume. We just let him know that we knew he wasn’t allergic but a control freak. I think that after many people who worked in the ’80’s and had to deal with women dumping on Opium and Obsession has led to a backlash and the beginning of a no perfume policy and people not liking perfume for the longest while. I spray my perfume lightly and always hope that someone doesn’t complain about my wearing of Cuir de Russie.

    • Ann says:

      Mmmm, you smell good … I think you’re right about those ’80s heavy-hitters — they probably made perfume haters out of a lot of people.

  • DinaC says:

    In my current life, I’m a SAHM, so I can spray with abandon. But in the past, I worked in an office with five other people. I never heard any complaints about my scent, fortunately. I’m not a heavy spritzer. However, I did have one co-worker who wore Jessica McClintock as her signature scent, and she had become nose-numb to the smell of it, so she would spray herself extremely heavily every day with the stuff. It was kinda nauseating until it faded. I didn’t say anything about it, though, because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

    • Ann says:

      Dina, I hear you on the oversprayed co-worker. As someone else on here said, “Everything in moderation.” Lucky you, to be able to wear what you want, as much as you want, anytime!

  • Style Spy says:

    I think it’s become more socially acceptable to whine in the form of saying you’re sensitive or allergic to something. I find it very difficult to believe that in ONE GENERATION we’ve gone from people who were mostly fine to people who are soooooo delicate no one in the room is allowed to wear perfume. Seriously – imagine your workplace in the 60s, 70s, or even 80s and someone saying “No perfume, it bothers me!” Hahahahahahaha. I know there are people who really are allergic and sensitive, but I truly believe that most people who claim to be are just looking for attention.

    That being said, my strategy is just to be the sort of person everyone is afraid to complain to. Works like a charm.

    • jen says:

      Wow, I so agree with the allergic generation thing. I tell people if you have allergies you must be an alien because you are allergic to the earth! You can tell I wear loud perfume at work; no one cares, they all have earphones on!

  • Sherri says:

    Interesting topic! A couple of observations:

    1. The vast majority of perfumes widely used today are way more chemical/synthetic than those in the past. I feel like that is a huge part of the increased sensitivity.

    2. As regards the extreme casea such as the co-worker who cannot stand food smells, etc., I do not deny the reality that these smells may indeed bother her; however, doesn’t it reach a point where it is HER issue, and it is very unreasonable, not to mention quite self-centered, to expect everyone around her to change? If it is really THAT difficult, would not she best be suited in working in a different environment, such as out of her home rather than expose herself to the general public? Or, rather is it just a discomfort/annoyance?

    I see this attitude in other areas. In some of my kids schools, for instance, kids are forbidden to bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school for lunch (not something to share with the class, mind you–we’re talking PB&J’s for their own personal consumption) because some students have peanut allergies. Pleaae, please don’t misunderstand me…I have all the sympathy in the world for those parents of kids with allergies, BUT it is unreasonable to say every child cannot bring a PB&J!

    • Ann says:

      Howdy, Sherri! I think you’re right on the chemical/synthetic issue. I wonder what IFRA is doing on that. And I agree, if it’s that miserable to be around other people’s food, he or she might be happier working from home if that’s a possibility. I sit right next to our small office’s kitchen and if food smells bothered me, I’d be running out the door with my hair on fire!
      I feel your pain on the PB issue. My son has just experienced it as well: Two weeks into school we got a note home from the nurse saying that a child on his team has a severe allergy. Any product containing (or processed on or near) PB is off limits, so we’re having to watch labels like a hawk. Even the most unexpected items have the warning at the bottom of the ingredients. It’s doubly frustrating as my son is a picky eater, so his small window of choices has suddenly become even narrower. But that’s life today, I guess, and although an inconvenience, a small price to pay for keeping a child safe and healthy.

  • BB says:

    This hits close to home for me. In my previous job, I had a coworker would would get headaches triggered by cigarette smoke, fragrance, and sometimes the smell of lunch. I could physically see the pain on her face. Eventually, we were all instructed to only eat in the lunchroom and not our desk.
    At my heath club, we have been told that scent is not acceptable and should not be sprayed or worn. It is specifically mentioned in our membership contract.
    Around the same time, I was at the post office waiting at the counter and heard a pregnant employee working an adjacent window tell a customer she could not finish helping her because her perfume was too strong and it was making her physically ill. I was standing right next to her and couldn’t detect anything. Rather than being angry, the person was apologetic.
    I think sillage has become taboo in the US. While I love my fragrance, I am so self-conscious about offending others (and being sent home from work), that I dab lightly and choose scents that don’t leave a scent trail. Something has shifted culturally and I feel like I am toeing the line between my enjoyment and other’s lack of it.

    • Ann says:

      BB, yes, it really is a fine line. My above-mentioned co-worker really did suffer (you could see it on her, as well) so I didn’t want to cause her misery.
      But even food? Ouch! I realize she couldn’t help it, but I do feel for you. Many times under a tight deadline I would have been sunk if I’d have had to trek down to the cafeteria to eat. On the whole, though, I think it was probably a few heavy-hitters in the past who helped bring on the crackdown we’re now under; also, it does seem as if allergies have just skyrocketed in the past few years.

  • jillie says:

    This situation sounds like hell to me, and I don’t think I could bear being “naked”! I can’t help thinking that this perfume aversion/allergy condition is a relatively recent phenomonen? I last worked in an office about 20 years ago, and the only incident that I am aware of was when one gal overdosed herself every day (Guerlain’s Jardin des Bagatelles) and people complained – but this was just because they didn’t like the actual smell!

    Maybe I was lucky, but my co-workers told me that they loved my scents – some would copy me (not so good!), and others used to come to see me every morning just so that they could have a sniff to set them up for the day (a bit weird, but flattering).

    So, my question is: have people really become so sensitized now that they suffer genuine allergic symptoms if they get so much as a whiff of someone’s fragrance? Or are they just intolerant and grumpy old killjoys who want to deny us perfumistas our pleasure and who enjoy being in control?

    Like Tom said, you always get the odd big hitter (like my JdB girl) who overdoes it and makes you choke a bit, but is it really a matter of life or death, or is it just personal taste?

    • Ann says:

      Hi, Jillie! I agree with so much of what you said. Before things got so PC, I also had several co-workers who would stop by to check on my SOTD, I’d sniff theirs and we loved sharing samples (of perfume and tea — thank heavens there was no fuss over that). I do think there are some folks who are genuinely affected, and I feel for them and understand completely. But as you say, there are a few genuine killjoys out there, whom I like to call Mr. (or Ms.) Grumpypants (from one of my son’s Veggie Tales movies).

  • Tom says:

    I actually was somewhat paranoid about this at the paper I worked at. I started out with an office, but as we downsized I went to sharing an office to sharing a cube to sharing a pod moving from floor to floor as they eventually shut down part of the complex. I found that I could get away with almost anything if I just gave myself one spray to my bare chest before dressing. The office was usually kept one step below freezing (so much so I’d be wearing a sweater in August), which helped to keep it in check. I asked a trusted co-worker to let me know discretely if I was too much; she told me she never, ever smelled that I was even wearing scent unless I was leaning over her shoulder looking at her screen with her.

    I used to give her stuff samples of stuff I had reviewed, and she liked scent, so it wasn’t an issue for her. But I didn’t want to be “that guy”, as we did have a couple of guys who could be smelled from across the corridor.

    • Ann says:

      Hey, Tom, thanks for stopping by. Didn’t realize you were a newsprint junkie, too! Alas, I think we are a dying breed, as I’ve been gone from the industry almost 4 years and due to consolidation, my DH will soon be also 🙁 As far as office scent, I think you handled it just right, and I love the idea of having a “checker” — very smart!