Like about one-third of Canadians, I work in a building where the use of scented products is restricted. With my previous employer, there was no policy. Staff would even apply cologne and hair spray at their desks! That is unthinkable to me now.
Sometimes a person would complain directly to a co-worker that their perfume was too strong, but usually the two would just agree to disagree. As I saw quoted in a Globe and Mail article, “If someone tells you that you’re wearing too much fragrance, you are” and “Your signature scent shouldn’t waft beyond the confines of your desk” (a two-foot radius).
I remember trying to find unscented hair products in the early 90s, simply because I didn’t want them to conflict with my cologne, and they didn’t exist!
One big change since then is the decline in smoking: smokers spritzed themselves with cologne after a smoke break, presumably to mask the smoke odour. Then you got both mingling! Since smokers have a much less acute sense of smell, they may have thought their technique worked.
Now people try to avoid toxins and are less accepting of all “chemicals.” For some, it’s for the environment, and for others, it’s primarily for their health. I still find it surprising how many people avoid toxins, but still use scented products. There must be a feeling that there are bad smells needing to be covered up (the lesser of two evils) or that unscented products just don’t work as well. Recently the David Suzuki Foundation got some flack because they listed “fragrance” as a toxin – after all, companies don’t even have to say what fragrance they use or what they contain – because they are protected trade secrets.
At least 15% of people in Canada have significant environmental sensitivities, and in my area, it’s said to be 25% – probably because of mould caused by our damp weather. Canada officially recognizes environmental illness as a disability for which you can receive workplace accommodations, or disability benefits if necessary.
I don’t have environmental illness, sensitivities, allergies or asthma. But I know so many people who do, that I believe it affects everyone. On a personal level, scents have never bothered me, except when I have a cold. Then, instead of the cold decreasing my sense of smell, everything seems to irritate my nose and causes coughing fits! It only affects me for a few days a year, but it’s enough to help me understand (a little) how it feels to have sensitivities or even asthma.
Because I encounter people with sensitivities daily at work, or when out-and-about, I have gradually switched to as many unscented products as possible. I stopped wearing cologne at work years ago – that’s ancient history. Then I thought that using scented shower gel was OK (since it was rinsed off) but later I switched to unscented soap. I always had lots of lovely shower gels and moisturizers from the Body Shop (etc) but since they are pricey I used to save them for weekends and special occasions anyway!
I had to change my ways when a person in my adult French class had sensitivities and couldn’t be in the same room as my hair gel, even though I thought it was inoffensive. Another student, in an online class I took, had to appear in person for an exam and informed the rest of the class that they had environmental illness and couldn’t tolerate scents. On exam day, the others did not comply (and were very nonchalant about it) and the student was unable to stay and write. I felt angry about that and it sensitized me more to the issue. Finally, I heard someone speak about how difficult it was to find acceptable housing – and to be in any public spaces at all – with severe environmental illness.
I took the plunge then and started buying unscented antiperspirant and moisturizer. My last step has been hair products. I had tried to find low-scent products for years, with varying degrees of success. The unscented ones from the eco store were radically overpriced. I just kept trying until I found some low-scented brands – which happen to be unisex or men’s. I have worked with a person who has extreme sensitivities for over 2 years and they have not once noted my hair care products!
The item I struggle most with is hair styling – I like my hair to stick straight up, which requires a heavy hair paste or mud-type product. I will not buy freeze spray! The only unscented one I ever found was made from pure lanolin, and while I’m not a vegan, I have mixed feelings about using pure animal grease on my hair. I also used a product labelled as beeswax but it turned out to be mostly petroleum jelly! I am currently using one of the Alberto Extreme Style products, which is mildly scented but has not bothered anyone I’ve worked with. My latest tactic is to change my hair style and not use gel any more (I’m working on it).
I’ve become so unaccustomed to using cologne that I don’t even think of it any more. I am finding, though, that after more than 10 years in a scent-free workplace, I am not tolerating scents as well as I used to. I really don’t want to develop permanent sensitivities, so I actually make a point of using scented products at home on the weekends: both bath products and home products. My favourites are Victoria’s Secret Love Spell (“cherry blossom, peach and white jasmine”) and I’m also fond of Hawaiian Ginger, and mango anything. Rom and I both like scented candles and we burn incense, too, ensuring both are lead-free. But if we go out to a movie or to dinner, I still don’t feel right if I have used scented products and others around us notice.
As a workplace manager, I am responsible for setting the tone in my building. Our “No Scents” policy is not really enforceable. There was never any education about the policy so the staff are never sure if they are complying or not. There is no legal definition of a scent-free or low-scent environment. On average, most people interpret “no scents” as “no cologne” and they continue to use highly scented products like moisturizers and hair gels.
I think most managers tolerate this and simply address any complaints as they arise. I don’t agree with doing it that way. If no one in an office has sensitivities and everyone uses scented products (except cologne), someday a new employee will have to make a complaint and then they will always be known as The Complainer. The group of workers will begrudgingly cut back on using scented moisturizers and sprays, and will think the new person is oversensitive and unreasonable. The new employee could still be getting sick from the odour of disinfectant wipes, the air freshener in the washroom, or the pet dander from someone’s coat. So I think it’s best if everyone at work is told the rules and everyone is expected to comply, even when no on in the office is bothered by scents – yet.
Ultimately I think environmental sensitivities and illnesses are like cancers – the triggers are different for each person. I can’t tell someone, “My products are hardly scented at all so they shouldn’t bother you.” Meanwhile that person could be getting nauseous or finding it difficult to breathe. They know what causes symptoms and they have a right to a healthy environment.
While realizing that all of the products below are chemical-based and there are natural alternatives, here is what I currently use.
Shampoo and Conditioner:
- Organix Teatree Mint
- American Crew Citrus Mint
- Paul Mitchell Lemon Sage
- I recently tried Garnier Fructis Citrus Mint and it is highly scented but seems to rinse cleaner than most, so it seems promising (and much less expensive than the others).
Soap (Bar Soap): Dove Sensitive Skin Hypoallergenic
Everyday Body Moisturizer: Vaseline Intensive Rescue Extra Strength
Serious Winter Body Moisturizer: Eucerin Creme (the one in the jar)
Face Moisturizer: Simple Hydrating Light (safe on and around eyes!)
Antiperspirant (if any needed):
- Arm and Hammer Essentials Unscented
- Dry Idea or Secret Unscented
- Or just unscented cornstarch baby powder
Sunscreen: Coppertone Water Babies or similar lowest-toxin product
Do you have a scent-free workplace? What is your own scent tolerance?