Scents in the Workplace

While there is much that we do not understand about scented products, there is no doubt that these materials make some people unwell. The following Q&A will provide information and guidance on how to address concerns related to scents.

* Scent Warning Sign.pdf
This sign can be used in all areas to discourage use of scented products. Two versions of the sign are available -black and white or in colour (red).

Roles and Responsibilities

Supervisors

If you have an employee in your department who suffers from health problems triggered by scents, be proactive. Talk to the employee so he or she knows that you are approachable about the subject.

If the employee reports a problem to you:

  • Respond quickly and if possible, relocate the employee away from the scent.
  • Approach the individual wearing the scent, make them aware of the problem and direct them to this site for information. Point out that the University supports a scent-free environment.
  • Get back to the employee with an account of what has been done on her/his behalf.
  • Continue to monitor the situation until the problem has been corrected.

If the problem persists, contact Environmental Health and Research Safety for advice ehs_sfu@sfu.ca .

Employees

If the scent is being worn by someone in your area, you can approach him/her directly. 

  • Explain the problem  -  the kind of reactions the fragrance triggers.
  • Ask him/her to visit this web site for more information.
  • Ask the individual to consider switching to unscented products.
  • If you feel that direct contact with the scent would worsen your reaction or if you don't feel comfortable approaching the person wearing the scent, speak to your supervisor.
  • If necessary ask your supervisor to relocate you to another area until the scent is gone.

If you become ill, follow the normal procedures for reporting illness at work.

If the situation does not improve, contact  Environmental Health and Research Safety ehs_sfu@sfu.ca .

If you are sensitive to scents and start working in a new department, or develop a sensitivity:

  • Tell your supervisor and co-workers.
  • Explain what kind of problems you are experiencing. Ask for their assistance and direct them to this site.
  • Ask your supervisor to alert Facilities Services to warn you when activities with scents are scheduled.

If you are using a scented product(s) and you are approached by another employee or your supervisor:

  • Remember this is NOT a personal affront.
  • Work with others to find out what product or products are causing the reaction. 
  • Become part of the solution and switch to fragrance-free products.

Students

In Residence

If you are having reactions to your roommate's/neighbor's scents, you can approach him or her directly. Explain the problem and the reaction(s) the fragrance triggers.

  • Ask him or her to visit this web site for more information.
  • Ask your roommate/neighbor to consider switching to unscented products.
  • If you direct contact with the scent worsens your reaction or if you don't feel comfortable approaching the person wearing the scent, ask your Community Advisor to talk with him or her.
  • If this a serious problem that may require alternative arrangements, contact the Residence Life Manager.

In Class

If you're having a reaction to the scented products worn by your classmate(s)you can approach him or her directly. Explain the problem and what kind of reactions the fragrance triggers.

  • Ask her or him to visit this web site for educational information.
  • Ask your classmate if he or she would consider switching to unscented products.
  • If direct contact with the scent worsens your reaction or if you don't feel comfortable approaching the person wearing the scent, talk to your professor or the teaching assistant and ask that they speak to your classmate(s) about the matter.

If the problem continues, contact Environmental Health and Research Safety ehs_sfu@sfu.ca

If you are a student who is wearing a scented product(s) and you are approached by another student or your professor:

  • Do not take the scented products request as a personal affront - this is not about you.
  • Work with others to find out what product or products are causing the reaction.
  • Become part of the solution and switch to fragrance-free products.

Faculty

If you are a professor, lecturer or teaching assistant, or you have students who suffer reactions to scented products, and there are individuals using such products in your classroom, consider taking the following steps:

  • Each term and as required, inform students that SFU supports a scent-free environment. 
  • Explain the impact that scented products have.
  • Direct students to this web site for more information.
  • Ask the class to become part of the solution and stop wearing scented products.

If the situation persists, approach the individual wearing the scent and explain the problem.  For further assistance contact ehs_sfu@sfu.ca.

Q&A for Scents

The following are some commonly asked questions about scents. If you have others, please send them to ehs_sfu@sfu.ca and we will try to answer them.

What can I do to prevent harming people affected by scents

You can adopt scent-free practices by avoiding perfumes, aftershaves, colognes and scented lotions, and opting for 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented' versions of such personal care products as hand and body lotions, soaps, hair products and deodorants. Many scent-free personal care products can be found at your local supermarket and pharmacy.
I know a few people who have allergies to certain foods or suffer from hay fever. But I don't know anyone who has a reaction from

I know a few people who have allergies to certain foods or suffer from hay fever. But I don't know anyone who has a reaction from coming into contact with scented products. How real is this concern?

It is very real. It's well documented that the incidence of asthma is on the increase, especially in young people. In fact, there are many environmental illnesses - illnesses that are triggered by things in our environment. Among the best known are spring and late summer allergies to the pollen from flowers, grasses or trees.


It is also known that asthma and migraine headaches have multiple triggers, including chemical exposure. Asthma attacks can be set off by pollen, moulds, extreme cold, dust, and exposure to chemicals, including paint and perfume. Bright light, loud noise, foods such as chocolate, a change in barometric pressure, exposure to paint, and fragranced cleaning and personal care products can all trigger migraine attacks. So it is well known that exposure to materials in the environment can cause illness.  There are also people who suffer from sensitivity to multiple chemical triggers. This condition is now called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS.

What happens if I don't adopt scent-free practices?

You are taking the risk of possibly causing harm, perhaps even severe pain and discomfort, to someone around you; harm that could easily be avoided. Second, when employees or students miss time from work or school because of illness-asthma, allergies, migraine - there is a cost.  Illness means lost productivity and lost opportunities for learning

I would resent being told, or feel uncomfortable telling others, what kind of personal care product to use. Isn't the request to adopt scent-free practices intrusive on the individual's right to wear whatever he or she wants?

It may at first seem that asking people to use scent-free personal care products touches on a personal and private matter. But when the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it then goes beyond just being a matter of private concern. The goal is not to target people personally or to criticize people's preferences. Rather, it's to prevent real harm to real people.

Why should I adopt scent-free practices when there isn't anyone in my unit, classroom or residence who suffers from an allergy or sensitivity? The perfume I wear and the scented products I use aren't bothering anyone.

Do you know that for a fact? Perhaps someone is suffering in silence. Or maybe you will come in contact with someone with a chemical sensitivity during the day-in the cafeteria, at the gym, in a meeting, at a concert, in the classroom, or in the library. By putting all the responsibility for coming forward on the person who is at risk of becoming ill, you increase his/her chances of having a reaction.

If we ask people to avoid using scented products, perhaps they will stop using personal care products altogether. Poor hygiene and strong body odour might be the result. Surely we want to avoid this?

This is not the likely consequence of adopting scent-free practices. There are alternatives to scented personal care products.

Don't I have to spend a lot of time and money running around looking for scent-free products?

Going scent-free may not be as difficult as you think. While specialty store items do tend to be a bit more pricey, many of these items are of high quality, and are effective in smaller quantities than the scented products. As a result, while the up-front cost may be higher, the cost-per-use can be comparable.  But in addition to the specialty store products, many brand name personal care items come in 'scent-free', 'fragrance-free' or 'unscented' versions. These are available at your local supermarket and pharmacies on the shelf next to their scented versions. As well, some of the large chains have bulk or natural products sections which sell many specialty store items at a lower price.


Of course, it is easy and cost-free to simply not wear unnecessary perfume or cologne at work or at school.

What's the difference between products labeled 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented'?

These terms are used in industry virtually without restrictions. They may only mean that the product has less scent than the scented version of the same product from that manufacturer. Therefore, these labels can offer no guarantee that a product won't trigger a reaction in someone who is chemically sensitive. Nonetheless, choosing products with these labels is still safer than choosing the scented versions. While it is possible that somebody could have a reaction to your personal care product even if you've taken all precautions to avoid this outcome, the important thing is that you realize this and are prepared to react in a positive way, should this situation ever arise.

What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?

Physicians and the general public often use these words differently. An allergy is a condition in which exposure to material prompts the body's immune system to respond inappropriately. One can have a skin or a respiratory system allergy. For many people, the workings of the human immune system are a mystery and they sometimes report that they are "allergic to" something when they are adversely affected by something in their environment.


The situation regarding sensitivities is even more complicated. Some people have been coming forward to report that they are adversely affected by chemical exposures in their environment. There is much we do not understand about the problems that these people experience. Because they report a wide range of adverse impacts - often following exposures that most people tolerate without difficulty - many of the suggested names have included the terms "sensitivity" or "hypersensitivity".