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About Fragrance Sensitivity
Fragrance sensitivity is either an irritation or an allergic reaction to some chemical, or combination of chemicals, in a product. Although perfumes and colognes are generally what come to mind when discussing fragrance sensitivity, fragrance is often added to a variety of daily use items including but not limited to toiletries, cosmetics, air fresheners, cleaning products, and pesticides. Ingredients used in fragrance are not required to be disclosed on labels, which can make it difficult to identify the ingredient or product that is responsible for the sensitivity. Regardless of what the specific allergen is or whether it has been identified, common reactions to exposure include headaches, respiratory problems, asthma, and skin irritations.
There are two types of allergy symptoms due to fragrance sensitivity - respiratory or skin allergy symptoms. Symptoms of fragrance sensitivity can include headaches, nausea, and a skin allergy like contact dermatitis, which causes redness, itching, and burning. Watery, itching, burning, and red eyes; sneezing; runny nose; and congestion are also common. In some cases, individuals experience breathing difficulties, such as wheezing, a tight feeling in the chest, or worsening of asthma symptoms. Frequency and level of sensitivity can differ from one individual to another and identifying the exact cause of the irritation or allergy can be difficult because of the complex chemical formulas in many everyday use products.
The potential for exposure can be high as fragrances are added to of everyday products, and there has been an increase in the amount of time spent in indoor environments. Those with asthma, allergies, or other respiratory disorders may be more susceptible to the effects of fragranced products. The best way to prevent fragrance sensitivity is to remove, block, or avoid the offending substance. Discussing the fragrance sensitivity with people at work and at home also can also help to limit exposure to other people's fragrances.
Because there is no requirement for manufacturers to list all the ingredients in their products, finding a product that is truly fragrance free can be challenging. Even some products that are labeled as being "unscented" or "fragrance free" contain herbal ingredients or oils from botanicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for the Environment (DfE) program helps identify cleaning and other products that have been determined to be effective and safer for human health and the environment. These products carry the Dfe label and a list of all partners and products recognized under the DfE Safer Product Labeling Program.
When dealing with fragrance sensitivity, there are really three main options to consider as accommodations:
1) Remove the offending fragrances.
When possible, an employer should try to remove the offending fragrance, especially if the fragrance is unique to the work environment, minimal, and/or the employer has more control over it. However, as mentioned earlier, under the ADA it is probably not reasonable for an employer to have and enforce a total no-fragrance policy because it is difficult if not impossible to enforce, especially if non-employees such as clients and volunteers come into the workplace.
2) Remove the employee from the area where the fragrances are located.
When it is not possible to remove the offending fragrance, an employer may be able to move the employee away from the fragrance. This usually means working at home or in a private office with no exposure to coworkers, clients, or other members of the public. Regarding work at home, unless the employee wants to work at home, other options should be explored first to keep the employee in the workplace.
3) Reduce the employee's exposure to the fragrances.
If the offending fragrance cannot be removed and the employee cannot be moved completely away from the fragrance, it may be possible to reduce the employee's exposure to an acceptable level. This usually means a private office with its own ventilation and minimum exposure to others. It can also mean allowing the individual to wear a mask or respirator. Some individuals are able to wear masks/respirators while others are not or may not be comfortable wearing them. Employers should keep in mind that they cannot force an employee to use a mask/respirator.
Sample Policy Language:
The following are examples of fragrance-free workplace policy statements.
- Anonymous City Law Enforcement Agency Policy: "To reasonably accommodate bureau employees who have written memoranda documenting chemical sensitivity to perfume, employees will wear no perfume or cologne during business hours when they are scheduled to be within the bureau during their shift. This policy will not affect those bureau employees who are in an off-site training class, on city business, or out of the office for an entire shift."
- Anonymous Employer: "(Name of employer) strives to ensure the comfort and safety of staff and visitors by encouraging a smoke free and fragrance free environment."
- Anonymous State Community Development Agency, Employee Administrative Bulletin: "Given that chemically sensitive individuals may react to different products with widely varying degrees of severity, it is very difficult to ensure a consistently comfortable and accommodating work environment under every conceivable set of circumstances. Even so, it is the general consensus of the Labor/Management Committee and the desire of the (company name) to minimize to the extent possible the barriers and difficulties experienced in the workplace by both employees and clients subject to chemical/fragrance sensitivities. The (company name) requests that all offices and spaces used by the staff and their visitors remain free of chemical-based scented products."
- Anonymous Employer, Staff Memo from Executive Director: "I ask that we refrain from applying spray colognes, hairsprays, and or air fresheners in the office, as the use of such products may trigger allergic reactions and create health problems."
- Anonymous Employer, Administrative Manual Policy, Subject: Employee Appearance: "Cologne, perfume, aftershave lotions, scented lotions, or body washes are not to be worn in the Medical Center."
- State Protection and Advocacy Agency: "This is a fragrance free office. Thank you for not wearing any of the following: cologne, after shave lotion, perfume, perfumed hand lotion, fragranced hair products, and/or similar products. Our chemically-sensitive co-workers and clients thank you."
- Anonymous Employer: "This is a fragrance free office. Please help us to accommodate our co-workers and clients who are chemically sensitive to fragrances and other scented products. Thank you for not wearing perfume, aftershave, scented hand lotion, fragranced hair products, and or similar products."
- Anonymous Employer, Memo to All Staff: "You may have noticed the signs up on the front door and on the library doors stating that this is a fragrance-free office. Please cooperate with this request because there are several of us on staff and visitors to our office who are chemically sensitive to varying degrees. Our bodies have a hard time when we come into contact with a variety of chemicals and each episode takes its toll on our bodies. Please use only unscented products during work hours. This does not include deodorant or bath soap at this time."
- U.S. Access Board: "Under this policy, the Board requests that all participants refrain from wearing perfume, cologne, and other fragrances, and use unscented personal care products in order to promote a fragrance-free environment. This request is included in notices and on displayed signage for the Board's meetings, hearings, and other public events. In addition, the Board will work with the operators of meeting sites to prevent the use of deodorizers and cleaning products immediately before the event in and around meeting locations."
Fragrance Sensitivity and the Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA does not contain a list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA has a general definition of disability that each person must meet. A person has a disability if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).
Accommodating Employees with Fragrance Sensitivity
People with fragrance sensitivity may develop some of the limitations discussed below, but seldom develop all of them. Also, the degree of limitation will vary among individuals. Be aware that not all people with fragrance sensitivity will need accommodations to perform their jobs and many others may only need a few accommodations. The following is only a sample of the possibilities available. Numerous other accommodation solutions may exist.
Questions to Consider:
- What limitations is the employee experiencing?
- How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
- What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
- What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
- Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
- Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?
Situations and Solutions:
A clerical employee was having difficulty breathing due to coworker fragrances and new carpet fumes.
The employee was placed in a more enclosed cubicle with an air purification system, coworkers were asked to decrease or eliminate the use of fragrances, and time the employee spent in the office was reduced by altering face-to-face communication with coworkers to telephone, e-mail, or fax. It was also suggested that the carpet be detoxified or removed and replaced with a non-toxic floor covering like tile or wood.
A healthcare worker requested that the employer implement a fragrance free environment as an accommodation.
Although the employer could not guarantee that all fragrances would be eliminated, the employer purchased an air purifier, asked certain employees who wore heavy scents to refrain from doing so, and the employee was allowed to take breaks to get fresh air if exposed.
A local government employee requested accommodations due to fragrance sensitivity.
The employer purchased an air purifier, custodians were instructed to use non-scented janitorial products, and areas of a public facility were designated as non-scented/fragrance-free zones. The employer educated all employees on refraining from wearing fragrances on the job. The employee was also permitted to work from home one day per week.
A state employer had received requests from employees with fragrance sensitivity who worked in various positions and with the public.
The employer implemented a fragrance free workplace policy for employees, placed posters around the facility to educate both employees and visitors about fragrance sensitivity, and provided masks for employee’s who would like to wear them.
A police officer experienced migraines that were triggered by fragrances.
The employer allowed the employee to work a modified schedule and assigned them to low volume areas where it would be less likely that the individual would come into contact with people wearing fragrances.
A receptionist requested to wear a mask due to fragrance sensitivity.
The employer initially agreed to this but the surgical mask scared some of the clients and was impacting their ability to work. A decorative mask cover was located that made the surgical mask look less intimidating.