Smelly fish, old cheese, Axe body spray, and dirty gym clothes—these probably aren’t the smells you want to associate with your office. While lingering bad smells can be a nuisance to everyone, for some, strong office scents can completely derail a workday.
This is the case for people living with a sensitivity to smell. Depending on the severity of the sensitivity, a coworker’s perfume or smelly lunch can trigger migraines, nausea, as well as other forms of discomfort.
In this article, we take a deep (and smelly) dive into office scents, including why some people are sensitive to smells, which office scents should be avoided, and how to implement a fragrance-free workplace policy.
A sensitivity to smell is called hyperosmia. Hyperosmia is associated with several other conditions and can trigger a range of symptoms. Some conditions can cause a sensitivity to smell to develop, and in other cases, conditions are caused by a hypersensitivity to smell. Hyperosmia can also occur on its own. Because of these various factors, it’s difficult to determine what causes hyperosmia in the first place.
Hyperosmia can be heightened or caused by:
It can be very difficult for someone living with hyperosmia to identify which smells will trigger it. Severe sensitivities to smell can result in anxiety and even depression, as the afflicted person can’t be sure what events or places will be safe for them to visit, leading to isolation.
Since the causes of hyperosmia are so difficult to identify, it’s imperative that a workplace does everything it can to limit intrusive smells. Not doing so could result in lower productivity, conflict in the workplace, or an increase of sick day requests, in severe cases.
Scented perfumes are harmful to those who are sensitive to smell or have allergies. It may not seem like much to someone who doesn't suffer from hyperosmia, but for those who do, it can completely derail a workday. The office should be a comfortable environment for everyone who works there, including its visitors.
Scented toiletries should be avoided in an office space to ensure every person is able to work comfortably. Avoid heavily-scented:
Scented air fresheners cover up bad smells, but many pollute the air with chemicals in doing so. Depending on the air freshener, they may actually increase the indoor air pollution of an office, posing health risks to employees after long-term exposure.
Air fresheners can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air we breathe. VOCs are harmful gases that have short and long-term adverse health effects. On top of that, air fresheners can have the same effect as perfumes on people who suffer from smell sensitivities. A workplace must be a healthy environment for everyone, which means chemical air fresheners should be avoided.
An office kitchen is a big scent offender. With so many different lunches being prepared (or left behind), there’s bound to be at least one unpleasant scent that sticks around. Out of hand kitchen smells won’t only affect those with scent allergies; they’ll also bother everyone else in the office.
Bad kitchen smells are distracting, they attract unwanted pests, and they can disturb office guests. The smell of someone’s fish curry or egg salad—fresh or otherwise—wafting throughout the building as you have important partners or clients visiting isn’t a flattering look for any organization.
Shared office lunchrooms should have policies that address kitchen etiquette. Kitchen users should avoid cooking smelly food such as fish, eggs, onions, popcorn, and stinky cheese.
We all recognize offensive body odor when we smell it, but it can be a sensitive subject to bring up. It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s just as uncomfortable for the other team members who have to endure it. Body odor is inappropriate and offensive in an office setting, but it can pop up if policies are not in place. This is especially true when the weather is extreme.
In the winter, damp boots and clothing can bring unpleasant smells into the workplace. You can combat this by providing a designated area for coats and boots and by asking employees to change into appropriate footwear once they arrive.
In January, people start going to the gym more often. In the summer, people seek more outdoor, sweaty activities. Even if people shower regularly, as they should, bringing a gym bag or old gym clothes into the office will bring the bad smells with it. An office can combat this by having a designated area with plenty of storage and ventilation for employees to store belongings such as gym bags or sports equipment.
If someone in your workplace has a perfume sensitivity, you need to take it seriously. If you have someone in your workplace with scent sensitivity, you must ensure that they have a safe environment to work in. Even if you don’t work with someone with this condition right now, it’s good practice to have fragrance-free policies in place for new hires and office guests.
Ensure your policies are well-established and known by everybody on your team. Outline what’s allowed and what isn’t, and provide information about how scents can negatively affect coworkers. You should include these policies within onboarding resources so that every new hire understands what’s expected.
Once you establish an office fragrance policy, display it for all to see. Office signs will remind employees and guests about your scent policies. Ensure you place these signs near your entrances, so that team members and guests see them before entering. The kitchen and bathroom are also good places for office scent reminders.
We created a few custom-designed office signs you can download for free.
Bad smells don’t need to be covered up by chemical products. There are simple ways to reduce smells naturally or remove odors from the air without adding harmful pollutants. It’s not just about the scents you smell—it’s also about what you’re breathing in. The chemicals used in air fresheners, soaps, and cleaning products can result in negative health effects, whether or not you’re sensitive to smells.
Simple ways to improve office scents:
Air fresheners can increase air pollution while they cover up unpleasant scents. Instead, opt for natural air fresheners in the workplace to ensure you aren’t putting your employees at risk. Plants are natural air fresheners that come with the additional benefits of adding green to your workplace. If you have employees with scent sensitivities, choose neutral plants that won’t trigger anyone’s allergies. You can also purchase natural deodorizers that remain 100% scent-free while absorbing odors from the air.
Scents linger all over a workplace. Invest in quality, scent-free or naturally scented hand soap to ensure the simple and crucial act of hand washing doesn’t irritate people’s allergies. As we all make an effort to wash our hands more frequently, natural hand soaps are best for workplaces. Choose biodegradable products that are free from chemicals and won’t bother those who have scent sensitivities.
There’s perfume for sensitive noses available, but if you work with people with perfume sensitivities, these should still be avoided. A scent-free work environment means not wearing perfume at all. Instead, invest in natural toiletries, and make sure you wash frequently. Consistent washing will mean you don’t need to use perfumes or heavily-scented products to cover up negative smells.
Hairspray can do exactly what it’s intended to do without the added scents that can harm other people in the workplace. There are plenty of scent-free options available, including some on Amazon. L'Oreal Paris Elnett Satin Hairspray has a scent-free version. If you battle with skin sensitivities as well, there are scent-free hairsprays for sensitive skin that are free of other harmful additives.
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