October 28, 2008

Wearing Perfume to Work

Emanating perfume all around you in public spaces, especially at work, is increasingly controversial. So many very vocal people passionately complain about being subjected to perfume in public places, and some strive to lead an entirely unscented existence.

I love perfume that uplifts my mood and energy and connects me to my animal nature, while at the same time it can operate on many different mental, emotional and psychological levels, like a poem. So there is a conflict of interest between me and my fellow human beings who are just trying to get through the day without being involuntarily subjected to substances and sensations or reminders of the physical world they have no wish to be exposed to, particularly at work.

If I am not to trigger a workplace ban I have to take into consideration the strong feelings such people have against perfume. Actually I think in most cases these people are more upset about being forced to inhale a perfume they personally do not like; it is mentally and physically invasive.

Commercially made perfumes by the big well known companies are exhaustively tested so as to be sure not to cause bad reactions. Obviously they have no wish to be found legally responsible for causing health problems. I seriously doubt there is any physical danger to anyone from exposure to fine perfumes. I think it is most often in the dosage and conflict with personal preferences that the trouble arises.

The overuse of the big classic department store scents with big sillage can take a lot of responsibility for this reactionary atmosphere. Their indiscriminate public use has given perfume a bad name, to the point where people are convinced their allergies are triggered by all forms of perfumes, and they don't want to think about or deal with any discernible perfume whatsoever.

Oceans of Estee Lauder Pleasures or Lancome Tresor in an enclosed space like an elevator or an office without much fresh air will give even those with healthy sinuses a sick headache or choke the most ardent fan of perfume. But even they can be skillfully used during the workday, drawing the sillage into a tighter circle around yourself by using the tiniest drop possible. Their power can then act as an enhancement of one's personal space without knocking anyone down. It's all about personal space, is it not?

The common practice in department stores and boutiques of lining up six or more sets of diffuser reeds of different home fragrances beside each other on a counter creates an overpowering and confusing atmosphere which has frightened some people into believing that perfume should be avoided at all costs. Especially when at the same time there is a lot of other promotional perfume spraying going on nearby.

I have recently read about how the heavy handed use of perfume can be a sign of depression, which causes the sense of smell to be blunted. I realize there are a certain new chemical musk molecules that get a strong negative reaction from highly sensitive people, such as perfumer Christopher Brosius, who has written eloquently about this issue in his I Hate Perfume site.

One solution is to keep a separate less "difficult" or "special" perfume wardrobe for work and crowded public places, as we do with our work clothing and persona, or alternatively, use non-chemically enhanced, natural perfumes that are oil based. In any case it is necessary to be aware of and adjust the amount used so that the throw never reaches beyond one foot or so around you. That is well within your personal space, which I believe we all have the right to do with what we wish, within reason.

Certain perfumes are considered to be more acceptable in a standard work environment. The classics, such as Chanel No. 5, or close to classics such as Annick Goutal Eau de Hadrian, or even Songes, can be fine, and certain types that are classically prettier and appealing are often considered less irritating.

I realize more and more that "regular" people are not interested in and often do not initially like the types of perfumes that those who are very involved in perfume often go for. Woods, incense, moss, leather, patchouli, balsamic or even distinctively gourmand types are not very much appreciated at work, generally speaking.

A big floral is perceived as way too much, especially tuberose, jasmine or gardenia. Green or citrus fragrances, and certain abstract compositions, in cologne or eau de toilette strength generally will not trigger confrontational objections.

Sometimes I like to have a deep inhalation of a complex and dark or heavier perfume or the equivalent of a large bunch of white flowers, even when I am in a crowded public place. When my time and space is not really my own, such perfumes can be applied to a card and kept in a book, or on a tissue in the handbag. Or I dare the tiniest drop on the wrist, if there is enough personal space around me to let it breathe out with me.

Fractal above from this nice free fractal site.


ScentScelf said...


I have a further concern, in that I work in an educational setting, and feel responsible for not a) causing negative/adverse reactions b) especially in a still growing population, and c) am a bit afraid I could even be responsible for augmenting or chipping away at learning & recall. (You know, those experiments done showing things like, if you smell a certain fragrance when you are studying, and then smell it again during the test, you'll do better?)

I have no desire to conduct any olfactory cognition experiments. ;)

Plus, many of those I work with are highly sensitive when it comes to sensory issues.

Add to that I myself have felt in the past that I was hijacked by someone else's perfume--to the point of headaches & queasiness--that I do indeed keep an inventory (mental notes, if nothing else) of scents that I think are "safe." Interestingly, I am my own best guinea pig, as I am generally a "no fragrances before noon" type, so if I'm going to be able to wear it before heading out to work, most others will likely tolerate it. Those are few and far between.

Lucy said...

Dear S, you must be one of those teachers the students really look forward to being with every day. So lovely that you take such consideration. As a teacher of young children you would tend to have much more physical closeness than those of us in other kinds of workplaces.
Yes, I think it's a good idea to collect a wardrobe of perfumes that do not hijack a situation, as part of an overall collection. The very conscious control of dosage too can expand the repetoire for those many hours of the work day. It may not be necessary to totally abstain from those favorites that are intense or strong in an unconventional way. I think it can worth experimenting, to try literally one drop.

Olfacta said...

Yes, it can be a problem! Since I began getting samples, I often ask my husband for his opinion. He doesn't like many, but the other day he told me that the women he works with (who are in sales) tend to drench themselves with the mainstream stuff, and he's beginning to be able to discern that sort of perfume from the ones I'm wearing now. (In other words, he's developing a scent palate, finally, thank God!) I think that the quality of the accords is part of the issue -- the cheap and stinky fruit/florals that predominate the mass market. And it's not that his co-workers have bad taste. They just don't know about the good stuff.

The no-scent zeitgeist has made me very careful as to what I wear in an office, to the gym or actually in any public setting. It forces me to save the big loud scents for when I'm working alone at home, but so what? I don't mind scent-bombing myself. I'ts kind of what I had in mind all along...

theminx said...

On my way back from picking up lunch, I realized the woman walking in front of me had some pretty serious sillage going on. Phew! And then I noticed she was dressed in scrubs, on her way to work at the hospital up the street.

Poor patients.

Aparatchick said...

Which is why I'm so glad that I have an office that is a good 15 feet from anyone else. Ah, the joy of wearing what I please to work! But I do recognize the problem. I gave up on perfume in the 80s and 90s as all that seemed to be available was the huge-sillage, in-your-face perfumes of those days. So if I'm going to be in restaurants or theatres, I think carefully when deciding what perfume to wear. Someone sitting next to you in a theatre cannot help smelling whatever you're wearing, and they shouldn't be intruded upon in that way.

Roxana said...

Great topic Lucy! Since I work at home I don't tend to have any complaints about my silage, botanical perfumes have very little silage anyway. Interesting though, when Greg works on film gigs, he gets complaints from folk saying that his scent gives them headaches. All he usually wears is a little Patchouli essential oil or a botanical Amber perfume. I've always found this quite bizarre. I wonder if certain individuals create a headache no matter what type of perfume they inhale.

(Great to meet you and hang a bit in NYC!)

Lucy said...

Thanks Roxana -- it was great to meet you, that evening was so enjoyable, the conversation was so fun!

Yes, I do think some people are hypersensitive. If a person is that sensitive then I don't know how they deal with car exhaust in traffic, or just getting around life in general, full of all kinds of smells as we all know...

Cait said...

I am afraid that although I work in the public interest, my use of perfume may conflict with it. Some perfumes unpredictably waft even with a drop and people have such strong adverse reactions to perfume these days. At least I'm clean and sweet, unlike many! I don't notice too much uproar over poor hygiene. I applaud your sensitivity to people, Lucy. I tend to get selfish about my right to spritz.

maisqueperfume said...

I also think that one needs to control the spitzzz when it comes to public places, work environments and in my opinion, if one does not suffer from any kind of olfactory disability, and he/she is still taking a bath of fragrance before going out, Freud might explain. Maybe it is a necessity to bring attention to him/her self? Huge ego? selfishness?
Anyways, perfume should be complementary, gentle, not an aura.
Anywys, I am writing about fragrances in the gyym.
Loved your blog!
check my blog

Lucy said...

Thanks Maisqueperfume for your kind words.

I did read that it can be a sign of depression -- because it could be that it takes more to cut through the sad fog on the senses so people in that state tend to overapply.
Fragrances in the gym are so very tricky. Anything will be amplified by the body heat of exercise. My own preference would be to use basic essential aromatherapy type of scents, such as a fine high altitude lavender or geranium or clary sage, or eucalyptus, which would give you that mental/physical benefit at the same time that the natural connotation is less scary for other people around you in that kind of environment. The antiseptic qualities many essential oils possess would not go amiss at the gym, either.
Your site is very interesting, I like seeing what other cultures are thinking about with fragrance and cosmetics from the inside rather than so much being studied for marketing purposes from the outside....

Lucy said...

Cait -- I am fortunate in that I have found some allies in the workplace who are excited by new and interesting perfume so it's not as big of an issue, though I still have to keep it turned down on the low side.
Personally I think we are providing an aesthetic experience to those who can appreciate it.

Raya said...

This has nothing to do with the workplace, but with the home. I just found out yesterday that my Mother has an allergic reaction to my Chanel Allure. I love this scent. I saved up to buy this. What would you suggest is a fair compromise? I don't want to stop using my Chanel because she is allergic to it. Can you please offer suggestions?

Thank you so much!


Lucy said...

Hi Raya --
I sympathize. Unfortunately, though, Chanel has a reputation for triggering allergies in those who are susceptible to them. Probably because of the aldehydes and possibly also the labdanum (which is a natural ingredient) that triggers allergies in some.
I would suggest wearing it out of the house, only. You can try bringing it with you in your bag or decant to a smaller sprayer if possible, to bring with you when you go out. I would not wear it at home because usually the more exposure once someone is triggered the worse the reaction. However, if there are small trace amounts left on you when you come home or on your clothes and towels, after being out for hours, I doubt that would be a problem, unless you mother actually puts her nose to your wrist. Just don't reapply right before you go home. Usually only heavier use/exposure would trigger an allergy episode.

Roxana said...

Hi Lucy,
Are you positive that Chanel is using actual Labdanum in their products? In all my years working and teaching Aromatherapy and Botanical Perfume I have not come across allergies to Labdanum. Do you have case studies or is it something you have observed? I'd love to learn more. Thank you.

Perfume Monkey said...

Walking through the perfume section of most department stores awash in a petrochemical haze
always feels like someone has a vice grip on my throat and lungs. Trapped in an elevator with someone wearing strong synthetic fragrance, or in an airplane, or cab with a synthetic air freshener is torture. In the workplace its worse because you may have to endure the offending off gassing for hours.
The human organism does not have a loving relationship with synthetics, hence the allergies that occur from toxic build up in the body. More and more people are losing their tolerance to fragrances built upon petrochemicals.
Its an awesome relief that true natural perfumery is having a renaissance. There is hope!

Lucy said...

Hi Roxana --
Chanel does indeed use Labdanum in their perfumes; and as you know it has been used for thousands of years. There are no studies I know of or been able to find via Google that show it is proven to be harmful except for some anecdotal evidence of people who mention it bothering them (I am thinking of this Basenotes posting:
but ingesting it is another story, even in tiny amounts is not good, especially for small pets who might lick or preen you (see this sad article on a lady whose bird got deathly ill:

and also this warning from an aromatherapy site online (scroll down to the very bottom)

As you know there are a number of natural materials that can trigger allergies, since so many are made from grasses and other plant materials. It seems the current thinking is it's best not to overuse perfumes of any kind; to let the body have a rest. Heaviness of application and frequency of exposure can cause the development of hypersensitivity.

Lucy said...

Hi perfumemonkey --

That is the experience everyone seems to hate most, walking through the perfume section of a department store.
I pity the people who work there, they must get overwhelmed very early in the day and then still have to deal with it the balance of their work day.

I think it is important to protect yourself and not overdo it, to take a day or two off every now and then and wear nothing.

I really really don't want to become one of those people who can't tolerate perfume of any kind, or is unable to appreciate the subtleties because of hypersensitivity to a common ingredient.

Most people seem to have more tolerance for the natural ingredients but even they, overused, can get to be too much if you are not careful. The natural perfumery sites have exhaustive postings about this issue. The wikipedia entry on perfume has some interesting information and links on this issue also.

perfume monkey said...

Its true that allergies may arise from overuse or abuse of natural materials, but I am also addressing the dangers inherent in synthetics.
95-100% of chemicals used in most fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes and many other known toxics and sensitizers - capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace, Report by the Committee on Science & Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Sept. 16, 1986. (Report 99-827)
There are many articles and studies out there on this subject. Here is one-

Perfume Monkey said...

One addition to the Chanel thread...
I am willing to bet that 99-100% of Chanel is synthetic.
Its quite possible the Labdanum is synthetic too. You will probably never know, even if they say its natural Labdanum. As we know the word "Natural" in the fragrance industry does not mean necessarily the real deal. Its smoke and mirrors. Remember in the fragrance world, especially within the context of the larger houses its an industry, hence profits trump artistry.
With all due respects to Coco, synthetic perfumery was born for two reasons...

1. Standardized formulations of scents that would be the same, batch after batch after batch.
2. Price. Synthetics, petrochemicals are cheaper than the real thing.

Because these two issues run the show, synthetics will rule until people get too sick of them (literally) and the industry is made to change.

human pheromones said...

Thank you so much for guiding me through this I also wonder if certain individuals create a headache no matter what type of perfume they inhale.