Figuring out the Fragrance Free Workplace

September means, for many, goodbye to sunny summer days and vacation, and back to the routines governed by work and school. As a parent I’m concerned about what kind of environment my kids spend the day in. That means things like safety, kindness and air quality are all things I appreciate about our school.  We are fortunate that our kids go to a school with a fragrance-free policy which protects the quality of the air they breathe. This means that students, employees and visitors are asked not to use fragranced products while on school property and no fragranced products are used in the maintenance of the school.

Read this to learn what “fragrance” is, exactly. You’ll be glad you did.

You may have noticed, or will now notice, signs in places of business, notifying personnel that the location is a Fragrance-Free Zone.  And although sales of fragranced products seems to be at an all-time high, these signs, increasing in frequency, are an indication of things to come.

As we overuse fragrance – from perfumes, detergents, lotions, air fresheners, candles, children’s toys and art supplies – more people are becoming sensitized to the chemicals contained within the term “fragrance” or “parfum” listed as one ingredient on some product labels. But many products don’t even contain a label.  My daughter came home yesterday with a math worksheet colored with fragranced markers – so much for good follow through on the fragrance free policy at school!

As many people have become sensitized to fragrance, they often are diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS).  This is a disability recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act and as such people with this diagnosis are eligible for workplace accommodations related to MCS.

Other places of business, like the dental and medical practices that my family chooses, designate their office as Fragrance-Free because they understand the health value that this is for employees and clients.  Interestingly, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a stringent Fragrance-Free Policy in order to provide the best indoor air quality possible.

In a recent study by Anne Steinemann that looks at Ten questions concerning fragrance-free policies and indoor environments, one policy studied says, “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 concerns. The goal of this awareness campaign is not to target people personally or to criticize people’s preferences. Rather, it’s to prevent real harm to real people.”

Understanding of the reasons behind the policy often help with compliance.  And everyone benefits from cleaner air, not just those who are sensitized to these chemicals.

Dr. Anne Steinemann has also studied the effects of fragranced products on health.  35% of the population report health problems due to fragranced products and 50% of the population would “prefer that workplaces, health care facilities and professionals, hotels, and airplanes were fragrance-free.” Here’s the full report.

Benefits of Fragrance Free Workplaces

“Fragrance-free policies can produce a range of benefits, such as reduced or avoided costs associated with: adverse health effects, lost work days and lost jobs, loss of access, disability, risk and litigation, indoor and outdoor air pollutants, and purchases of fragranced products such as air fresheners. A full analysis would consider both monetary and non-monetary impacts as well as both personal and public impacts, for overall net societal benefits,” reports Steinemann’s study on fragrance free policies.

What about Natural Fragrances like Essential Oils

Since most people don’t have a clear idea of what full compliance with a fragrance free workplace policy means, it’s easy to think that things like products with essential oils are excluded.  But this is not the case.

The reasoning is often that essential oils are natural and offer benefit to people.  But talk to anyone with MCS and you may discover that the synthetic fragrances they’ve become overly sensitive to have also sensitized them to the real deal – the original plant that produced those scents before it was synthesized in a lab.  Our bodies are very capable of detecting even the smallest quantity of a substance and producing an immune response to it – just ask anyone with a peanut allergy! 

Plus, it’s important to understand that many essential oils can also contain hazardous chemicals. This depends on how the plants they come from are grown and processed. And as the natural substance from the original plant is highly concentrated, some contend that the natural components themselves may also be harmful – perhaps this is another reason why people can become sensitized to essential oils. See Steinemann’s research on essential oils here. Even if you are sure your oils are pure, it’s best to keep their scents at home.

In the case of a shared workspace this is unfortunate, indeed. For the sake of the affected person/people, it’s critical to avoid essential oils, after all each of us has immense value and I suspect that most of us don’t want to be the cause of a coworker getting sick.

Perhaps the use of an essential oil is easy enough to avoid. But what about fragrances that travel with us from home – things unlike flowery lotions and scented body spray that are easier to simply not use. We all use things like laundry detergent and dryer sheets and hair products.  And each of these is heavily scented with synthetic fragrance. What is to be done when these overwhelm the air in a room?

That’s a good question. 

when a Scent is in the Room

This depends on enforcement of the workplace policy. The policies studied by Steinemann “demonstrated a range of approaches, including voluntary compliance, mandatory compliance, enforcement, and a combination of approaches.”

I think this is when “goodwill toward all” comes into play. Everyone in the workplace environment is responsible to work together for the best productivity – that means, in a fragrance free environment, anyone who detects a fragrance ought to respond in a way that honors the values, policies and needs of the workplace and workforce. This is professionalism and leadership at it’s finest.

My kids have come home from school with the scent of fragranced soap on their hands. It doesn’t easily wash off (due to toxic phthalates). That’s when I email the principle who handles it immediately.  Usually it’s a custodial issue. This illuminates the need for ongoing training.

Other times I’ve been overwhelmed by a staff member’s fragrance at a meeting and even at the front desk.  Sometimes the front desk scent is from visitors (who are ignoring the fragrance free policy) but sometimes, when the scent is consistent, it is coming from a front desk staff member.

Since I’m a concerned citizen and parent I often gently point out the scent and ask for remediation. Because of the policy that is in place to protect people, my concern is always addressed.  I’m grateful for this. But I don’t always point it out…because it can be awkward, right?

But getting back to what I said earlier, it’s not personal. It’s professional. It’s to prevent real harm from happening to real people. It also protects the health of everyone in the room – as the CDC so clearly recognizes. So, together, we can have the confidence to speak up. That may just mean a kind reminder to your officemate. In other cases it may mean a conversation with your boss.

Training for Fragrance Free, a steep learning curve

Training is required in order for the policy to have the intended effect. Teach staff what fragrance is, the health effects and how to avoid it. Staff members should be provided with a list of fragrance free resources.  Custodial staff should be provided with fragrance free cleaning products and they should learn to be sure to use those at ALL times. In the same manner, other staff members should be taught how to avoid fragranced products (not just told not to use them at work).  This can be a bit tricky since most personal care and cleaning products are characterized by their scent! Laundry detergent is a poignant and constant reminder of this, anyone who uses a regular laundry detergent is emitting Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) 24/7, effectively sharing them with everyone they pass by. (Think of the character Pig Pen from Peanuts. Sadly, instead of being clean, people using toxic laundry detergent are moving around in a toxic cloud.) Unfortunately, many “free and clear” products can still contain fragrance (labeling of this sort is not regulated). 

For most people wanting to make the change to a fragrance free lifestyle or at least while at work, it’s a long road of learning, research and label reading.  Frankly, most people know before they start that they don’t really have time for that. I do think it’s quite unfair for fragrance free workplaces to expect people to be fragrance free without proper training.  Without training, the fragrance free policy loses meaning because it’s easy to believe it’s either unattainable or already handled, when indeed, it is not.

Thankfully, I can help with that.  The Cleaner Clean, Better Beauty Consultation at LightenUp Simply meets this need and can be very helpful for that busy professional who needs to go fragrance free pronto!

Create your Own Fragrance Free Workplace Policy

The ease of developing and implementing a fragrance free policy at work depends on your workplace environment, size of the workplace, attitudes and position there.  Be encouraged that the science is on your side.  The presence of fragrance and other VOCs cause real harm. Also, be encouraged that there are now many places with fragrance free policies that are normalizing this kind of change. These offer examples and guidance to follow.

Here’s a resource from the Canadian government about establishing a fragrance free workplace.

The American Lung Association even offers a sample fragrance free policy!

What has your fragrance free workplace experience been?


Further Reading

What is meant by “Fragrance”?

What are VOCs?

Improving Indoor Air Quality

Harmful effects of fragrance

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