Public Policy Perspectives

Scent Reduction Policies and the Workplace

Important Considerations
Scented Products in the Workplace
Questions & Answers

Important Considerations

Introducing a scent-reduction policy or a voluntary scent ban into a workplace is an important decision that affects the rights and responsibilities of all employees and visitors. It is also a complex decision with many implications. Before making a decision, it is important to consider whether allergies or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity are intended to be addressed by the policy. In the case of true, medically-diagnosed allergies, all potential contributors to allergies will need to be addressed, including dust, moulds, pollen, food odours, etc.

Although SPEIAC is not aware of any legal precedent, ruling or otherwise, we do not believe that an employer in Canada has a right to impose and enforce a scent-free policy. The issue of scents and a person's odour is extremely subjective and virtually impossible to enforce. This lack of enforceability and infringement on a person's rights are the two major reasons that no formal regulations have been passed anywhere in Canada at any level of government. Fragrances are regulated as cosmetics under the Cosmetic Regulations of the Food and Drugs Act. There is no health and safety issue related to the use of scents, as Health Canada, the industry, and the mainstream medical community have established that these federally-regulated products are safe.

It may be argued that where the employer has received 100% concurrence from all staff to implement such a policy, and has some sort of defined test to indicate when a threshold has been exceeded, the policy may prevail. However, the introduction of such policies establish an extremely dangerous precedent and open the door to similar policies for body odour, garlic odours, smoke odours, flowers, and so on.

This is not a legal opinion and SPEIAC does not provide advice on how individuals should proceed in these types of matters. SPEIAC will not intervene in the specific affairs and relationships between employers, employees and other interest groups. SPEIAC's mandate is to provide factual information about scented products for education purposes through the information posted on our website at

Scented Products in the Workplace

School Boards and other workplaces occasionally receive complaints or comments from staff and/or students related to scented product use. To date, these situations have usually been dealt with by the Occupational Health & Safety Officer or the joint Health & Safety Committee as an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) issue. However, the array of tests prescribed for IAQ complaints (i.e.
building history, air sampling, etc.) are often not directly relevant to such scent-related issues.

Thus, it is being proposed that after a ventilation evaluation has taken place and after all possible avenues have been explored to improve air intake and distribution in the work/school environment, that scent-related complaints be handled by individual administrators at the location where the scent-related complaint originated (i.e. the principal of the school where the
complaint is being made). This information sheet is intended to provide the administrator with relevant background information and facts when dealing with such scent-related complaints.

Can Scents Cause Health Problems?
Used as intended, fragranced products are safe. Fragrance manufacturers must substantiate the safety of their ingredients. Both the U.S. and the European Union require submission and review of safety data for every new chemical introduced into the market. Subsequently, customer companies require proof of U.S. and European registration. In addition, most scented product manufacturers and fragrance suppliers have well-developed mechanisms for tracking and responding to product complaints.

All cosmetics and personal care products are regulated by Health Canada under the Cosmetic Regulations of the Food & Drugs Act. In addition, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) is an independent organization that evaluates the safety of fragrance materials. RIFM has a dual role – one as a repository of safety data, and the other to conduct its safety testing
program (health and environmental) for materials of common interest to the industry. In this regard, RIFM’s independent Expert Panel of scientists design safety studies, review data and ultimately decide any necessary restrictions on the use of fragrance ingredients, which are then sent to IFRA (International Fragrance Association) for communication to industry.

What Types of Products Contain Scents?
Many consumer products contain fragrance including:

  • Creams, lotions, powders and gels which are 95-99% product base, with 1-5% fragrance;
  • Shampoos and deodorants which contain 0.5-1% fragrance;
  • Clothes, dish detergents, fabric softeners which contain 0.5-1% fragrance;
  • Hard surface, bathroom cleaners which contain 0.2-0.5% fragrance.

Often, unscented products are available. However, it is important to note that many of the materials used in consumer products impart their own natural scent. Manufacturers must then add additional masking agents in order to cover the intrinsic scent of the product formulation.

Fine Fragrances - Types and Composition
The composition of fragrances hasn't changed much in hundreds of years. They contain primarily water and alcohol - of the same type and purity we drink in beverages - as well as essential fragrance oils. Perfumery was mastered by the Egyptians around 2500 B.C., followed by extensive use by the Greeks and Romans. The Far East also had a powerful influence in the growth of fragrance. Many still believe fragrance not only enhances personal beauty, but helps to prolong life.

The carrier for the perfume oil found in fragrances is denatured ethyl alcohol (ethanol), which is obtained by the fermentation of natural grains. Water is also commonly used in conjunction with the ethyl alcohol to help modify the fragrance intensity and make application to the skin easier. The relative proportion of the perfume oil to carrier depends on the product type.

The creation of fragrance is an excellent example of nature and science working together. Many raw materials are taken from natural sources including flowers, herbs, spices, citrus fruits, roots and grains. The desired materials are then isolated from the plants using a combination of mechanical, distillation, extraction and evaporation techniques. These ingredients are enhanced
by manufactured materials which may reproduce natural elements that cannot be obtained in large quantities or have unique properties not known to nature. In general, typical fragrance formulae contain 100-350 ingredients, with an average concentration of usually less than 1%.

Ingredients in a typical fragrance "recipe" generally include:

  • extracts from plants and flowers (naturals),
  • synthetic recreations (synthetic duplications of natural fragrance materials),
  • synthetic innovations (variations of naturally-occurring materials which have unique olfactory

Scent Bans & Policies - Experiences from Other Workplaces
Typically, individuals who believe that scented products make them unwell, also react to many other substances in the environment such as building materials, upholstery fabrics, carpeting, diesel fumes, flowers, newsprint, etc. Unless a very specific confirmed medical condition exists, eliminating any single substance is not likely to have a significant effect on the long-term health
of such individuals. Experience shows that whenever particular substances are removed from a sufferer's environment, sensitivities frequently develop to new substances.

There are over 200 cited triggers for asthma and allergies, one of which includes scented products. Given the numerous substances and conditions that can contribute to aggravating asthma and allergies, public policies that focus on controlling only a single potential trigger are ineffective and do a disservice to sufferers. Education and common courtesy regarding the needs of others remain the best ways for society to handle these situations.

In instances where scent bans were implemented, they proved difficult or impossible to enforce. Can employees be expected to eliminate all shampoo, deodorant and other products from their daily routine? Who in the workplace decides if an employee is wearing too much fragrance? In perhaps the most illustrative example, recent experience from Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia
demonstrates how difficult, if not impossible, a scent-free policy can be to enforce. A teacher attempted to charge a student with assault for wearing scented deodorant and hair gel to school, and called the RCMP to investigate. No charges were laid, however the issue brought international attention to Nova Scotia, and the situation was dubbed "Halifax Hysteria". In some jurisdictions where bans were attempted, complaints were received from employees related to restrictions of their personal freedom and the addition of more “rules” from management.

A few similar policies have been implemented in Ontario. In an excerpt from a National Post article in October 2000, Dave Roger, a member of the Occupational Health & Safety committee of the Peel District School Board was interviewed: "Roger admits that his information poster with the headline No Scents Is Good Sense was a mistake". Thus, for those who have attempted to
implement such a "scent-free" policy, the desired results have not been achieved.

Peanuts and Perfume - The Differences
Allergies are a group of disorders characterized by immunologic responses to specific proteins. By far, the top three sources of allergens are animals, plants and foods. A small number of these proteins lead to a very serious type of allergic response called anaphylaxis. Peanut proteins are well known allergens and can produce anaphylaxis and other life-threatening symptoms in sensitive individuals. These cases are well documented and precautions that protect individuals with extreme sensitivities to peanuts are well justified.

However, the scent component of scented products do not contain protein components and thus are not capable of eliciting a true allergic response. Thus, allergies to peanuts and sensitivities to perfume are very different. Unlike peanuts, there are no confirmed cases of anaphylaxis being caused by exposure to scented products.

Tools for Local Accommodation
Fragrance users are strongly encouraged to be courteous and respectful in their use of fragrance and to keep the fragrance within their personal “scent circle”, about an arm’s length away. However, some people wear very strong scents and some wear too much. Rather than ask everyone to eliminate all scented products, try to identify only those individuals whose use of scent may be inappropriate and ask them to modify their use.

If indoor air quality is poor, many substances will linger and accumulate contributing to a stale air environment. Ensuring good ventilation and fresh air intake will contribute to being more alert and energetic.

There are people who react excessively to many materials found in every day life, including scented products. Any strong aroma, including body odour, perfume or otherwise, can be unpleasant. Common sense and courtesy should always be endorsed. Employers should verify that individuals claiming to experience such sensitivity have had their sensitivity confirmed by a medical professional.

Additional Sources of Information
For more information on scented products, visit the Scented Products Education & Information Association of Canada's Web site at

For more information on how cosmetics, including fragrances, are regulated in Canada, visit the Cosmetics page of the Health Canada Web site at

For more information on the testing of fragrance materials and international industry standards, visit the International Fragrance Association's Web site at


Will a scent ban make a difference to the physical health of employees who believe they suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

 Typically, individuals who believe scented products make them unwell, also react to many other substances in the workplace such as building materials, upholstery fabrics, carpeting, diesel fumes, dry-cleaning residue, newsprint and inked papers etc.

 Eliminating any single substance is not likely to have a significant effect on the long-term health of individuals who believe they have multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). Experience shows that whenever particular substances are removed from a sufferer's environment, sensitivities frequently develop to new substances.

Will a scent ban make a difference to the physical health of employees who suffer from medically-diagnosed allergies?

 A policy that only targets the restriction of scented products is unlikely to provide significant relief to most allergy sufferers. However, a comprehensive policy that addresses all allergens (i.e. dust, pollen, moulds, flowers, ragweed, etc.) in an environment may begin to achieve meaningful results. Complete lists of the most common allergen triggers are listed on various allergy Web sites (visit Other Sites of Interest).

Do scented products make people ill?

 There is no conclusive medical evidence to suggest that scented products cause disease.

 Based on study of the available research, the American Medical Association, the American Medical Council on Scientific Affairs, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology have all rejected multiple chemical sensitivity as a legitimate organic disease.

 Scented products, like a bouquet of flowers, can in rare cases, trigger a temporary allergic reaction in extremely sensitive individuals. Programs established to accommodate such individuals need to consider all potential contributors, including foods and their odours.

Is a scent-reduction policy good social policy?

 It is very important not to confuse dislikes with diseases. Everyone has dislikes and people can have strong reactions - even physical reactions - to things they dislike. This does not mean they have a disease.

 Our society believes that the rights of individuals should only be restricted when clearly necessary for public health reasons. This is not the case with scented products. Individuals who believe they suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or allergies to scents should be encouraged to visit their medical practitioner for a complete diagnosis.

 Indeed, fine fragrances and scented products have been enjoyed for thousands of years and most people use them because they contribute to personal hygiene, self-esteem, self-expression and a sense of well-being.

What are the alternatives to a scent-reduction policy?

 Be Specific

Some people wear very strong scents and some wear too much. Any strong aroma - perfume or otherwise - can be unpleasant and can cause a short-term reaction. Rather than ask all employees to eliminate all scented products, try to identify only those individuals whose use of scent may be inappropriate and ask them to modify their use.

 Stay Inside Your Scent Circle

Everyone has a personal "scent circle" about an arm's length away from their body. Ask that employees modify their use of scent so that no one outside their "scent circle" is aware of it.

 Maintain Good Indoor Air Quality

If indoor air quality in a workplace is poor, many substances will linger and accumulate contributing to a stale air environment. Ensuring good ventilation and fresh air intake will contribute to all employees being more alert and energetic.

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