Scent Reduction Policies and the Workplace
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 www.scentedproducts.on.ca
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
For more information on scented products, visit the Scented Products Education & Information
Association of Canada's Web site at www.scentedproducts.ca
For more information on how cosmetics, including fragrances, are regulated in Canada, visit the
Cosmetics page of the Health Canada Web site at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/person/cosmet/index-eng.php.
For more information on the testing of fragrance materials and international industry standards,
visit the International Fragrance Association's Web site at www.ifraorg.org.
ASK THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
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?
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.