Handling Scents in the Workplace

A smelly coworker can be a big issue in today’s workplace. Some wear too much cologne or perfume, while others don’t wear enough antiperspirant. But it is awkward to approach a coworker about their personal scent. Luckily, today I’m going to discuss how to properly apply fragrances so that you aren’t the overpowering scent in your office. I’ll also talk about how to deal with that coworker who is driving your olfactory senses crazy.

How to Wear Cologne or Perfume

The simplest and most effective way to apply a spray fragrance, in my opinion, is to spray the cologne or perfume into the air at chest level and just walk through it. In my experience this approach works best for a couple reasons. First of all, the scent is applied to your skin instead of your clothing. That means when you sweat or your body heats up, the scent will be released. Also, this prevents the spray from potentially staining more sensitive clothing (like a silk tie or blouse).

Applying your scent of choice using this method also allows you to wear a shirt more than once. If you spray directly onto the clothing, that scent will be on that clothing the next time you wear it, and it will be much stronger than any residual scent from your skin. Finally, this method allows for an even application. Some people will spray the fragrance right on their chest. That results in the scent only existing in one location, instead of being spread out. With lighter scents, you may also be able to add a secondary spray to your neck or another area, but I don’t think that’s usually necessary.

Another way to apply your cologne or perfume is with spot contact. Lauren Roso prefers spraying the scent in specific spots. She recommends the wrist and neck, and also the hair. Your hair holds the scent longer, according to Roso, so that you smell just as good at the end of the night as you did when the day started.

Spot contact is also great for non-spray applicators. Chris Rovny, of AskMen.com, says the best way to use these is to “apply one finger over the bottle opening, tip the bottle over and evenly apply cologne onto your favorite application points (could include behind your ears, the glandular points on your neck, or your inner wrists; whatever’s most comfortable).”

What to Do About A Coworker’s Scent

When a coworker’s personal hygiene has an effect on you, it creates a very awkward work situation. To avoid these issues, the city of Portland is putting a new policy in place “discouraging personal scented products in the work-place.” Assuming you don’t live in Portland, how do you deal with the person in your office who just doesn’t realize the issue?

There are websites to send anonymous notes to people, but that doesn’t seem very professional. You can make subtle hints like bringing in gum and offering it to everyone in the area. Or you could even confront the person directly. Kat Griffin of Corporette.com points out that going to a human resources person is probably the best route. They’re trained to handle that kind of thing. By going to an HR person, or even a manager, everyone gets to preserve their dignity and minimize the social fallout.

(photo: Shutterstock)


  1. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    Many people—myself included—are sensitive to perfume and cologne. Both give me a headache, and I would not want to work with someone who came to work wearing them.

    Cologne and perfume are fine for bars and clubs, but not the workplace.

  2. Avatar Faith says:

    I’m the same way. Cologne and perfume are migraine triggers for me. It’s difficult to work with people who wear it, especially because many people put on too much. It seems they get acclimated to the scent and don’t realize that they are way overdoing it.

    I applaud any workplace that clears the air by making it scent-free.

  3. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    I, too, am scent-sensitive, and one of my least favorite memories is of interviewing a candidate in a fairly large conference room which was overpowered by her perfume. It was awful.

    If you are the boss, you can make your workplace scent-free. If you are not the boss, enlist someone above your pay grade to create and enforce a no-scent policy.

    • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

      Well, I think I’ve made my workplace scent-free, then. Although it doesn’t mean much, since I’m solo.

      I have refused to represent people who come in reeking of cigarettes, though, and I’ve told clients who wear lots of cologne or perfume to skip it on days they meet with me.

  4. Avatar Jennifer Gumbel says:

    I think most rural lawyers will attest, you have to find a way to deal with the most potent “perfume” of all, manure. It’s commonly said in rural areas that it’s the smell of money.

  5. Avatar Riick says:

    Many issues stated in the article and in the comments I agree with.

    Being from a background of H-R/Administration and believing in the concept that the person’s manager is “the person’s manager” (advisor, confidant, mentor), I don’t always agree that it is easier to send the employee to the H-R dept to be resolved. It just leaves me cold. It also dilutes the relationship of the “manager-employee” . The confidence level is lowed if problems must be solved somewhere other than by the manager.

    The perfume/cologne issue is easy. Just tell them. No big deal. Let them know that it happened to you in the past (even if it didn’t……this is important). They will accept it and appreciate you alerting them. Now body odor or halitosis is more sensitive.

    Start off the conversation united and compassionate. Tell the person “we are all human” and we all have this condition (and this is correct. We do at different levels). This makes the person feel that they are not singled out or unusual. Tell them that you want to help them and that you, at one time (here is where the white lie helps and believe me it is not a sin) had the same problem and your manager suggested a solution. By doing this this levels the field and it becomes “our” problem rather than their problem.

    Most time the person will acknowledge that they are either aware of the problem or that they use “so and so” to pervert it. Once this is said the door is open. The conversation can continue freely and hopefully the employee takes your advice and suggestions.

  6. Avatar Anna Gray says:

    I am an animal. I love to feel people’s smells. To me, a smell completes person’s image. I always smell food before buying it. That also means I have a very sensitive nose and excessive smell knocks me out. Either it is dirty body smell or too much perfume.

    I wear pretty rich smelling perfumes, like Pure Poison by CD, myself but I apply them in microscopic doses, so that the scent is barely there. I always tell people if they smell bad or too intense. If they hate me after that, it is their problem, not mine. To me, not controlling your smell is the same as walking around with your pants unzipped – no respect for others.

    • Avatar yahrly says:

      BO doesnt give me migraines. Perfumes do. As in, someones BO doesnt negatively impact my health, while your nasty perfume does. Perfume is not smell control. Bathing is.

  7. Avatar Miscellaneous Lawyer says:

    I spent my first 4 years as an employee working in a pub in Adelaide. I got used to the most… uh, pungent of customers.

    So when I started practising, clients’ BO didn’t usually bother me. There was one gentleman who attended our office, and although his odour was offensive, I didn’t struggle to deal with it. After he left, I found the rest of the office hanging out of windows, panting. I then took a breath of clean air, and understood. The scent was actually nose-numbing close up, but when spread through the office, it became nauseating.

    As someone who is fairly active, (and sweats a LOT) I am very sensitive about my odour; not for my own comfort, but for other people’s. If I think that I have a bit of BO, I will actually go take a shower or use the ’emergency deodorant.’

  8. Avatar Janelle says:

    What happens when a company says they’re scent free in the handbook- and that employees should refrain from wearing any perfume/cologne– and when people do and HR gets involved (along with the president of the company) they say that its a person’s right to wear perfume, and to basically get over it?

  9. Avatar F Burns says:

    I cannot go without perfumes, deodorants, etc. as I am a woman living with a terrible condition called PCOS. One of the worst and underreported symptoms is hyperhidrosis aka lots of sweating and smelling by proxy. Today I had to go home from work horrifically embarrassed because one of my co-managers at my job singled me out as smelling of onions… and she knows I work a physically demanding job and how hot our backroom is. I feel awful and won’t be able to put this behind me and keep a neutral work relationship with her.

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