I’ll never forget the fuss my former co-worker would make every time she detected the smell of perfume or cologne in our office, complaining that the smell made her sick. It was the late 90s and I was working for a nonprofit in Minneapolis. Most of us worked in an open, shared space where we could see each other, hear each other, and yes, smell each other. My co-worker frequently obtained permission to work in an enclosed office to avoid exposure to the fragrances. Other times, she’d wear a surgical mask and complain. I thought she was overreacting or exaggerating her symptoms.

Then a few years ago, I was working in another shared office space. One day, I noticed the strong smell of what I guessed to be laundry detergent coming from the cubicle adjacent to mine. Though the smell itself did not bother me, I quickly began to feel nauseous and dizzy, developed a pounding headache, and my eyes felt so strained I could barely look at my computer screen. I couldn’t concentrate. I had to leave work early that day.

I realized that I would have to have a very uncomfortable conversation with my office mate. I would have to not only explain to her that her laundry products were making me sick, but also ask her if she would consider switching to fragrance free laundry products. I have never felt more awkward in my life. I mean, who goes around inquiring into another’s personal choices and has the audacity to request they alter their lifestyle? Fortunately, she was empathetic, and amenable to using the fragrance-free laundry detergent that I purchased for her that very day. I was so grateful to her for her flexibility.

The arrangement worked for a while, but eventually deteriorated. My office mate started using the smelly stuff again. I had to dig deep within myself to find the gall to have another uncomfortable conversation with her. It did not go well this time. I ended up having to leave work early on multiple occasions thereafter when I had become too ill to work. After many conversations with our office manager, I was able to institute a fragrance-free policy for the common areas in our office suite. Several coworkers applauded the measure as they, too, had suffered with sensitivity to fragrance.

Fragrance is tricky. When you see ‘fragrance’ listed as an ingredient on a product label, you don’t know what is in it. Trade laws protect companies from disclosure of ingredients in fragrance. What is known about fragrance is that it can contain chemicals that are harmful to human health. According to research conducted by Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan consumer protection organization, chemicals that have been identified in fragrance are linked to hormone disruption, allergies and cancer. Until companies disclose the ingredients used in their fragrances, consumers have no way of knowing what they are exposing themselves to when they purchase a product with fragrance.

I consider myself lucky to have worked in an office where the management was proactive and willing to make accommodations. So many others, like my former coworker at the nonprofit, are stuck in situations where they have no choice but to suffer through it.

The best you can do to protect yourself from exposure to potentially harmful chemicals found in fragrance is to avoid products that contain fragrance. Look for products that are labeled ‘fragrance free’ as opposed to ‘unscented’, which may just be another fragrance used to mask the original odor of a product. You could also take it upon yourself to talk to your employer about a fragrance free policy. I’m sure many of your coworkers will thank you!

For more information visit www.ewg.org