Be Careful Before You Spritz Your Perfume – You Could Be Breaking the Law

According to a local court ruling, overpowering fragrances are an infraction of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Before you apply your signature perfume tomorrow, check the employee handbook. Since McBride v. City of Detroit, a 2008 case that recognized fragrance sensitivities and allergies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, some employers have enacted scent-free policies to accommodate those intolerant to certain fragrances.

“I’ve heard of several cases,” says Katherine Cser, a labor and employment lawyer at Kerr, Russell, and Weber PLC. “You have to be diplomatic about how you communicate the message. You don’t want to call anyone out, but explain that you want to create an environment that’s safe and comfortable for every employee.”

The City of Detroit says its goal is “to be sensitive to employees with perfume and chemical sensitivities.” Its policy asks that employees refrain from wearing scented products, including cologne and perfume, as well as less obvious products like fragranced deodorant, hair spray, and more. Additionally, it requests employees to refrain from using air-fresheners, including candles and room sprays.

Cser says it’s uncommon for companies to preemptively create a scent-free policy; it’s more likely that an employee would have to complain before one is enacted. “And an employer might not want to promise to accommodate someone unless they were sure a person had a disability.”

Herein lies the tricky part. Though it seems more people are developing allergies and sensitivities, Dr. Brittany Carter-Snell, a dermatologist at Carter-Snell Skin Center in Midtown, says scent sensitivities can be difficult to prove.

“Strong odors, such as from cleaning products or unpleasant fragrances, can cause headaches and dysphoria by a mechanism that’s not very well understood and is different from what is medically considered an allergy,” she says.

“Allergies trigger specific responses from the body’s immune system that can be observed or measured. The latter can be proven through validated clinical tests, while the former can only be diagnosed by a person’s self-reported history. While any policy in the workplace that aims to provide a safe and comfortable work environment for its employees is worth endorsing, a sensitivity has a little less compulsion to be addressed than a medical allergy.”

Even so, she says, fragrances were identified as the second-most common allergen, according to the North American Contact Dermatitis Group in 2013-2014. And more beauty companies are releasing fragrance-free products to accommodate the growing need. When looking for fragrance-free products, Carter-Snell says to avoid those that merely list “unscented” on packaging, as they might contain a fragrance used to mask an unpleasant odor. For tried-and-true, fragrance-free skin care brands, she suggests SkinBetter Science, Dove, CeraVe, Aveeno, and Cetaphil. Naturally occurring fragrances, like essential oils, aren’t as common of an allergen as those that are synthetic or chemically processed, but they can still elicit a reaction, so be cautious before using them. And for a hypoallergenic alternative for laundry detergent, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets, she recommends All Free Clear.

Carter-Snell advises her patients to use fragrance-free products — even if they’re not intolerant — because allergies and sensitivities are more likely to develop with repeated exposure.

Case Study

Hour Detroit’s Digital Operations Director, Gerald Blakeslee, shares his experience living with a fragrance sensitivity: “A co-worker wore a perfume note called oud that makes me physically ill. It’s made by distilling the amber of a certain tree. In the world of fragrance, it’s a big love-it, can’t-stand-it perfume, but for me, my reaction to it mimics what happens with my mushroom allergy; I have trouble breathing, I get dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous. I don’t want to be whiny, but if I can’t come to work and not feel sick, there’s a problem. My desk moved for an unrelated reason, which has been helpful. But I keep a Benadryl at my desk —just in case.”

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