my coworker won’t stop telling me that I smell

A reader writes:

I enjoy wearing perfume, but tend to stick to indie oil scents, since the smell tends to stick closer to my skin (so, in theory, I don’t bother my coworkers) and also because I seem to be sensitive to the alcohol that a lot of spray perfumes use. I also tend to use unscented deodorant and laundry detergent; I really dislike how “chemical-y” scented products like this tend to be.

About a month ago, one of my coworkers told me that the perfume I was wearing bothered her. I work closely with her, so I immediately apologized and washed it off, and haven’t worn any of my perfume since. I don’t have a huge wardrobe, so most if not all of my office-appropriate clothes have been washed since then, so I’m pretty sure that there are no lingering traces hanging on.

My problem is that this coworker is now complaining constantly about the perfume I’m not wearing! She even went to my manager, who pulled me aside and asked me about things like deodorant and bath products. I’ve tried to explain to my coworker that basically nothing I use is scented anymore, but she makes exaggerated sniffing noises and says things like, “Oh, patchouli AGAIN?” when I get near her. (Again, I am not wearing ANY perfume, my deodorant is unscented, I shower every morning and my body wash is lightly lemon scented and doesn’t stick around.) It’s reached the point where it feels like juvenile bullying and I honestly don’t know what to do.

Do four things:

1. Stop using the lemon-scented body wash for a few days and see if she keeps making the comments. It’s possible that it’s lingering in a way that you don’t realize. And if the comments don’t stop, then you can legitimately say that you have cut out all scented products and it hasn’t changed anything.

2. Say this to the coworker: “Jane, since you raised this issue, I have stopped wearing any scented products to work, and I have washed all of my work clothes in unscented laundry detergent. There shouldn’t be any fragrances lingering around. I can’t think of anything else that I can do. Is there something else you’re hoping I’ll try? If not, I need you to stop commenting about something that I can’t do anything about. At this point, it feels like I’m being harassed for fragrances that I’m not wearing and I want you to stop.”

You could also say, “If you’re suffering from fragrance sensitivity, you should talk to (manager) or HR about what accommodations they can offer. But I need you to stop the constant comments about me.”

3. Say this to your boss: “Ever since Jane mentioned a month ago that a perfume I was wearing bothered her, I’ve made a big effort to ensure I’m not wearing anything scented around her. I’ve stopped wearing perfume, have switched to unscented deodorant, and I wash my clothes in unscented detergent. And of course I shower daily. Yet every time she’s near me she complains about the fragrances she says I’m wearing. I’m not, and I’ve told her I’m not. I’m not sure what else I can do. I’ve asked her to stop, and I’d like to ask you to intervene if it continues, because it’s becoming disruptive, and frankly at this point her continued complaints are starting to feel like harassment.”

(To be clear, this doesn’t sound like harassment in the legal sense — that would need to be based on race, sex, religion, or another protected characteristic — but it’s certainly harassing in the colloquial sense.)

4. If your coworker continues the comments after these conversations, then at that point, say this: “Clearly this isn’t something we can resolve on our own. Should we go talk to (manager) or HR together and resolve this once and for all?”

And then do that, because it’s reasonable for you not to want to be subjected to this. Even if she has legitimate fragrance sensitivities — and some people do, although it’s not clear if that’s really what’s going on with her or not — this isn’t the way for her to handle it.

Note to commenters: There have been loads of suggestions below for additional ways the letter-writer could tackle potential scents and stamp them out. I’m going to ask that we stop with those suggestions now and instead focus on how she should deal with the coworker, which I think will be more helpful to her. At this point, the issue is that she has a coworker who’s being rude and snarky to her, not that she should just stop using bubble bath on weekends or so forth.

{ 509 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Ask a Manager Post author

    There have been loads of suggestions below for additional ways the letter-writer could tackle potential scents and stamp them out. I’m going to ask that we stop with those suggestions now and instead focus on how she should deal with the coworker, which I think will be more helpful to her. At this point, the issue is that she has a coworker who’s being rude and snarky to her, not that she should just stop using bubble bath on weekends or so forth.

    Thank you.

    (Posting this at 12:20 p.m. EDT, so comments before then weren’t ignoring this; they were just earlier.)

    Reply
  2. O'Thee

    Any chance it could be a shampoo/conditioner/other hair product? Even the most lightly-scented of shampoos can leave a smell.

    Reply
    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      This was my second reaction (after the first, which was sympathy for OP!). OP, I think the strongest scent I “wear” is from my shampoo/conditioner, and they’re as close to “unscented” as it can get. That said, I haven’t seen a lot of patchouli-scented hair products (I mean, maybe 1-2 from the “natural” shampoo section?), so part of me wonders if she’s just being nasty or if another coworker is wearing those scents and she’s just assuming it’s OP.

      Reply
      1. Spice for this

        I think that it might be another coworker or it could be the scent from a product used to clean the office. Maybe the OP or the manager can talk with the cleaning crew to find out what products they are using to clean the desks, carpets, etc.

        Reply
    2. vanBOOM

      Yeah, I use some pretty cheap shampoo/conditions (yay Suave!) and although I can never smell my hair, someone will occasionally mention how good my hair smells, especially if my hair comes in contact with rain or is wet for some other reason. (Apparently, the cheaper products smell more than more expensive/high-end products, but because I’m a cheap-o I’m not sure that’s actually true, so…don’t take my word for it.)

      Reply
      1. Wendy Darling

        My hair styling product sort of smells like pineapple, and I’ve noticed that once it dries you can’t smell it but if I get rained on… suddenly, pineapple.

        Reply
    3. JessaB

      Is it at all possible that after a long time of using scents they’re settled into a chair or the office? Have someone independently walk in and see what they smell where. If you have a fabric chair it could have residual scents. But seriously? I know you can’t do it, because it’d be hard to make it fly, but I’d love to blindfold that coworker and have them walk around and see what they smell where. There might be something in the building that nobody is aware of.

      I once worked in a building where there was mould that nobody knew about until they did renovations. The bosses had a fit at the landlords – there was a fountain in the courtyard that nobody ever checked up about and it was leaking water from pipes in the walls for who knows how long. The owners were awful about maintenance, the bosses called OSHA in and they had a Big Bird sized canary over the safety issues.

      I guess my point is if coworker is smelling “something” and attributing it to the OP because of past issues, something needs to be done to determine what the source of “something” is, and I know blindfolds are a weird thing, but it might actually worth it to float as a trial balloon that “Look you’re smelling something, we agree you are, you’re not crazy, but we DON’T agree on what something is. Let’s see if we can narrow down where/what it is.”

      But that requires A: Absolutely believing the coworker that they smell something, and convincing them you believe them and realio trulio WANT to get to the bottom of this. B: Acknowledging that something is a bad thing. C: Understanding that it might not be OP, but that for a really legitimate reason coworker THINKS it is, at least unconsciously and D: the only way to take the bias out of the experiment is to NOT know where or whether OP is in the room when the test is being done.

      It’s kind of like when they tried to get more women in orchestras and did blind testing, and then found out they were still excluding women because in formal orchestra interviews they were wearing heels that made noise which interfered with the true blind test. They had everyone take their shoes off and the participation of women increased dramatically.

      Also I get that OP is bending over backwards completely to try to be scent free, but honestly, even scent free soaps are not. They don’t have added scent, but a lot of chemicals smell. It still may after a reasonable test end up being something about the OP. But it can also be something in the building, in the carpet, or any other thing. Because unless the company is paying a fortune in extra costs, carpet cleaners are awful for people who are scent reactive. I had to have an accommodation that I was warned early enough to take PTO for the day of and the day after, and that it HAD to be approved at no penalty to me, because I just could not be there.

      Reply
      1. Erin

        Industrial carpet glue and some wood furniture finishes does it for me. I can’t go into a store that just had new carpet put down.

        Reply
        1. JessaB

          Yep. That stuff is horrid as is varnish and a lot of paints, although paint companies are getting better and better at doing paint formulations that don’t make even non asthmatics want to gag.

          Reply
      2. Observer

        The main issue I have with this response is that it’s putting the onus on the LW to handle the issue, and that’s just not fair. I definitely see making a reasonable effort to make sure you are not having a negative impact on the people in your work space. But at this point, the OP *HAS* done this. Even if it turns out that there is something about the OP that triggers the co-worker, it seems to me that it’s become a problem that the co-worker (and possibly the employer) needs to work out.

        Reply
    4. Smelly LW

      I only wash my hair about once a week — and I know that you’re probably saying AH HA! right now, but I’ve had this schedule for about 10 years now, so my hair is used to it, and I have a whole network of people I trust to tell me if it’s time to wash again. I have very short (pixie-length) bleached and dyed hair, and the schedule I have works really well for both the color and the texture of my hair. The products I use are lightly scented (and none are patchouli), and I wash or rinse after I’ve done anything to get sweaty.

      Reply
  3. Karyn

    The only thing I’d point out is that the coworker specifically mentioned “patchouli” when making comments about the smell, and lemon definitely does not smell like patchouli. Otherwise, Alison’s advice is spot on.

    Reply
    1. my two cents

      yeah, the “patchouli AGAIN?” comment is what makes me think “rude coworker” over “coworker with scent sensitivities”. Patchouli is a fairly distinctive scent, particularly as a fragrance oil, which smells absolutely nothing like lemon.

      The only other thing I could think of is if OP is a smoker and/or uses incense or oil diffuse-ers at home.

      Reply
      1. Venus Supreme

        Yeah, I was wondering if OP burns incense or something like an essential oil diffuser at home and it sticks to the clothing even after they’re washed. I just wonder how strongly it can stick to clothes if that’s how the fragrance is transferring. Regardless, the “AGAIN?!” comment kinda looks like this coworker is looking for drama.

        Reply
        1. Kyoki

          Yeah I agree it’s rude of the coworker. But it also brings up the question of why the coworker all of a sudden has fragrance sensitivities if last month was the first time it was brought up. I’m assuming the OP has always worn fragrance and stopped last month when the coworker could smell it. So why wasn’t the smell bothering the coworker before that?

          Reply
          1. Meg Murry

            It’s possible something else has changed with the co-worker and that’s why the scent all of a sudden became a problem in the last month. For instance, I became a super-smeller when I was pregnant, and lots of things suddenly started to smell vile to me. Many cleaning products made me gag or gave me a headache, I couldn’t stand the smell of my old shampoo anymore, and I had to go sleep elsewhere the night my husband made cabbage in the crock pot. I worked in a lab, and pretty much every chemical we used suddenly smelled like fish, vomit or both to me. My office got new carpet and my other pregnant co-worker and I had to work from home for a week because we couldn’t deal with the smell. I had another friend that said they also became scent-sensitive when they were having chemo.

            But even if this is the case, the co-worker is not handling it in an appropriate way, and OP shouldn’t have to put up with Mean Girls style bullying about it.

            Reply
        2. JustaTech

          My MIL uses a very nicely scented oil diffuser in her house (several, actually, it’s a big place) and whenever my husband visits I can always smell it on him and all his clothes, even after a plane flight. It’s not bad, it’s just “hey, you smell like your mom”.

          Reply
        3. Smelly LW

          LW here – Nope, I don’t use any kind of incense or oil diffusers at home. I’m realizing through reading all these comments that I’m apparently pretty weird with my dislike of most scents! :) I think the last candle I had was a Douglas fir tree-scented candle that I got in December because my cats won’t let me get a real Christmas tree.

          Reply
          1. Venus Supreme

            No, I think you’re absolutely normal with your dislike of various scents! About 75% of Smelly Things gives me a headache, so I have a slight aversion as well. It sounds like your coworker is a drama llama and she’s in the wrong. It’s not like you’re shoving incense sticks up her nostrils.

            Also, interestingly enough, I have grandparents who live in another country. I can’t pinpoint the source, but they have a very distinct smell. It’s tough to describe. I don’t know if it’s the food they eat (not curry or garlic) or what, but they smell like Home Country when they visit America. They’ve been here since February and they still smell the same… I wonder what it is!

            Reply
          2. Piblets

            I’m chemically sensitive to cheap perfumes, something in the inexpensive stuff triggers asthma and migraines. Natural stuff and the high end perfumes don’t seem to cause the same reactions, unless I’m already in the middle of a reaction chain.

            If you were my office mate, LW, and told me you’d done all of this, I’d be thanking you, even if I was still being triggered. I’d also be thanking Boss for talking to you.

            I worked with someone at OldJob who LOVED Avon products, nearly all of which set off symptoms. If she thought I was gone for the day, she’d even use my cubicle as a spray booth for whatever reason. Boss talked to her, and she insisted she hadn’t sprayed anything….but I had 2 witnesses who said she did. It’s actually one of the reasons I left. Grandboss there actually had a candle burning that was majorly causing issues, and heis version of being accommodating was to ask what candles I burn at home…”None, I have asthma. I don’t use scented stuff, I bake if I want the house to smell nice.”

            Reply
            1. Piblets

              And I finally sat her down and said ‘Hey Coworker, I want you to know that I don’t dislike your perfume/lotion/candle scent ( although I did dislike them) I just have a strong, physical reaction, and when it’s pollen season, or mold season, I’m extra sensitive and really can’t handle any of those products in the air.’

              My best advice is to follow Alison’s script and see if being told nicely that you’ve done what you can, and that she needs to quit bullying you. If she’s that sensitive, she needs to work with HR on accommodations anyway, as random salespeople and customers are going to cause her serious trouble. I nearly had to go to the ER due to a lady meeting with my boss about Rotary.

              Reply
          3. Jesmlet

            Could you ask your coworker what products she uses and see if that’s suitable for you? If her scent doesn’t bother you then maybe you can try it out and if you don’t mind it, then there’s no way for her to complain.

            Reply
            1. Analytics and Insights Manager

              Am I the only one who’s honestly shocked about how we’re trying to make the OP tiptoe around her co-worker? Her co-worker is being incredibly rude.

              Reply
              1. LaterKate

                Agreed. LW has gone above and beyond to accommodate this. At this point, it’s pretty ridiculous to ask LW to do more. Even if there is some light scent hanging around (due to her conditioner or whatever) that’s pretty normal. And if the coworker isn’t asking every single person in the office to eliminate scents of all types, it seems clear to me that this is less of a fragrance issue and more of a “my coworker is a jerk” issue.

                Reply
              2. Jesmlet

                There’s a way to deal with this coworker head on, which involves a level of comfort with direct confrontation that not everyone has. This was just a suggestion for if OP is not comfortable with that as a sort of “hey I’ve done all I can to prove it’s not me, now I’m done entertaining your rudeness”. It’s easy to say to OP to be bold and confront her directly but if you’re like me and just don’t have that type of personality, sometimes other solutions can be helpful.

                Reply
              3. AMG

                And if this is how OP functions, what about the other coworkers? I love scented everything and certainly am not the only one. Someone like me would obviously be a real problem for OP’s coworker. Are the other coworkers having this issue with the coworker too?

                Reply
              4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

                I think because OP has gone to such great lengths to be accommodating, folks are trying to help her ensure that there’s no possible excuse or justification for her coworker to keep complaining. This isn’t because OP has done anything wrong—in fact, she’s done everything right and has gone
                above and beyond—it’s just a desire to ensure she has the most full-proof and tight case/position.

                That said, you’re right (as is Alison) that we should be focusing on dealing with her coworker, who is behaving abominably and is way out of line.

                Reply
              5. Sarah

                Yep. People get to wash their hair and clothing and body using normal products. It’s one thing to ask a coworker to stop wearing a strongly smelling perfume, it’s another to suggest that people need to switch out ALL of their personal care products to accommodate a coworker! What if coworker says the only acceptable product is $100/bottle? Or she hates the smell of all shampoo. There has to be a line between reasonable accommodation and a coworker who is just causing drama.

                Reply
              6. Tim

                Exactly my thought. Long before this point, my response would have reverted to “These are the products I use. If you have a problem with them, buy me something different.”

                Reply
      2. Winger

        It is amazing how difficult it can be to shake that incensey smell if you commonly use incense or oils or other such products at home. There was a time when I burned incense almost daily and I loved the smell in my house, but it never occurred to me the degree it was sticking to my clothes and how much you could smell it on me when I was at work etc.

        Reply
    2. The Optimizer

      I went through a brief patchouli phase in my late teens. Someone I was around complained about my patchouli smell. I could not smell it at all but she certainly could. I knew I hadn’t worn it in ages but upon closer inspection we were able to confirm the smell was coming from my leather jacket. The cuffs absolutely did smell like patchouli but I had gone nose blind to it.

      Reply
      1. AnonAnalyst

        I was thinking that it might be something like this for the OP. Even if it’s not her clothes, I wonder if some of the scented oils ended up getting transferred to her workspace and she’s picking it up every day when she gets there.

        I’ve had this happen with arm rests and scented lotions. I try to buy products that are unscented or are minimally scented, but sometimes I’m surprised at how strong the fragrance is in some products. I’ve occasionally used new products at home or at work that were stronger than I anticipated. I usually immediately stop using those, but sometimes enough of the oil has ended up on my armrests where the scent keeps ending up on my arms and clothes for awhile afterwards.

        I will also say, as someone who is very sensitive to smells, that if the scent bothers the coworker it would probably only take a trace amount for her to smell it, although she’s handling it like a jerk.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          I do think at that point she would need to differentiate between something merely existing and something being a problem, though. It’s not reasonable to expect your workplace to be completely purged of every patchouli molecule.

          Reply
    3. namelesscommentater

      In the content I consume (friend groups/random internet threads, etc…) I’ve seen patchouli used more as a synonym for “hippie smell” than in reference to actual patchouli. So I’m pretty inclined to read the comments as coworker being a jerk instead of actually having difficulty working with a smelly coworker.

      Reply
      1. Smelly LW

        Yeah, I think she’s using it more in that sense also. The scent I was wearing the day she complained wasn’t even actually patchouli, although I admit that I have loved the smell of patchouli since my ill-advised goth phase in high school.

        Reply
      2. mcfly85

        ^^namelesscommentater said what I was thinking.^^

        I love indie oil type perfumes and patchouli is not a note I typically wear (although I know very well what it smells like). People who don’t like indie-type perfumes often just categorize them all as “patchouli” as a catch-all for hippie smells. OP, it sounds like your coworker is just a jerk. You’re going a long way to accommodate her, which is nice of you.

        Reply
    4. Edith

      I have no idea what patchouli actually smells like, but I recognize it through its pop culture association with a negative stereotype of unwashed pot-smoking hippie types. It’s possible we’re dealing less with a misidentified scent and more with a clumsy insult. Not a certainty, of course, but a possibility.

      Reply
      1. Amadeo

        A good patch essential oil is deep and earthy, almost like sweet dirt. I love the essential oil, but I abhor the incense sticks. I can’t say that I’d ask anyone who burned them at home in their free time to knock it off just because I didn’t like the smell though.

        Reply
      2. fposte

        Agreed on the connotation, but I also note that it’s got some nice up-market uses as well; Chanel’s Coromandel is one of my favorite perfumes, and it’s built on a patchouli note.

        Reply
        1. AnonAcademic

          Yes Tom Ford has a fragrance called White Patchouli that I refer to as my “rich hippie” perfume.

          Reply
            1. TheVet

              Don’t spray too much if you do go looking for it! Spray a lot and you’ll probably go, “Nooooooo!” because Tom Ford is absolutely a 1-1.5 spritz perfume (I say that as someone who owns…at least five TF fragrances) and if you’re into Sephora there are rumblings of a VIBR/VIB/BI sale coming up starting the 18th.

              Reply
      3. Miss Betty

        I think it’s one of those scents that everyone’s nose interprets differently. It smells like unwashed bodies with bad b.o. to me and I find it nauseating. My niece, on the other hand, absolutely loves it.

        Reply
    5. JessaB

      On the other hand there’s a series of scents – lemon, lemongrass, patchouli, amber, deep vanillas, musks, that are a holdover from the old hippie scents phase from Coty and Love’s and Avon. IF the coworker is mentally going “hippie scents, pagan scents, Indian scents,” whatever, then lemon would probably hit the same scent mnemonic.

      Reply
      1. Mirax

        The only scent mnemonics that lemon ever hits for me are dish soap and hard candies! Now I want to go looking for a nice lemon perfume, though.

        Reply
  4. Lindsay (Not a Temp Anymore)

    As someone who doesn’t use any scented products, I can say that any smells I come across seem to linger longer for me than most people since it’s now such a shock to my system. I have a friend who I trade clothes with regularly when we get sick of stuff in our closet and I have to wash the clothes that come from her several times over before I can even stand to wear them, and several times over again before I can’t smell it at all. It’s just her dryer sheets, but it lingers for several months.

    Reply
    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I wonder if OP has tried washing her clothes with a diluted vinegar mix? It can be super effective for getting odors out, although certain perfumes and oil-based scents get so embedded in clothes that they may not come out at all :(

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Though we also had an open thread commenter who had smell problems that it seemed might be due to her vinegar rinses, so I’d say go easy on those too.

        Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          That’s true–if I use even diluted vinegar I have to rewash after with normal detergent (unscented is fine). But it sounds like a can’t win for losing situation :(

          Reply
          1. Allison

            Oh absolutely, I’d figure that’s part of the process, but it could still help get rid of some smells, assuming the vinegar smell washes out after . . . does it?

            Reply
            1. Sparky

              Yes, when I pour some vinegar into the washer there is no vinegar smell when the wash is done. Vinegar is good at getting out the smell of smoke too. It helps keep dye from washing out of fabric, but it can also set a stain instead of removing it.

              Reply
          2. fposte

            I’m not sure the OP really can win with this co-worker. I think the people talking about scent associations are right on the money. If so, that means that in the co-worker’s mind, the OP is trying to get away with wearing stuff that she’s promised to stop wearing, which would explain her being shirty about it.

            I like the idea to get a blunt friend to do the sniff test, but basically I think the ideas about limiting physical contact are the best way to go at this point; I’m a little afraid of sending the OP down a rabbit hole of onerous scent minimization that may not solve the problem.

            Reply
            1. Chalupa Batman

              “I’m not sure the OP really can win with this co-worker.”

              That’s my thought. OP has tried really hard to accommodate this coworker’s reasonable original request, and it hasn’t worked. Alison’s suggested actions make it clear that OP has reached the end of their ability to help and puts it in Coworker and Boss’s court. Boss needs to investigate whether there’s a yet-unidentified cause related to OP, and direct Coworker to leave OP out of it if not (or if that cause isn’t reasonable to ask OP to address, like Coworker just dislikes OP’s natural smell). They can talk about accommodations if Coworker turns out to be legitimately extra sensitive, but none of that is OP’s business.

              And I don’t know if the “shirty” pun was intentional or not, but I like it.

              Reply
        2. Sylvia

          Oh no! Not to derail, but I’m hyposmic and I wash laundry with vinegar every once in a while to remove any lingering smells that might have escaped my notice. Oops. Is it really noticeable?

          Reply
          1. namelesscommentater

            The vinegar smell has always washed for me, but I know some people who add 1-2 drops of EO to add some lavender/peppermint scent to it, but that opens the door to other complaints anyways.

            Reply
          2. fposte

            I think once in a while isn’t likely to be a problem. I believe this poster also used vinegar rinses on her hair and it was a regular thing, so the aggregate of trace smells was probably passing the tipping point.

            Reply
            1. Anonyby

              It was something I was putting in every wash, and I had been unconsciously upping the amount of vinegar over time. I only tried it in my hair once years ago, though. Never again! lol

              I still do miss the vinegar in the rinse, and I could never smell it. If I manage to get a load of casual-time-only clothes put together (instead of mixed work and casual), I might throw in a little bit…

              Reply
        3. Anonyby

          That was me! I mentioned to my manager that I was cutting out the one thing I could think of that could be leaving a scent, and so far there hasn’t been additional complaints (that I know of).

          And yeah, it really makes me feel for the OP here. :( It’s not a fun boat to be in, and she has it worse than I did. Hopefully she can get her coworker to stop!

          Reply
          1. fposte

            Hey, thanks for reporting in, and it sounds like things are better! Fingers crossed that that was the solution.

            Reply
      2. Artemesia

        Scents like patchouili do linger and seem to wed to clothes. I use a kind of spicey hand cream as a scent and I have noticed that it is hard to get out of clothes.

        But it is of course very possible that this is just a drama queen who likes to make a fuss and I agree the OP should be more aggressive about it and not let the boss take the easy way out of only responding to the squeaky wheel.

        Reply
  5. the gold digger

    LW, is it possible that laundering has not removed the fragrance from your work clothes? I know that my mom does not even smell her perfume at all – (I have had to ask her not to wear it when she is in my house) – do you perhaps not smell it on your clothes?

    I have had to give away clothes I bought on eBay before that were so saturated with perfume that I could not wash it out, even with multiple washings and with leaving the garment hanging outside in the fresh air a long time.

    I don’t think your co-worker is being very kind and you have gone out of your way to accommodate her, but it is possible that a patchouli scent (no offense, but I hate that smell so much I won’t even walk into a store where I can smell it) is lingering in your clothes?

    Reply
    1. Gen

      Patchouli does really linger, I’ve had clothes from a shop that burns incense for over a year that still smell faintly of patchouli.

      OP do you have a coat, shoes or bag that might be holding onto the smell?

      Reply
      1. NLMC

        Agreed. It can linger for a really long time and washing with unscented detergent may not do the trick. Also if OP is wearing the oil outside of work it may just be lingering on her skin or hair, even after washing.

        Reply
    2. Leona

      I was going to suggest this. I once had to use a scented detergent on my clothes because we were out of unscented. Used only a little, but it took four washes to get most of the scent out of my clothing. If OP regularly wore scents, it is possible the scent is there and she is noseblind to it.

      Reply
    3. Lillie Lane

      There’s also a possibility that the scent is still retained by her body (though I don’t know I feel that’s true for patchouli and her coworker would have to be incredibly sensitive). Entomology researchers that work with disparlure, the pheromone for gypsy moths, can continue to attract gypsy moth males for many years after they stopped working with disparlure — even perhaps their entire lives. Some scents are that pervasive.

      Reply
    4. Sadsack

      I agree about the patchouli. I can’t stand it. I wonder if you can narrow it down to a certain article of clothing that really has held onto the smell. It would suck for OP if it is her entire wardrobe and she just can’t smell it. Maybe ask another coworker or friend if she can smell it.

      Reply
    5. TootsNYC

      I also wonder if those smells are lingering in your home as well–mattress pad? mattress itself? blanket? carpet? car seats?

      And then transferring to you.

      Reply
      1. bridget

        If this is the case and I were the OP, I’d be inclined to tell a coworker that I’ve done what I can, and unfortunately the scent-sensitive among us have to find a way to deal with the fact that there are unpleasant smells in this world. I would switch laundry detergent, perfume, etc. to accommodate an employee, but I wouldn’t deep-clean my carpets or replace my mattress. Maybe others are more accommodating, but I personally would do what I think is reasonable under the circumstances, and then after that it’s kind of her problem, not one that I can control for.

        Reply
        1. LaterKate

          Yes, this. It’s one thing to stop wearing scents. It’s quite another to pay a bunch of money on things like carpet cleaning, new mattress pad, etc., in the hope that it might appease the coworker.

          Reply
    6. Former Retail Manager

      Yes!! This is so true. My mother loves her strong “old lady” perfume. You can smell her a mile away. And all of her clothes, even immediately after laundering, smell exactly like her perfume, which is interesting because the detergent on its own it quite strongly scented. I once tried to get a stain out for her which required washing and drying the same garment 4 times in a row….and yep, perfume was still there, almost as strong as before. For what its worth, my mother’s wardrobe is almost 100% polyester and that fabric, and other non-natural fabrics, seem to really hold onto smells.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Even cotton! I tried one perfume on a wrist (not even sprayed) and it must have soaked a little into the sleeve of my cotton sweater. And it smelled *horrible* and wouldn’t come out; I tried vinegar and Oxi-clean after about five washes and that seemed to help.

        Reply
      2. JustaTech

        Last week I walked past a spot where an older lady had gotten out of her car and I could barely breathe for the perfume smell. On a sidewalk, on a windy day.
        This is why I’m scared to take up perfume, for fear of being 80 and having a personal cloud of smell.

        Reply
    7. Smelly LW

      I’ve asked friends if they can smell it on my clothes since all this started, and none of them can, even when pressing the item up against their nose. I also switch my perfume up pretty often, so it’s not like I have one scent that I’m repeating every day.

      Reply
  6. Doodle

    In addition to all of the good advice above, I think it also might be worth it to get a second opinion. Consider having a friend/family member (who doesn’t live with you!) give you the smell test. It’s possible the smell is lingering somewhere else or has another cause (from your handbag, or it’s actually the smell of your car air freshener, or something other than the original perfume).

    The reason to ask someone who doesn’t live with you is that we can stop smelling things after a while, so a partner or roommate might not be able to smell it either.

    Reply
    1. Natalie

      Maybe a (different) co-worker, in case the smell is lingering around the OP’s work station as mentioned below.

      Reply
      1. Doodle

        Oh yeah, that’s smart too. Or the chair, if it’s a fragrance she was wearing for a while before the coworker first complained?

        Reply
      1. WerkingIt

        Does that even matter though? I don’t like patchouli. But so what. If someone else wants to wear it, that’s their prerogative. Or florals or vanilla or whatever. I have had reactions to certain smells, even one flavor of herbal tea, that makes me sneeze and sneeze. But I’m not going to ask another person to never drink that tea again. And I’m certainly not going to be a jerk about it. Granted you should tone it down at work, but I and everyone else is allowed to smell like the body wash or shampoo or hand lotion of their choosing. I say this because it doesn’t sound like her co-worker is sensitive to the smells, but rather that she is being judgmental and condescending.

        I would also say they need to go to their manager or HR. I agree that it seems that this person is harassing or bullying her. I worked with someone who really didn’t like one of our co-workers so she was constantly making mean comments about this person scent and appearance. It was untrue and unkind.

        Reply
  7. Dawn

    If it’s patchouli in particular that your co-worker is commenting on, is there ANYTHING patchouli-scented in your house or your car that might be getting picked up by your clothes? I am sensitive to some smells, but nothing compares to my sensitivity to patchouli- it’s really bad and triggers an almost instant headache that progresses to a migraine if I don’t move away from the patchouli smell. I’m sensitive to even small amounts.

    The co-worker in this situation is absolutely going about things unprofessionally, but as someone with scent sensitivity, I can sympathize.

    Reply
    1. Andraste

      Yeah, this was my thought. I sometimes light incense in my home, and if I light it in my bedroom I can sometimes smell it on my clothes later because of proximity to my closet when it burns. OP, could that be the source?

      Reply
    2. not so super-visor

      This was my initial thought as well. Are you using patchouli scented anything at home? That scent in particular seems to really linger even if you’re not specifically “wearing” it.

      Reply
  8. Emmie

    I am sorry you’re going this. There could be other causes:
    * Supplements can seep through skin causing prominent body odors.
    * Diets heavy in certain foods like onions and garlic (yum) may give strong body scents.
    * Unscented products don’t work well on me. I smell :(.
    * She’s a jerk. ;)

    Good luck!

    Reply
    1. MuseumChick

      This. She is being a jerk. That being said, do you use scented candles? incense? Anything with any kind of fragrance?

      Reply
      1. Michaela T

        That was my first thought. I used to use an incense in my apartment and didn’t realize how it clung until I started to get compliments on my perfume.

        Reply
      2. Admin Assistant

        Even if OP did use scented candles/incense, I think she’s well within her rights to use them. OP should do what she can to avoid being overly fragrant at work, but she doesn’t need to cut anything and everything that smells from her life. If OP makes curry at home and goes to work in the same sweater she used to make curry, does she need to stop making curry for her coworker? It just seems to cross a boundary of reasonableness. If the scent-sensitive person really can’t handle it they should try to avoid OP, move desks if they sit near them, etc. There are other ways to work this outside besides demanding that OP never comes into contact with anything remotely scented.

        Reply
        1. Treecat

          Ugh, this. I love scented candles and I burn them regularly at home. Am I ever going to allow a snitty coworker to invade my life to the extent that I change what I do in my own home on my own time? No.

          Reply
          1. bridget

            Agreed. I find scents in my own home to very relaxing – I would do what I can not to bring them into work, but I cannot control for another person never coming into contact with a fragrance molecule to this degree.

            Reply
            1. Treecat

              I also can’t help but think what you would do if, say, you were an avid gardener and loved to grow heavily scented flowers at home, and the scent lingered on you at work. Would you dig up your Mister Lincoln roses for the coworker’s sake? Um… no.

              Reply
              1. Admin Assistant

                I think we can all agree that the best outcome would be for OP to shave her head, live in a sterilization chamber, and wear a new sterile smock every day.

                Although her coworker would probably be like “your smock smells bad.”

                Reply
                1. Mookie

                  Dior’s Dune was once likened to the smell of mannequins, so maybe she can pull a Kim Cattrall on this co-worker and camouflage herself as a store dummy.

      3. BTownGirl

        I bake a lot and once had a coworker complain about my “perfume”, which was actually the fact that my house tends to smell like cookies! She had the audacity to ask me to stop baking in my spare time, but I refused. I was more than willing to not wear perfume and make sure I wasn’t wearing any heavily-scented products, but there’s a limit. Not to sound unkind, but I’m not double-washing my entire wardrobe in vinegar and different detergent, throwing out candles, etc. Personally, I’m allergic to dogs and I’ve had coworkers come in with coats/clothes with dog hair on them and I would never ask them to make major changes to their routine outside of work for me. Most people are more than willing to do reasonable things for their coworkers’ comfort, but it sounds like the OP’s coworker is the type that’s totally unreasonable.

        Reply
        1. Smelly LW

          Ooh, I would love to have a coworker who smelled like cookies! Maybe you were sabotaging her diet and it was making her grumpy? ;)

          Reply
        2. turquoisecow

          I’d be very hungry around someone who smelled like cookies, but it’s not an unpleasant scent at all!

          Reply
    2. La Revancha del Tango

      lol I’m inclined to think she’s just a jerk. Patchouli is a very specific smell, I’m sure you’d know if you were using it.

      Reply
      1. Meg Murry

        I’m thinking the co-worker is using the term “patchouli” as an insult, catch-all term to encompass all “hippie-ish” smells (patchouli, sandalwood, desert sage, etc) of the type that might be sold at with other natural oils. I’ve heard the term thrown out as an insult, similar to using the terms “granola” or “crunchy”. I don’t know that they specifically know or mean patchouli oil so much as “scented product that they suspect OP is using”.

        Reply
        1. RVA Cat

          I was thinking that too. I strongly suspect the scent isn’t the problem, it’s that the OP has become the co-worker’s BEC for some reason. I’m mentally picturing the co-worker as more of a powersuits and pantyhose type.

          Reply
    3. Kathleen Adams

      The coworker is *totally* acting like a jerk. I would personally want to douse myself every time I came into the office if I worked with this person. I’m a grown-up, so I wouldn’t do that, but oh, Lord, would I want to. I understand that some people are extra-sensitive to smell and truly need to be accommodated, but it’s possible to be extra-sensitive and yet not act like the Perfume Police to one’s coworkers, particularly a coworker who has already gone to significant lengths to mitigate any ill effects.

      So whether she’s extra-sensitive or not, she’s clearly a jerk. The jerkness indicator that leaps out at me is that she is still fixated on patchouli, which is a pretty distinctive smell. So she’s either exaggerating (because of being a jerk) or – to be slightly more charitable – she’s now got herself into such a state of snittitude that she now genuinely smells patchouli where none exists, e.g., in a mildly lemon-scented body wash.

      I think the OP has already gone above and beyond, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to dot the remaining i’s and cross the remaining t’s (air fresheners at home, in public restrooms, or in the car, dryer sheets, etc.), just so she can say she’s done everything she can. Then talk to the coworker – pretty directly, too. And if that doesn’t work, go to HR. Because she is acting like a jerk.

      Reply
      1. Smelly LW

        LOL I do admit I’ve had that urge. If she’s going to be a jerk when I’m basically completely unscented, why not just go whole hog and smell delightful? I’ve been good so far, though.

        Reply
        1. Kriss

          I think this will be one that everyone will want a follow up on. I have nothing to add other than Good Luck getting this worked out.

          Reply
  9. LizB

    OP, I’m someone who doesn’t always do well with strong scents, and I think your coworker is acting like a jerk. Even if she still can smell something on you that you’re not noticing, she’s not bringing it up in a productive way at all — exaggerated sniffing and snarky comments are not helping anything! You did the decent thing by switching up your products when she first complained, and if she’s still having a reaction to something, she needs to explore other potential sources (asking for your help in a respectful way if needed). Instead, she’s making an ass of herself. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.

    Reply
    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Agreed. Coworker’s complaint was legit, but everything she’s done since then is snarky and petty and mean (even if she really can still smell whatever scents OP was wearing a month ago). I think Alison’s advice is bang on, and the mediated conversations/HR accommodation advice is going to be important for snapping Coworker out of her combative/belittling behavior and into a more productive vibe.

      Reply
    2. Allie

      I agree. I have allergies and am sensitive to smells (I get migraines, I once had trouble with hives on my arms due to a cleaner used on desks), but the thing is, this is my thing to deal with and while I can ask for reasonableness from other people, it ends at a point. After everything LW has gone through, she has more than complied. My sensitivities don’t entitle me to that kind of control over another person, the LW’s coworker’s don’t either.

      Reply
  10. 42

    Certainly the OP can’t be the only person who, although she has made Herculean efforts to go scent-free, has some sort of body-wash/laundry/dryer sheet scents lingering. What does the coworker do about everyone else?

    Reply
    1. Salamander

      Yes. This. I’m quite certain that nobody else around her is making this much of an effort to be scent-free. This feels to me very much like the OP is being singled out.

      Reply
      1. LN

        She’s definitely being annoying about it, but it’s possible she doesn’t work in close proximity with anyone else for it to be an issue.

        Reply
    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, that’s my take. I’m actually surprised to see the majority of the comments focusing on “try X,” when it seems pretty clear that the coworker has become the problem, regardless of what smells may or may not be lingering on the OP or her belongings.

      Reply
      1. Liz

        I think those comments are more along the lines of ‘eliminate every possible culprit so that you can prove it’s not you’…

        Reply
        1. JustaTech

          I have the sinking feeling that OP’s coworker is going to be a classic case of “you can’t prove a negative”. I mean, what more should the OP be asked to do? Bring the complainer to her house to show that there are no more scented products?
          There has to be a boundary of reasonable action, and I think that the OP has done pretty much everything reasonable.

          Reply
      2. Kathleen Adams

        Yes, the real problem is clearly the coworker. Honestly, even if she is extra sensitive to smell, she’s still acting like a jerk.

        Reply
        1. OxfordComma

          Years ago, I worked with someone (I’ll call her Dolores Umbridge). I was an intern and during a slow period, my supervisor told me to wipe down some shelves with some kind of cleaner. Dolores had a desk about thirty feet away and told me to stop and that the smell was making her sick. I apologized and stopped. The supervisor just said to do it after she’d gone home. I did. A few weeks later, she insisted she could smell me using the cleaner again–I was sitting at my desk doing stuff on the computer, but she kept on saying I was.

          Flash forward another month later, she accused me of wearing perfume. I don’t wear anything scented. But I was young and naive and I said all I had done was use soap (which was standard issue and unscented) before I left the restroom. She pounced on that and tried to make it seem like using soap was somehow inconsiderate. I told my supervisor and somehow it got handled. Dolores found other things to pick on, but she stopped going after me for phantom scents and basic hygiene.

          Reply
      3. Sylvia

        Yeah, I think OP’s already tried very hard to remove any possible scent. The coworker’s rudeness is the problem.

        Reply
      4. Teclatrans

        Well, OP seems to think they have entirely addressed the problem by stopping wearing scents and washing in unscented detergent, and so when they try to assess the situation they are incorrectly starting from a belief that they don’t/can’t actually smell. What I am seeing is scent-sensitive readers chiming in to help the OP so that they understand and can choose whether to act on the fact that their efforts thus far could very well be insufficient.

        (And if the scent is specifically patchouli, the coworker might not be bugging other coworkers because they don’t carry patchouli scent. I am scent sensitive but not to all scents, and I have colleagues who are more sensitive than I but who can tolerate things I can’t.)

        Coworker is being bratty and mean in a way that suggests she feels helpless (so, bullying but thinks she is the victim), and your suggestions were right on target for that aspect of the situation. But if OP doubled down and insists that they don’t actually smell, they will frankly not hold as string a position as if they continue to be open to learning about ways they might be bringing patchouli scent to the office. Plus, it may turn out that many of OPs scent-sensitive strategies are unnecessary, and that they can indeed wear some scented products.

        On that tip, OP, I find oils to be *awful* – not only do they stick to fabricate around you, but the scents they carry are so concentrated. Wear what you will, but please know that you are not keeping the smell away from coworkers.

        Reply
        1. SimonTheGreyWarden

          I think this can have a lot to do with body chemistry, too – I have one essential oil blend made for me that has a lot of layers, but the one that lasts the longest is kind of a candle-smoke scent. I don’t wear it often (I find it soothing and will sometimes put a little on in the evening, just on my wrist and just for me). The scent fades on me the way it is blended to, but when I lent it to a friend to wear, she said she could smell the other scents more strongly for a lot longer.

          Reply
        2. Smelly LW

          That’s so interesting! On me, personally, alcohol-based eau de parfume scents last way longer and have a lot more throw than my oils do. Most people have told me that they can’t smell my scents at all, unless they’re like actively sticking their nose in the crook of my elbow or something.

          Reply
          1. Elizabeth H.

            Same. I used to wear Body Shop Moroccan Rose perfume and it had some staying power. For a while I just wore grapefruit scented essential oil on my wrists and neck instead of perfume, but it would fade away so fast I eventually just stopped. I don’t experience essential oils as lasting longer, much the opposite.

            Reply
          2. Mookie

            Yep. Oils and fragrances with higher concentrations of aromatic compounds have more longevity but, in general, less sillage than their alcohol-based and/or less concentrated counterparts.

            Reply
        3. aebhel

          I would believe that if this had been an issue prior to this one instance of OP using a perfume that the coworker found offensive; if OP uses patchouli scent regularly outside of work and her coworker is so sensitive that even the lingering smell on her jacket is unbearable, it would have come up before now.

          (and frankly, it is no longer OP’s problem to address. I will stop wearing perfume for a coworker’s benefit; I am not going to change my detergent, stop using my preferred soap, stop using lotion, stop using scented candles/incense/whatever around my own home or replace my furniture or clothing. If her coworker’s sensitivity is that acute, it is up to management to arrange that she’s isolated from scents that bother her, not up to her coworkers to arrange their entire lives around it)

          Reply
          1. Fafaflunkie

            100% this. This is definitely on this co-worker. I like the idea of having her walk into the office blindfolded and walk by OP and around the entire workforce, as I read earlier in this thread. Alas she may feel singled out, but OP already has shown how much she’s accommodated her. Now it’s up to the co-worker to prove it’s not a case of singling her out.

            Reply
      5. Doodle

        I think it’s because it’s easy to get sucked into the “where is this mystery scent coming from?” detective story. You’re right that at this point she’s probably already tried most or all of these things — it really does sound like the OP is being extremely accommodating! (And even if she weren’t, the co-worker is clearly going about this the wrong way!)

        Reply
      6. Fiennes

        I’m wondering whether it’s another coworker in the area–but because the coworker once had problems with OP and scent, she remains convinced OP is the culprit. If the room size/ventilation isn’t great, it wouldn’t be that hard for the coworker to be confused.

        Reply
      7. JessaB

        I think at this point and said above in more detail that it’s now time to do a “the Voice” type test to find out if the smell is part of the office, or settled in the mind of the coworker to the point that they smell it if it’s not there. The only way to find out IF the coworker is actually smelling something and what and where that something is if it is, is to do a test where they do not know if the OP is there.

        Reply
      8. Allison

        For me, my comments were about where the smell could still be coming from, since OP seems baffled that they could be smelling like anything after all they’ve done to eliminate smells from their person. But I agree, that’s not what this thread should focus on. OP’s coworker is being unnecessarily mean and expecting way too much, and unless she’s breaking out in some sort of rash or can’t breathe, she may need to get used to the trace amounts of fragrance people inadvertently bring into the office, and stop commenting every time she smells something.

        Reply
    3. paul

      Yep.

      It’s reasonable to ask that people not wear scents at work.

      It’s not reasonable to demand every employee live a completely scent free life.

      Reply
      1. Amadeo

        Yes, this is what I’m finding a little boggling about a lot of the comments talking about scents at home, in mattresses, sheets, etc. My reaction is “Hold on. I get not wearing perfumes to work as requested and I’m fine with that, but now you’re asking me to go completely scent free at home too? That’s not happening, sonny Jim.”

        I definitely read this letter as the OP being targeted and picked on if not bullied since this coworker seems to not notice the others in the office that are also sure to be wearing scents.

        Reply
        1. NLMC

          I agree the coworker is being a jerk and is completely out of line with how she is handling this, but it could also be this particular scent and not all scents. We’ve had plenty of discussions, especially regarding food, that scents are very personal and while someone may hate one they are completely fine with other strong scents.
          It also could be completely because she has an issue with the OP and not the scent.

          Reply
          1. Amadeo

            Not liking or hating a scent is not a good enough reason to ask someone to make huge routine changes at home. I think the most you can do is to politely ask someone not to wear a specific perfume that is bothering you, not ask them to buy new toiletries/detergents/do a deep scrub of their clothes(!?).

            Reply
            1. MegaMoose, Esq

              I completely agree. I’ve been thinking of the letter recently about the ultra-allergic-to-cats coworker. There were some pretty extreme suggestions about changes that OP could make to try and address it there too – my favorite was keeping your clothes in dry-cleaning bags and dressing in the garage! The point is, it is perfectly reasonable to ask coworkers to make modest changes to help with allergies or even plain discomfort, but at a certain point, the burden shifts to the coworker if there’s still a problem. In this particular case, I think the OP has done enough and it’s time to bring the boss in to either shut down the rudeness or find the coworker a new place to sit.

              Reply
              1. Natalie

                Although one important difference was that the LW in that case was the allergic co-worker’s boss, so they needed to be able to have private conversations some times.

                Reply
                1. MegaMoose, Esq

                  True, but even the boss shouldn’t be expected to get dressed in the garage. I may be slightly fixated on that part because I have an unheated detached garage and it snowed last night.

        2. RVA Cat

          It’s like the difference between having a smoke-free workplace and demanding that employees not smoke at home.

          Reply
        3. Allison

          I have encountered commenters, here and on Corporette, who fully believe that scent free is the way to be, and that the world would be better if everyone cut scented products out of their lives. There are people who believe very strongly in this initiative, so it wouldn’t surprise me to encounter that sentiment here or elsewhere.

          Reply
      2. KR

        This exactly. People smell a certain way. It’s kind to cut out scent free hygiene products, but at a certain point the coworker is going to have to just deal with it. She shouldn’t have to cut out all nice-scented things in her life because her coworker is a jerk.

        Reply
        1. Wendy Darling

          Also changing all your hygiene products is actually pretty freaking arduous for a lot of people. I have sensitive skin, easily-bothered hair, and lots of allergies, so finding products that work for me to begin with is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. And it’s usually not like I can just switch from the scented version to the unscented one — the one I’m using is the only thing there is! Luckily for the me vs. scent sensitivity problem a lot of added fragrances give me issues as well so generally you cannot smell any of my stuff unless you’re WAY up in my personal space. But I’d be pretty cranky if someone at work told me I had to stop using some hygiene product unless it was REALLY egregiously strong-smelling (looking at you, beloved Soap and Glory lotion that I won’t wear in public).

          Reply
          1. Anxa

            Yeah. I’m scent sensitive myself (both nose wise and skin wise) and I’m absolutely repulsed by scents, where I’m sure I gross others out with my lack of scents.

            That said, I do have scented shampoo because there are like 3 on the market that are unscented, most of which I can’t afford. I have spent years finding a shampoo routine that doesn’t make my hair look really clean, but is passable, affordable, and most importanly doesn’t make me bleed. I would be really put out to have to start looking again.

            Reply
            1. oldbiddy

              I love perfumes and scented bath products, but my scalp is really allergic to many fragrances. It’s a pain to find fragrance free shampoo and conditioner, but Jason Naturals makes an ok version. It’s not ultra cheap, but is around $10 for 32 oz

              Reply
          2. Kate

            Agree. Finding affordable products that actually work for my skin and hair is extremely extremely difficult. If I was told to go scent free, I would expect my office to pay for the price difference between my affordable scented products and unscented products, which usually cost more in my experience. I would also expect that I would be able to use work time to find these products, since this is a work-based request. If not I would actually quit over this.

            I have some sympathy for people with asthma, etc, but I have to admit not as much as others on the board. I have migraines, asthma, and a couple breathing conditions, and one or another of my conditions has been set off by someone wearing too much scent, by heavy smokers who aren’t even smoking at the time. (Sometimes I feel like a hypochondriac, since I have so many medical conditions, but I swear I’m not! My conditions have all been verified by multiple doctors and specialists.)

            I think the “your fist, my nose” boundary ends with how close you have to be to smell it and/or normal use. To me, the onus on coworkers to alter their scent behavior ends at requiring them to change their personal care products. Asking them not to apply perfume before work, is one thing, to alter their personal life by buying two sets of products or not lighting scented candles in the bedroom or not cooking with curry or garlic or whatever. as others mentioned, is not fine.

            For scent specific examples: Someone using scented shampoo, fine, using so much hairspray, the scent fills the room, not fine, a bit of perfume the average person can’t smell unless they are rubbing elbows, fine, a cloud of perfume, not fine.

            Reply
      3. Katniss

        Exactly. I don’t wear the one perfume I own (which is very light and solid perfume so I can wear a very small amount) to work because I don’t want to disturb coworkers. But I’m not going to stop wearing it on weekends and I’m not going to stop burning incense in my home.

        Reply
    4. Alton

      This is a good point. Even if some scent is lingering in the OP’s clothes or her body wash is stronger than she thinks, it sounds like she uses a lot less scented stuff than many people do. Sure, it could be that there’s a specific scent here (like patchouli) that others in the office don’t have, but it does seem a little unusual that the OP is the only one getting complaints.

      Reply
    5. k

      That’s a good point. I would be very surprised if everyone in that office besides OP is living a committed scent-free lifestyle.

      Reply
    6. Amy

      Yes, this. The OP already did the reasonable things–she stopped wearing perfume and scented oils, she switched to mainly fragrance-free cleaning products, and as far as we know she doesn’t even have anything around that smells like patchouli.

      The coworker is the problem here. People can’t go through life expecting to never have to encounter faint scents. Freshly applied perfume, sure, that’s reasonable to ask people not to do. But scented deodorant? Dryer sheets? Shampoo? Smelling those faintly on other people is a fact of life; they’re very commonly used products.

      If this coworker is so sensitive to scent that those everyday, likely-impossible-to-avoid things are enough to cause problems, then she needs accommodations beyond just asking coworkers to not wear perfume. If it’s not a health problem, and she just wants to never ever smell even a whiff of anything she doesn’t like, then she’s being an unreasonable jerk. Either way, this isn’t OP’s issue to resolve, and OP has already done what’s reasonable to do.

      Reply
      1. Allison

        I wonder, are there treatment options for people who are extra sensitive to fragrances? I do feel for people who can barely leave their homes due to their sensitivities, even if I’m not convinced everyone’s hygiene regimen should revolve around them.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          Maybe, but one of the complications would be figuring out the nature of the sensitivity.. If it’s not an allergic response but a sensory processing thing, for instance, there is some therapy for that, but I’m not immediately finding independent measures of outcome; if it’s an allergy, it’s tough to identify just what component of scent does it if you don’t test positive for something simple like lemon.

          Reply
      2. Salamander

        “People can’t go through life expecting to never have to encounter faint scents.”

        Exactly. It seems that the OP has taken a lot of measures to make sure that the coworker is comfortable. Actually, I think the OP has taken more measures than are actually reasonable and that the OP has really bent over backwards on this.

        Reply
    7. Emi.

      Yeah, this is a good point. Is she hassling the other people in your office? There’s no way that none of them have even one Powder Fresh or Ocean Breeze or Fresh Cotton or Freesia Delight product in their lives.

      Reply
    8. Megan

      Thank goodness for this opinion. You are going above and beyond for this person, which is very thoughtful and empathetic of you. But seriously, stop the madness! You have a right to wash yourself in lightly (or heavily for that matter) scented things. This woman is over the top. Brush that crazy right off and go about your business.

      Reply
  11. Moonpie

    I agree with Alison’s advice all around, I just had one other scent-source to consider – do you perhaps use any home air fresheners or diffusers? I ask because I frequently buy my child’s clothes at consignment sales, and I have to wash some of them multiple times because they were infused with some kind of scent like that. I couldn’t smell it approaching the rack, but it was very apparent in my home. Some scents are just super-persistent that way – they aren’t technically on you but clothes absorb them like a sponge. Still, no reason for Jane to be childish about it!

    Reply
  12. Marillenbaum

    Other commenters have made some potentially useful suggestions about other sources of scent; however, my reading of this is that your coworker is being a jerk. The exaggerated sniffing, the pointed remarks about patchouli (which definitely smells NOTHING like lemon)–those aren’t the behaviors of someone who is genuinely trying to solve an unfortunate issue. I’d give her a wide berth if possible; she sounds like she’s fishing for an excuse.

    Reply
    1. Jadelyn

      Exactly – this is someone who’s enjoying her petty little power trip and bending OP to their will, is how it’s coming off to me. Honestly, next time she snarks about patchouli, I’d literally laugh in her face, like “Seriously? I haven’t used anything patchouli-scented in weeks/months/whatever! You’re so funny!” And then walk away, as if she were just making a joke.

      Reply
    2. k

      I totally read this as coworker just being a power-tripping, Mean Girls style jerk.

      The specific patchouli comment is was does it for me. That is a very specific smell that many associate with “granola hippie types”. If OP had ever mentioned using indie oils or not liking chemical smells to coworker it may have given coworker the idea that OP was more naturally inclined or alternative leaning (not that those things really imply anything, I just think coworker is looking for something to pick on). To me it really just sounds like coworker is trying to make something out of that and mocking OP with the old “smelly hippie” stereotype.

      Reply
      1. LizB

        I also had the thought that the coworker is trying to pick on OP with the “smelly hippie” stereotype. I doubt many people would exaggeratedly sniff their coworker and say “ugh, Chanel No. 5 again?!” – the coworker is trying to make some kind of mean-spirited point.

        Reply
        1. Fiennes

          If I were OP, I’d be tempted to say, “Patchouli? But this fragrance is Dior!” just to watch her reaction. But the coworker would probably then be encouraged in her delusions of scent.

          Reply
      2. Allie

        The funny thing is my mom uses patchouli, so I associate that particular scent with mom-ly ladies. Mom is a total grown up hippie though.

        It smells nothing at all like lemon though. I get mean vibes from her too.

        Reply
        1. Turanga Leela

          My mother had a scarf, ages ago, that smelled like patchouli. I don’t think she ever wore patchouli, so maybe the scarf picked up the smell from the artist or the store where she bought it. But whenever I smell patchouli, I think of my mom many years ago, and it’s comforting.

          Reply
      3. JessaB

        It’s also a scent that has some religious/racial connotations to people. Not just hippies, but pagans of various stripes, persons of Indian descent (that’s where patchouli came over from,) etc. And there can be a lot of cultural baggage around scent. Scent can also be a trigger for good or bad memories. You smell something you associate with your Gran’s house and if you loved her, then it’s great, but if she was a nasty horrid person and hit you, you might remember that. And it’s one of the most powerful triggers available. Your nose remembers stuff your brain just doesn’t and makes huge amounts of connections. And if it works properly your nose is one of the most sensitive sense organs you have.

        Reply
    3. Allie

      Ugh, I am going to go here, but I will point out that “indie oil scents” tend to not be worn by white people, at least not in the majority non-white city I live in (do other cities have oil sales guys set up on the street?). I really hope that’s not it.

      Reply
      1. Doodle

        Ugh, the patchouli/indie oil people I know best are white, so that didn’t even occur to me, but it maybe should have. I hope that’s not what’s going on here (or shaming for other categories or behaviors that the co-worker thinks are “different.”)

        Reply
        1. JB (not in Houston)

          Agreed. Almost everyone I know who wear’s that kind of scent is white, and I really hope that OP is, too. Otherwise, there’s a whole other layer of gross here.

          Reply
        2. Allie

          I live in DC and it’s more black women here. You see the salesmen on the metro who wear little vials of oil on these cross-body belts.

          Reply
          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            I was going to say this. In New Orleans, Atlanta, and D.C., I’ve seen Black women steadily outnumber white women when it comes to “indie oils.” Which is to say that I think it might be more widespread than folks realize. Even in Oakland, until the past 10 years or so, it was really common for Black women to be the predominant group wearing “indie oils.”

            Reply
      2. TreeSilver

        Allie, that is what I was thinking as well. And I really hope that’s not the cause, but if the OP is a person of color, there is a possibility that this is a contributing factor – especially if the coworker is not having issues with anyone else’s scent profile.

        Reply
      3. IvyGirl

        Yeah – not really. Lots of white person wearing patchouli-ish smells in my city.

        “Hippie/hipster stink” is the common parlance.

        Reply
      4. Smelly LW

        Both me and the coworker are white, thank goodness. I hadn’t thought about what a can of worms that would be!

        Reply
      5. DevAssist

        Ugh. I didn’t want to go there, but I had that thought too. LW didn’t disclose her ethnicity (and she shouldn’t feel pressured to) but I know from having friends with various backgrounds (some Indian, some black, etc) that, for example, sometimes someone of Indian heritage will be mocked for smelling like curry, even when they don’t.

        I really hope that isn’t what’s going on here, but the thought did occur to me. LW has done quite a lot to accommodate her coworker, who really does sound like a jerk.

        Reply
      6. Allison

        It could also be that OP is very “crunchy granola,” (think Phoebe from Friends) and her coworker doesn’t like “those people.” Maybe she’s conservative, maybe she just finds them annoying, maybe she’s worried OP will kidnap her and force her to participate in a drum circle.

        Reply
          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            OP, can I just say your comments have been cracking me up? I like the good humor and kindness with which you’re responding :)

            Which also reinforces my belief that your coworker can go walk off a pier. She sounds truly awful.

            Reply
    4. Allison

      Yeah . . . I wanted to give the coworker the benefit of the doubt at first. Surely people grow out of this shortly after high school, surely a grown adult wouldn’t comment on someone’s smell unless it was bothering them. But some people never stop being bullies, or they become bullies in adulthood because they’re tired of being powerless. Maybe that really is what’s going on here.

      Reply
  13. LBG

    patchouli is hard to remove. I have a friend who wears it, and he hugged me once while I was wearing a coat. I had to take it to the cleaners to get that smell. I actually have a diminished sense of smell but patchouli is one scent that penetrates my nose.

    Reply
  14. Daisy May

    This might be a long shot, particularly since it really just seems like your coworker is being a jerk. But, it might be that your area is still retaining some of the scents you were wearing previously. If you have a fabric covered chair for instance, the fabric might have absorbed some patchouli prior to this incident. It could be that every time you move the chair or the decorative pillow or whatever other object that may have been infused with scent, that it unleashes a little puff of scent.

    Just a thought.

    Reply
  15. Tavie

    I’m going to go so far as to say that I think it’s possible that this coworker is imagining the smell is still there – she associates the OP with the smell, and now when she sees her, her brain is tricking her into remembering that smell.

    I’m saying this as someone with almost no sense of smell, so my word is worth nothing, but I really really bet that’s what’s going on.

    Reply
    1. a big fish in a small pond

      I was thinking the same thing! And that smell near OP could be interpreted that way by the co-worker. Something needs to break this association / habit.

      Reply
    2. Karyn

      I was thinking that too. It kind of reminds me of when I got food poisoning after drinking hot chocolate, and even though I don’t think it was the cocoa that did it (rather, I think it was lunch earlier that day), for MONTHS I couldn’t even look at much less smell cocoa without feeling sick. It was rather sad!

      Reply
      1. TotesMaGoats

        I had creme brulee the night before a gallbladder attack the ended in surgery. I was so sick that night. I still can’t eat creme brulee.

        Reply
          1. Nolan

            I used a watermelon LipSmackers a little more than usual one day, and got a terrible stomach flu that evening. 20 years later, I’m still not on speaking terms with watermelons.

            Reply
      2. Marillenbaum

        That was me and popcorn–I worked at the concession counter of a movie theater as a teenager, and it took about five years to lose that powerful aversion to the smell of buttered popcorn.

        Reply
        1. Parenthetically

          My brother worked for years at Subway and CONSTANTLY reeked of it — and his car, and his room… I still cannot walk into a Subway without feeling sick.

          My mom swears up and down that baby powder smells like dirty diapers because she so strongly associates the two. The last time she used baby powder on a baby’s bum was approximately 31 years ago.

          Reply
      3. Not Australian

        I had a similar experience with norovirus and a bacon and Stilton jacket potato; it was years before I could look Stilton in the eye again!

        Reply
      4. Tavie

        I ate a piece of pecan pie on a trip to Australia when I was 19 and then got food poisoning and was sick for days. Don’t even know if it was the pecan pie, but haven’t been able to eat it since (19 years on!)

        Reply
      5. paul

        I had a similar experience with vodka in college…took my 4-5 years to not start getting queasy at the sight of a bottle.

        Reply
        1. Alton

          I hate the taste/smell of passion fruit now because of some misadventures involving passion fruit-flavored rum that happened over a year ago.

          Reply
        2. Episkey

          Southern Comfort for me. Been out of college over 10 years and still can’t drink it at all. Get queasy even smelling it/seeing the bottle. Oh college lol.

          Reply
            1. Smelly LW

              I drank way too much Goldschlager when I was in high school and still can’t deal with it! My 20th high school reunion is coming up and some of my old friends were teasing me that we should do shots and it was just like *gag*.

              Reply
        3. The Optimizer

          It was Jack Daniels for me. I still loved bourbon but I could not drink Jack for 20 years. It was only when I went on vacation with friends and that was the only whiskey sold at the bodega near where we were staying that I managed to drink it again. I would still never buy it or order it in a bar, however.

          Reply
          1. Venus Supreme

            Oh, Jager… I can’t be near it. Same goes for Sambuca (or anything licorice-smelling) and lavender-gin cocktails. I also dislike the smell of lavender altogether.

            Reply
        4. katiel

          I used to prefer white wine to red. Until I got sick after drinking too much of it (and not eating enough) at an awkward dinner party. Next day had the worst hangover of my life. Now I can only drink red.

          Reply
      6. Episkey

        My mom says the same thing about Caress body wash. Apparently it made her sick when she was pregnant with me. She still can’t stand to smell it. I’m 35 years old.

        Reply
        1. Karyn

          My mom had the same experience with TCBY yogurt. Specifically that yogurt, not just any frozen yogurt. She also can’t eat Wendy’s Frosties anymore because she was instructed by her doctor to eat one a day when she was pregnant with me because she wasn’t gaining enough weight!

          Reply
        2. Marillenbaum

          My stepsister is the same with Bath & Body Works’ Coconut Lime Verbena–it was the smell that first set her off when she was pregnant with her daughter, and to this day (kiddo is 10) that scent is a firm no.

          Reply
        3. LaSalleUGirl

          I bought a bottle of Caress body wash when I was in college because it was on sale. The first day I used it, I almost retched in the shower. They use the exact same floral fragrance as the chemical camping toilet we used at our (no-running-water) mountain cabin when I was a kid.

          Reply
      7. Artemesia

        This is how our body protects itself. Eat something and get sick and your body remembers at a very basic level. I have a favorite crock pot recipe that I haven’t made in 20 years because I got sick the last time I ate it (I am sure it was a virus and had nothing to do with the food, but even thinking about it nauseates me) Oncologists sometimes feed kids maple ice cream before chemo because they would rather their bodies associated the illness with something easily avoided than with the cheerios or scrambled eggs they had for breakfast that day.

        So yeah. She is a jerk but she may imagine she smells patchouili because it is so associated with you. Is the boss smelling it? If not, there you are.

        Reply
        1. Karyn

          I didn’t know that about the ice cream thing! That’s really interesting. And I agree, she’s probably smelling patchouli “in her head” as it were. Occasionally I feel like I can smell the soap my first boyfriend used, and it still makes me feel on edge (the relationship was, unfortunately, abusive).

          Reply
          1. (Not So) Codependent

            Sort of the flip side of that…my ex changed his cologne after we split up. We still see each other fairly regularly Because Kids and it’s extremely jarring that he looks the same but smells wrong.

            Reply
        2. Dizzy Steinway

          They ruin maple ice cream for them? Can’t they pick a food that’s less nice? I mean I get the idea but that’s a heck of a food to ruin.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            It was actually a specific experiment testing chemotherapy-related food aversions. I think they probably picked the maple-nut ice cream because it wasn’t a flavor they were going to randomly run into between the initial exposure and the aversion test a few weeks later, but it was nice enough that kids would actually voluntarily choose it in the first place.

            Reply
        1. Elizabeth West

          I won’t eat it because when I worked at Golden Corral in college, way before they became a buffet, we used curly kale leaves to decorate the salad bar (they were sturdier than lettuce). We rinsed them off and re-used them until they were super gross. I can’t even look at kale now, let alone consume it. Urp.

          Reply
      8. Allie

        In high school I had a job at a chain pizza place. I would scrub down after work and still smell like that garlic butter sauce we put on breadsticks and cheesy bread. My dog would always be smelling my pants. I still can’t eat that stuff.

        Reply
        1. TotesMaGoats

          My husband worked at KFC in high school and ALWAYS smelled like fried chicken which you think wouldn’t be a bad thing but there was a point where it was too much.

          My sister worked a local deli/crab cake place in high school and smelled of Old Bay to the point that she’d walk in the door and strip off her shoes and clothes and not take them to her room. They got washed by themselves.

          Reply
        2. PlainJane

          I met my husband while I was working as a pizza cook at Chuck E. Cheese. I always smelled like pepperoni and pizza grease. I suspect that’s why he found me attractive :-)

          Reply
        3. an anon

          Yep, I worked at a Panda Express for a few months almost 10 years ago. Sometimes I get a whiff of white vinegar (we used it in the water under the hot trays) or that orange chicken sauce smell and feel grossed out.

          Reply
      9. Mononymous

        This exact thing happened to me with Hershey’s chocolate and a stomach bug when I was a kid. To this day, 20+ years later, the smell of chocolate (especially warmed, as in fresh-baked cookies) makes me queasy. Sad.

        Reply
      10. Lala

        Norovirus and egg drop soup, which is a crying shame because I used to love it, and until that experience it was my go-to soup when I was sick (cheap, easy take out, semi-nutritious).

        And one year when I was a broke college student, the place where I worked had basically an endless supply of “get a meal 1/2 off” coupons from Moe’s, which was next door to the store and made it the cheapest full meal I could get most days. I’ve eaten Moe’s only once since that year.

        Reply
      11. Fiennes

        Me and cheese, to this day.

        Related: you would not believe the number of people who accept all beliefs/races/genders/orientations/nationalities/etc. who CANNOT DEAL with the fact that a person doesn’t eat cheese.

        Reply
        1. On Fire

          I’ll take your share of cheese, please! You can have the honey-glazed salmon on a cedar plank. Had it one day. Stomach bug hit that night. I still like salmon. And honey. But never together in a million years.

          Reply
        2. Risha

          Unrelated to any sort of sickness, but I loathe the taste of chicken and always have. Like the cheese thing, this blows most people’s minds. Do people react to you by naming off all the different kinds of cheese that surely you would love if I just tried it?

          (No, sorry, people reading this, your grandmother’s literally award winning fried chicken is still going to make me gag.)

          Reply
          1. Elizabeth West

            I get you—I don’t like the taste of turkey. At Thanksgiving, people give me a look when I say I don’t like turkey very much.

            I think a lot of people like the stuff you put on chicken; by itself, it doesn’t taste like much.

            Reply
            1. Hrovitnir

              OK, you are unlikely to see this, but I *love* chicken. Skinless chicken breast with salt and pepper and grilled on a George Forman grill – so tastes like bugger all else? Amazing. (I generally do use some sort of rub but if I’m lazy that’s fine.) Chicken is the reason I gave up vegetarianism after 7 years and I honestly could go without any other meat – lamb is nice, steak is good occasionally. Turkey is like dry, inadequate chicken though. :D (Rabbit is pretty up there too actually and remarkably similar to chicken.)

              Of course, I’m lukewarm on bacon and despise people drowning all other flavours by adding it to everything, and meh about cheese too so I appreciate your feelings.

              /ramble. Because apparently I couldn’t resist saying that chicken definitely has at least as much innate flavour as any other meat, just different. To me, anyway.

              Reply
      12. SimonTheGreyWarden

        My friend worked a really hellish retail job one Christmas. The place sold those cinnamon-scented pine cones and she was right at the front where they were stocked. She couldn’t stand cinnamon-scented anything for almost a decade. It meant Christmas shopping really sucked for her because that is such a common smell that time of year and she’d get migraines walking into stores that smelled like that.

        Reply
      13. Emi.

        I used to use cloth menstrual pads and wash them in the shower with soap, and to this day I can’t quite tell the smell of menstrual blood apart from the smell of Ivory soap.

        Reply
    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      That’s very possible. They say scent is our strongest “memory,” meaning that some smells immediately transport us to a specific person or place in time. But I also think it can be Pavlovian, where you see the person you identify with a scent and “smell” it, even if there’s no actual scent around you.

      But Coworker is being a jerk about it, either way.

      Reply
      1. Cathy

        Scent is the one sense that bypasses the frontal part of the brain and hits directly into the limbic system of the brain. The limbic center is the part of the brain that controls emotional, physical, and psychological responses. That’s why we strongly associate smells with certain people or happenings: Christmas smells like pine, Thanksgiving smells like pumpkin pie, etc.

        Reply
        1. SimonTheGreyWarden

          There’s a specific inexpensive powder wallgreens sells. Whenever I smell it, I always immediately feel a rush of joy and then intense sadness, because my grandma wore that powder and I miss her so intently, and when I smell it my brain immediately registers Grandma, and then has to go through the process of grief again.

          Reply
          1. Elizabeth West

            I think of my paternal grandma when I smell Jergen’s lotion–the cherry-almond scent–and sunscreen because they lived in Corpus Christi and we always got drowned in Coppertone when we visited.
            *Hugs* to you.

            Reply
            1. Not A Morning Person

              I love that Coppertone smell! It reminds me of getting slathered in it at the beach by my parents, sunshine and love is what it smells like to me.

              Reply
    4. That Would Be a Good Band Name

      This is a good point and may seem to odd if someone has never experienced it, but I definitely have had this reaction. I will sometimes start to “smell” a certain scent that I associate heavily with a person when I’m on the phone with him.

      I know the LW said she does not enjoy chemical-y scents, but are there any other scents that the LW enjoys that wouldn’t bother the coworker? It might help if the coworker could associate a different scent than the patchouli.

      Reply
      1. Smelly LW

        At this point I feel like it would be a bad idea to wear *any* perfume around her, patchouli or no. If it is a power trip/mean girl thing, as several commenters have suggested (and I agree) it might just set her off again, and I would lose my bargaining piece of “No, seriously, I’m not wearing anything, she’s just being a jerk.”

        Reply
    5. JessaB

      And please mind that just because the smell isn’t actually THERE doesn’t mean that for the coworker it’s not completely there. The human brain is able to play some crazy tricks on us. The jerkishness is out of line, but even if it’s “all in her head,” it’s still real.

      Reply
      1. Emi.

        Well, only kind of. She may be grossed out for real, but the fragrance allegedly emanating from the LW isn’t actually emanating, there’s nothing they can do about it, and the coworker needs to lay off.

        Reply
    6. Miles

      There was actually a study done a while ago that found that a lot of people with sensitivities to fragrance actually had psychosomatic sensitivities. If they were prevented from being able to smell, many many of them had “reactions” to the smell when they thought it was there and it wasn’t and did not react when it was there but they didn’t know. If I’m being charitable to the coworker, I think this may be happening; she’s having a real reaction to a non-existent smell because she assumes it’s there. If that’s the case, there’s nothing LW can do. Outside of behavioural therapy, I don’t know how this could be fixed other than moving the coworker’s desk away from the LWs’.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        There’s also one interesting study that indicates some people’s chemical sensitivity is indistinguishable from an anxiety hyperventilation response, and another that indicates anti-anxiety treatment was helpful in mitigating a fragrance sensitivity. Another indicates that asthmatics may have worse symptoms if they perceive an odor as irritating their asthma (same scent identified as alleviating to one group and irritating to another, the “irritating” group all had a much more significant response).

        The brain is, if you’ll pardon the expression, at the heart of a lot of this. It’s easy for responses that were designed to keep us safe to become a little overreactive.

        Reply
    7. Wendy Darling

      Yeah, I have definitely smelled things that weren’t there.

      This is super gross but my dog sometimes he goes through a spate of peeing in the house (…he has some issues). He’s little and sneaks off and pees in low-traffic corners so it’s easy to miss. Every time this happens I go through a spate of cleaning everything and thinking I smell pee ALL THE TIME. No one else can smell it. I just get so anxious about it that I smell phantom pee.

      (As an irrelevant aside, one time I actually WAS right and I DID smell pee because the little expletive deleted peed INTO A FAN so there wasn’t any visible mess, just a magical pee smell blower. That… just made my phantom smell issues like 10x worse because I was right one time.)

      Reply
  16. Bye Academia

    I just wanted to thank you for being considerate to your coworker and refraining from wearing your perfumes to work. As someone who is also sensitive to strong smells and doesn’t often up about it for fear of pushback, your reaction is exactly the kind I’d appreciate.

    However, consideration goes both ways and it sounds like your coworker is taking this to an extreme. It seems like you are already doing everything it is reasonable to ask a person to do (and possibly more). At this point, the coworker really needs to be talking with her boss or HR to figure something out.

    I will ask – do you still use your perfume on the weekends? Is there a chance that it is lingering in your hair or clothes? Sometimes I notice smells will stick around for a few days, even after I have showered. Other possibilities include shampoo/conditioner or lotion. I am only saying this in the hopes that getting to the bottom of the issue will make it easier to figure out a solution. I think considerate coworkers like you should do what they can to help out other coworkers, but at the same time, you shouldn’t have to give up something you enjoy using in your free time because of a work conflict. It’s a hard balance to walk.

    Reply
    1. Allison

      I honestly just remembered there was a scented lotion I used to wear, and I would notice the smell on my clothes even after I washed them. Can’t remember what it was, maybe it’s something I still wear and have just gotten used to it. Some apple scent, maybe. But yeah, some smells cling to clothes through the laundry.

      Reply
    2. Meg Murry

      Yes, I also wondered if OP is using the perfumed oils on the weekend, and if it was lingering in her hair, coat, handbag, car, scarves, etc? Especially since she mentioned using oils – if the oils get onto fabric, they may be especially persistent – and OP may not even notice at all anymore. Or heck, if OP stores the oils on or in her dresser, it may be that some of the clothing items have picked up a hint of the scent.

      Reply
    3. Jadelyn

      That last bit of your post is the trouble I always have with “scent-free” initiatives. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to completely change their entire lifestyle around outside of work, just to accommodate someone at work. Not wearing perfume to work is reasonable. Washing with unscented or mildly-scented bath products…maybe reasonable, depending – sometimes the only shampoo/conditioner that works well for someone’s hair has an unavoidable scent and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect someone to figure out an entire new hair routine (which is a process that takes time and money and trial and error, not to mention bad hair days in the interim, with the concomitant hit to self-esteem that may cause) to accommodate a coworker. Laundering work clothes in unscented detergent is reasonable.

      But scent contamination can come from many things, often small things. Like wearing perfume on days off that lingers even after bathing before coming back to work, or burning incense in one’s own home, or storing clothes laundered in scent-free products in the same dresser or closet with clothes that haven’t been laundered that way, or having an air freshener in one’s own car. And there’s a limit to how much I’m willing to let work infringe on my ability to surround myself with a pleasant environment in my off-hours, in the way that I define a pleasant environment, which for me is strongly scent-based.

      Reply
      1. Allison

        I have to agree . . . if there was someone I work with who had a scent sensitivity, I’d be sensitive to that. I’d refrain from wearing perfume to work, and from using scented soaps and lotions during the work week (or using them for date night, but then washing them off before bed). However, the color protecting haircare products I use have a smell, and I’d be salty about discontinuing them because my color would fade a lot faster without them. I’d also be grumpy if I couldn’t use scented products to make myself smell nice on Friday nights and weekends, for fear of bringing traces of the smell into work the next day. Being 100% scent-free is really, really hard and takes a lot of lifestyle changes most people aren’t willing to make for someone they only see during the day, 5 days a week.

        Reply
      2. Alton

        I agree that there’s a practical limit to how much you can accommodate allergies and sensitivities. Not just because it isn’t fair to severely limited what people can do on their own time in their own homes but because it’s impossible to totally eliminate cross-contamination, especially with common fragrances. The best you can do is ask people to be considerate.

        Also, while I typically have (mild) allergic reactions to fragrances, sometimes non-scented products have ingredients that I’m sensitive to. I’m mostly fine with Irish Spring soap, which has a pretty heavy fragrance that makes me sneeze occasionally, but when I ran out recently and had to use a bar of a more lightly-scented soap that was supposed to be good for sensitive skin, I started breaking out in hives. So it’s not necessarily a harmless choice for me to switch to unscented stuff. It usually is, but there’s no guarantee.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          Yes, most modern products are quite the cocktail, so while the scented molecules may be the most noticeable they may not be what’s actually eliciting the sensitivity. (That obviously wouldn’t account for the co-worker’s still smelling patchouli, but it does mean that unscented isn’t, as you say, necessarily a solution.)

          Reply
          1. Allison

            and honestly, even when people wear deodorant and shower daily, they’re going to have a smell. Sometimes it’s a subtle smell their bodies give off, sometimes it’s body odor after a day of work. It’s almost impossible to smell like nothing at all throughout the day.

            Reply
            1. fposte

              Right; this is where the psychology of scent gets complicated, because everything and everybody has a scent, and everything and everybody is made of chemicals.

              But I think a lot of scent reaction is a sensory overload response rather than an allergic response, so ambient scents will be less disruptive there than an introduced scent, and of course exposure reactions, as we’re discussing elsewhere, become hard-wired pretty easily.

              Reply
              1. Gadfly

                Which to me goes to the idea that at some point the sensitive person just needs adaptive equipment. I don’t get how it is different than a person who has to use a wheelchair or hearing aids.

                Reply
        2. Jessesgirl72

          Oh, like I can use neutragena sensitive skin moisturizer and I can use neutragena sensitive skin sunscreen, but if I use neutragena sensitive skin moisturizer with sunscreen, I break out in a horrible painful rash.

          Reply
      3. Ihmmy

        this depends largely on the severity of their reaction. I get mild to moderate headaches.. it sucks but they’re survivable. Another coworker can have an anaphylactic reaction to some scents. That’s worth adjusting a hair /skin/laundry care routine for so someone doesn’t accidentally kill them or put them in the hospital.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          But it’s not just “adjusting”–it’s spending a fair whack of money on new products, an expense that can be a considerable burden at some income levels.

          Reply
          1. Dizzy Steinway

            Also, what if someone can’t change products due to an allergy?

            I have found literally one laundry detergent that doesn’t make me break out in hives.

            Reply
            1. Wendy Darling

              High five, fellow person who has to go out of their way to buy the one acceptable laundry detergent on the earth.

              Reply
              1. Bagpuss

                Me three.
                I have awful memories of the time my luggage was lost by an airline. The friend I was travelling with very kindly loaned me a clean T-short and knickers, which did not end well.
                Particularly as my wash bag was also missing and I discovered the hard way that the brand of deoderant I use has a slightly different recipe in Spain to the oe it has in the UK….

                On the plus side, I did learn how to ask for anti-histimine cream and tablets in Spanish.

                Reply
        2. Turanga Leela

          Depending on how sensitive your coworker’s allergies are, this can get extremely complicated. I share a house with my mother; she uses fabric softener and her preferred detergent. Some of that scent is going to linger in the machine, so even if I do my clothes separately, there might be scent residue that affects the coworker. Ditto with my kid’s shampoo and bubble bath.

          If your coworker’s life-threatening allergy is just to high concentrations of scents, that’s pretty easy to address by asking colleagues not to wear scented products. But if she has a life-threatening allergy that’s on a hair trigger, you’d have to ask coworkers and their families to change everything in their routines, and I’m still not sure it would work. (For instance: my uncle’s aftershave lingers when he’s been in my car, so it probably sticks to me when he visits.) There are limits of what you can realistically ask of people. I don’t know what the answer to this situation would be.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            I remember a news story about one scent-allergic student who simply couldn’t be accommodated by her university. They tried really hard, but they just couldn’t control the variables enough for her to physically be there. Not everything can be accommodated.

            Reply
            1. JessaB

              Which sucks majorly. At least nowadays you can attend virtually if you’re that sensitive. They have Skype, and even video enabled robots that can go around for you. The more sensitive people end up so isolated. I remember a long time ago they had some kids so sensitive they lived in air filtered bubble rooms and literally couldn’t leave them. Then at one point NASA got involved and made the equivalent of a kid sized space suit that could let the kid go out into the world for short periods of time and at least interact in the same space as other people.

              Reply
          2. paul

            Telecommuting, or disability, at that point.

            I’m not going to cycle through god knows how many detergents and cleaning products to find one that both works for our youngest kid (eczema), is affordable, and isn’t bothersome/an allergen to a random third party.

            Seriously, have you ever had to restock all of your cleaning crap lately? Detergents, bath soaps for the kids (I still use my cheap stuff for myself though). It adds up a lot.

            And I’m damn sure not asking that of all my friends and family.

            Reply
          3. Wendy Darling

            ….true story, I made my partner change laundry detergents after we’d been together a few months. Fortunately he was in no way attached to the stuff he’d been using, but if I slept in his bed I got a rash from his sheets.

            I’m just glad this is a common enough problem that most hotels use unscented products to wash their linens or I’d have to travel with a sleeping bag.

            Reply
        3. Jadelyn

          I’m sorry, no. If it’s that severe, then the person who has that reaction needs to be figuring out their own way to avoid things, not putting the entire burden of it on their coworkers. Carry an inhaler, epi-pen, etc., plan around it if you can – I mean, it’s not like someone with that severe a reaction can force everyone in every public place they visit to use all scent-free products, so they’d still have to be able to cope with or have contingency plans for exposure to scent in places other than work, and maybe they need to extend those plans to the work environment too.

          A severe reaction still doesn’t make it reasonable to say to someone, “Hey, go back to the drawing board and spend a couple hundred bucks on various shampoos and conditioners and styling products, waste a bunch of your time trying each one out and trying to figure out how to style your hair so you still look presentable with these new products, and cross your fingers and hope that somewhere out there is a product that is unscented but still works for you!” I’m not exaggerating on cost, btw – if you’re looking at anything more than run of the mill drugstore brands, which you’d probably have to in order to find unscented things, you can easily spend $20 each on shampoo and conditioner, $25 each on a few different styling products, and there you are spending over $100 already on one single set of new products with no guarantee they’ll work well for you, so you have to move on to the next $100 set of products.

          And laundry care routines aren’t always simple either – my mom has allergic reactions to many common brands of detergent, so finding a new unscented brand that doesn’t make her break out in hives would be, again, a trial and error process that could get expensive fast.

          Reply
          1. Dizzy Steinway

            Ah, I see you already made my point about how other people might have conflicting allergies.

            I’m all for reasonable accommodations but they do need to be reasonable.

            Reply
          2. Lissa

            I have to agree. It’s also just impossible to guarantee and I know I for one would not want the responsibility of trying to make sure that I hadn’t, say, hugged somebody who wore the offending scent, or that I hadn’t had some piece of clothing I hadn’t washed….also, I live in an apartment where I have to pay to do laundry, and share with others — washing every single item of clothing in my house would be extremely prohibitive. I’m not giving these things as excuses or to say it’s more important than somebody’s life, just giving more variables as to why guaranteeing a scent-free environment is pretty much impossible past a certain point.

            Reply
        4. Kate

          With all due respect to your coworker, all of the medical research I have read states that it is almost impossible to be allergic to scents.

          In fact, unless the scent comes from something that uses natural chemicals (most don’t) or uses a couple of synthetic chemicals mostly used in paints or plastics, it is physically impossible for her/him to have an allergic reaction to it. The immune response necessary for an allergic reaction can’t be caused by synthetic chemicals.

          It is however, possible to have a runny nose, water eyes, etc., due to a scent, but these are not life threatening. It may be that she or he is having an psychosomatic reaction to a scent however. Psychosomatic reactions to various triggers, including scents, are pretty well documented. Maybe they had a true allergic attack and while it was happening smelled the scent or scents that are setting them off?

          TL;DR You can’t have an allergic reaction to a scent.

          Reply
          1. Janice

            Would you mind linking to some of that research? I didn’t know the immune system could even distinguish between synthetic and natural molecules, but it sounds fascinating.

            Reply
      4. Allie

        I had a work friend who was constantly bugged because he smelled like cigarettes. Dude knew he shouldn’t smoke and tried to quit repeatedly, and it is not like he didn’t take steps to try to mitigate, but having a coworker complain repeatedly about him was mean. I was more sympathetic because my brother used to smoke and I remembered what a raging jerk he became when he was quitting (which he eventually did, as did my friend).

        Reply
        1. BookishMiss

          I have 3 co-workers now who smoke, but hate how they smell after they smoke, so they take perfume showers in their cubes 3x/day. It’s miserable.

          Reply
      5. INFJ

        Yup. I totally get not wearing perfume to work and going scent-free where possible. However, completely overhauling my beauty product inventory to find something that’s scent free AND works for me (so that I don’t show up to work in my naturally oily, sweaty, smelly state) would be a huge burden.

        Reply
      6. Admin Assistant

        Totally agreed, I’m fine with not wearing perfume to work, and not using smelly lotions, and I could totally be on board with unscented detergent, but I’m not going to change my shampoo or my body wash or stop taking bubble baths when I’m outside of work. You can do what you can to not overtly smell of fragrance, but I would be pissed if a coworker’s extremely sensitive nose caused my employer to change my lifestyle so drastically outside of work. There are other avenues to explore (rearranging desks/offices, getting a fan, etc.) that are much more reasonable than making an entire office change routines and buy completely new products.

        Reply
        1. Wendy Darling

          It took me like two years and several hundred dollars’ worth of products before I found something that worked for my hair and they will pry my weirdly pineapple-scented hair gel from my cold, dead hands. (Especially since you can’t actually smell it unless you are sniffing my head, and no one at work has any business sniffing my head.)

          Or, more likely, the company will discontinue it or reformulate and I will buy up every tub of the old stuff I can find and then spend another year or so searching for a replacement. :(

          Reply
      7. Bye Academia

        Oh, I totally agree. I was offering it up as a suggestions just because if it were me I’d be curious. The OP has already done everything within reason (i.e. not wearing perfume to work). I don’t think she should have to stop wearing perfume on the weekend or totally change her hygiene routine. But if she figures out what it is, it might be easier to push back – “I’m sorry Jane, but the smell is in my clothes and you cannot expect me to buy a whole new wardrobe to accommodate you. Let’s figure out something you can do to make yourself more comfortable.”

        Either way, the coworker needs to take control of her sensitivity instead of expecting her coworkers to bend over backwards for her.

        Reply
      8. sorbus

        Also, people may have to use specific strongly smelling products because of their own medical needs. For instance, I don’t notice the smell of coal tar shampoo because I grew up in a household where both parents used it, but I’ve heard people complain about the smell. I think it would be pretty unreasonable for someone who’s bothered by it to insist that, for instance, a coworker stop treating their psoriasis appropriately just because of the smell of their shampoo.

        Reply
      9. Offtojog

        Honestly, if my workplace required that I stop using scents on my body, I would have a big problem with it. I get the sense that this issue of sensitivity to smells is very cultural. I live in the U.S., but I’m African and I work in an office where people are from all over the world. Let me tell you, African women, French women and certain Asian women wear perfume when they are out in public. And certain West African men wear cologne. That’s just how it is. I cannot imagine going to work everyday without perfume on. I even wear perfume to run on errands.

        Reply
      10. oldbiddy

        I have to use unscented shampoo due to a skin allergy. It’s really hard to find – an average drug store might have one type of unscented shampoo for babies. Conditioner is even harder to find. Unscented soaps, lotions, body washes, deodorants, laundry detergents, and dishwasher detergents are all easier to find than unscented shampoo.

        Reply
    4. Smelly LW

      I do wear my perfumes on the weekend still, but I generally wear business casual clothes (which live in my closet) to work and casual clothes (which live in my dresser) on the weekend. The only crossover is my jeans, but I don’t wear any scent on my lower half. Also, my perfumes are kept in a closed cedar box that is separate from both my closet and my dresser.

      Reply
      1. Bye Academia

        Yeah, you have definitely gone above and beyond to accommodate this coworker.

        My guess from your other comments is that the particular scent of patchouli bothers her and that it’s lingering somewhere like your hair, your car, something. But frankly, you shouldn’t be expected to cut something you enjoy out of your life entirely just because it annoys her. She needs to figure out a way to disperse the smell at work (with a fan?), move her desk, something. She’s being a jerk.

        Reply
      2. KatieBear

        Honestly, you’ve done all you can and more. Feel free to be comfortable with that fact. You don’t have to turn your life upside down, especially for someone who isn’t being reasonable. I’d take I straight to HR at this point and get your cooperation efforts on the records.

        Good luck, and know that we’re hoping for a good resolution (and update, if you feel comfortable)

        Reply
  17. the other Emily

    I almost did a double take because I could have written this. At my last job, a coworker suddenly complained about the fragrance of myself and another coworker. We had all worked together for over two years before this started. I was mortified when it happened. I switched to unscented laundry stuff, shampoo, body wash and antiperspirant but the complaints continued. It got escalated to HR and we were asked to be mindful of this person’s needs. They gave us a list of suggested unscented, fragrance free, hypoallergenic laundry and hygiene items. I switched to those and the complaints continued. I even bought new clothes. I honestly tried to accommodate my coworker but there was nothing more I could do. My boss, his boss and my other coworkers agreed that neither of us smelled but the complaints continued. I ended up leaving for another job. The other coworker who was complained about took an internal transfer. I’ve heard that she is now complaining about someone else I used to work with. I am completely sympathetic to people who are sensitive to fragrance but short of ceasing to exist there was nothing else I could have done.

    I have no advice OP, just commiseration. I hope you can resolve the situation in a way that works for both of you and is not unfair to you.

    Reply
    1. Former Retail Manager

      WOW! You are a much nicer person than I. I would have drawn a line in the sand with your co-worker in a likely not-nice manner. I’ll be damned if I change every product I use outside of work to accommodate one person. And you can’t tell me that people who do have legitimate issues with scents don’t routinely encounter scents that bother them. They have to go out in public and buy groceries, get gas, go to the doctor, and basically interact with a whole plethora of other humans and nonhumans who all emit various smells. And they find a way to deal with that….because they can’t control it.

      Reply
    2. Smelly LW

      Thank you! I’m hoping it doesn’t escalate to that point, but I’m glad you’re out of that situation now!

      Reply
  18. Allison

    Does anything in your home smell like patchouli? Is it possible the smell is in your sheets or towels? Do you burn anything that smells like it, like incense, when you’re home? Do you wear those oils outside of work? Sometimes the smell of our homes gets on our clothing, so our clothing smells like it even if we didn’t intentionally put it there, and we may not notice it. And if the smell is in your bath towel or sheets, traces of it could be getting on you without you realizing it. Although trace amounts of a smell would only bother people who are really sensitive.

    You might need to use something like baking soda, vinegar, or some kind of detergent that’s made for battling strong smells to fully neutralize any lasting scents on your clothing. Or make sure you’re using a powerful, unscented detergent. Sorry to say, sometimes the organic, all natural, Earth friendly stuff is no match for strong or stubborn smells.

    Or she’s a meanieface who’s decided you’re a smelly hippie, she’s grown to anticipate the smell and she’s decided to tease you about your smell even if it isn’t there.

    Reply
  19. B

    I do agree your coworker is being rude. However, I noticed you said you stopped wearing perfume but have you also stopped using the indie oil scents? For me those are much worse than perfume. Even though they say unscented many of them still have a scent.

    If you are using natural cleaners those do have a scent. Not that they are scented themselves but two coworkers are all natural and I can’t be near them for more than 5 minutes. Whatever brand they use has a very off putting smell.

    Reply
    1. Natalie

      I’m almost positive the perfume and the indie oil scents are one and the same – a lot of places sell perfume oils rather than spray perfume, but generally one would just refer to them all as “perfume”.

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Agreed. I think OP is referring to all toiletries and detergents (including the indie oils, which she wore as perfume because she doesn’t wear “perfume” in the literal sense).

        Reply
      2. Jadelyn

        I don’t even own any alcohol-based spray-type perfumes, just oils and solid perfumes, and I still refer to them all as just “perfume”, so I think that’s what OP meant.

        Reply
        1. Jessesgirl72

          If one were going to be pedantic about it, the solid perfumes would be the only ones properly referred to by the word perfume. Most sprays today don’t even qualify for the technical definition of eau de parfum.

          Colloquially, anything scented you use for the scent (and not to wash, etc) is commonly referred to as perfume.

          Reply
          1. Smelly LW

            Yes, my indie oils are my perfume. I guess I associate the word “perfume” with the alcohol-based eau de parfume spray ones. :)

            Reply
  20. (different) Rebecca

    I’m trying to come up with something constructive like the rest of the comments, but all that keeps going through my head is “why are you so obsessed with me?” a la Mean Girls.

    Reply
  21. Sparky

    I add vinegar to thrift store clothes to get ride of the scented detergents most of them wash things in. It seems to help get the scents out, but it still takes several washings to get the scent out.

    Reply
    1. whichsister

      My mom taught me this trick…. it also helps with static electricity AND acts as a fabric softener and is much cheaper than store bought fabric softener. I didn’t believe her till I lived in a house with nasty water and it helped to neutralize the smell on my clothes.

      Reply
  22. Camellia

    I think you could explore the suggestions of others above about fragrance in unlikely places like a coat or jacket, or on your chair.

    Could you bring in some Frebreeze and see if that helps? At least she would actually SEE you trying something and, who knows, it might take care of any lingering scents.

    Reply
    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      If she’s complaining about OP’s non-smell, and if she’s fragrance-sensitive, spraying febreeze is like an act of war. It’s so heavily scented (even the “I scented” version) that it will likely be much much worse…

      Reply
      1. Jadelyn

        +100 – my workplace has those cans of Febreze in the bathroom and while I get the need for them, I do get that, it’s still awful and headache-inducing for me when someone sprays it.

        Reply
      2. Jessesgirl72

        Yeah. If someone was spraying any form of Febreeze, *I* would go to the Manager. I can’t handle it at all!

        And the OP is herself sensitive to chemical smells, so the Febreeze would be harming herself.

        Reply
        1. JessaB

          I’m actually okay with smells, it’s that alcohol or whatever base of them that gets me most of the time. IE you can spray Febreeze but by gods let me know so I stay out of the place for a half hour or more so the scent carrier dissipates. Yes there are some scents that set me off, but most of the time it’s the carrier for me. One of the things that sets me off at first is if I can “taste” the scent, that chemical taste in the back of my throat is an instant major asthma attack. I finally had to write up one worker who insisted on spraying perfume in the office. I was like it’s okay to wear it, but you CANNOT keep spraying that stuff in a common work area (it was an answering service and the supervisor desk was on a raised platform so you could see the whole room,) and she was totally immersing herself in stuff.

          Reply
        1. Amber Rose

          Unscented my butt. Febreeze is the nuclear bomb of deodorizer. Their idea of unscented is, to me, to just kill me with a scent I can’t define.

          Reply
          1. Teclatrans

            Agreed.

            Apparently the original product (in R&D) was scent-free, but focus group people didn’t associate lack of scent with “clean,” so they added in scent to make it marketable. Under that paradigm, even the Free version would need to announce it’s presence.

            Reply
        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Sorry, “I scented” was an autocorrect—I wrote unscented. I don’t have smell sensitivities, and I have a terrible sense of smell, and febreeze unscented gives me migraines. It’s not workable.

          Reply
      3. my two cents

        Febreeze offers a scent-free ‘allergen reducer’ version of the spray, which might be helpful if the OP’s coworker actually still has a sensitivity and isn’t just being rude.

        Reply
        1. LavaLamp

          Ugh the bathroom fabreeze. Listed as smelling like sky and linen. The sky doesn’t have a smell unless you want to smell like pollution imo.

          I think society in general is getting odd about smells. Like those toilet sprays for example. They’re advertising is hilarious but humans have been emitting bathroom smells since well forever.

          Reply
            1. Jadelyn

              The best thing I’ve ever found for bathroom sprays, which actually seems to cut through and dissipate unpleasant smells, is the “citrus magic” sprays that use actual lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit oils. I worked somewhere that used the lime one for the bathrooms and it did beautifully without giving me headaches, so I started buying them for home. There’s no perfume smell, it smells very natural to me.

              Reply
      4. Camellia

        Hmm, I had no idea. My husband is quite sensitive to smell and he uses it so I thought it would be okay. Perhaps he has the scent-free version that ‘my two cents’ mentioned. Either way, OP certainly doesn’t want to make matters worse so she probably shouldn’t try it!

        Reply
    2. Smelly LW

      Heh, I actually really hate the smell of Febreeze myself. If the goal was to get me to move to another desk that would be a great way to accomplish it!

      Reply
  23. Lady Bug

    OP, is there a possibility of moving your (or her) physical location? You’ve made many changes to try to accommodate her and they’ve been unsuccessful. Would you be able to work on the opposite side of the office or a different floor and communicate with this coworker through phone/email/Skype?

    Reply
    1. KR

      Good idea! Or, if OP isn’t the type to be cold at work, perhaps a fan set on low that could blow the scented air away from the coworker?

      Reply
    2. Stella's Mom

      I think this is a good suggestion, was about to say the same. A physical change of environment for one or both of them should neutralise this co-worker’s issue.

      Reply
    3. Smelly LW

      That’s a good idea! It didn’t occur to me because we do work closely on my project, but I guess there’s no reason that necessarily has to be physical closeness. Thank you, I’ll suggest that to my manager!

      Reply
    4. JessaB

      I think at this point, management needs to be involved. If coworker needs an accommodation they need to ask for it, and they cannot be permitted to continue to be snarky about it and rude. They need to ask for help and it’s at this point NOT on the OP to continue to take someone being nasty.

      Reply
  24. FDCA In Canada

    Is it possible that the oil-based scents are lingering in something that doesn’t get laundered very often–maybe a coat or even shoes? I know my winter parka can definitely retain scents in the fur on the hood, so it might be something like that transferring scents? Or maybe the scents linger in a vehicle that then gets “stuck” on you, so to speak, or on an office chair? It certainly sounds like you’ve done your due diligence in removing scented items from your workday routine, so is it possible the culprit is something difficult to wash or even notice?

    Reply
  25. chocolate lover

    I don’t have anything new/useful to add, but it sounds like you’ve gone above and beyond to accommodate your coworker. I also have scent sensitivities (I’ve had to ask a coworker to sit further away from me because the smell – we never figured out which product it was – made me sick to my stomach) and I would totally appreciate everything you’ve done. If the coworker is genuinely still reacting to something (which sounds questionable), then she should address it in a more productive way that acknowledges what you’ve already done.

    Reply
  26. Rebecca

    I may be off base, but if the OP was using an oil type product, and depending on where she used it, like on wrists or forearms, could it be lingering on the desk or office chair? My office chair has cloth arms, and my thought process is that maybe some of the oils are lingering on these items, and when the OP is sitting in the chair, or putting her arms on the desk, her body warmth could cause the scents to be noticeable?

    I happen to like scents like patchouli, but it is a strong scent, so perhaps it’s lingering someplace. Another thought that just occurred to me is a cloth car seat, so maybe while the clothing items were washed, perhaps it’s being transferred from other places. The OP is probably very used to it, and if the coworker is very sensitive, I can see where he or she might think it was still being used.

    Reply
    1. Amy

      Even if it is lingering on a car or office chair, I think fixing that would be reaching beyond the point of reasonable accommodation on the OP’s part. Getting a scent out of a car seat isn’t exactly an easy venture. At that point, I think the OP can justifiably say that she’s done what she can do, and if further accommodations are needed, the coworker needs to sort that out with their employer, not with OP.

      Reply
      1. Rebecca

        I totally agree – I know the OP is trying to do her best, and is frustrated about where this could be coming from.

        Reply
  27. Amarzing

    Yeah, I’m not seeing spending more time continuing to pinpoint the cause. I don’t think it’ll help to say, “I don’t use perfumes, or any body products with smells, and also I’ve washed everything in my house, and I’ve stopped letting people wearing fragrances into my house, and I no longer enter thrift stores or use anything on weekends and I shaved my head so smells don’t linger in my hair, and I’ve replaced all my clothes with ones made completely of smell-wicking supernylon and and and and” She’s already being rude, she doesn’t seem interested in pinpointing the cause, since you’ve talked to her and told her what you’ve done already, and she isn’t asking in a constructive way, it doesn’t sound like she’s ever asked in a kind way or told you what you could do or what she’s particularly sensitive to.

    You’ve done all that it is reasonable to ask of you. I don’t even care if there IS a smell that she can smell and is sensitive to. Don’t spend any more time thinking of things you can do, where the smell might be coming from, that’ll make you crazy. Skip to step 2, talking to the coworker (it sounds like you DID and it doesn’t say how she responded to that other than she continues to make snide comments, but if you think laying it out more specifically and clearly again with her is possible, that she’s reasonable enough for a clear conversation, then go ahead and do this step)

    Reply
    1. gwal

      agreed. if there is a sensitivity at play here, it should be on the workplace to figure out an accommodation for the affected employee–not for OP to try even harder to obliterate every aromatic molecule from her clothes/jackets/chairs/PORES(?!!?? very invasive advice)

      Reply
      1. kapers

        Yes. This is a coworker/management problem, not an OP needs to take special tablets and buy a new bedspread problem.

        Reply
    2. Tomato Frog

      Agreed. I’m reading all the advice here for other potential sources of the smell and I’m picturing Gene Hackman in The Conversation, tearing up his apartment looking for a listening device. There’s a point at which the OP is entitled to stop trying to change her life to accommodate this, and that point is now, given how unhelpful and rude the coworker is being.

      Reply
  28. TotesMaGoats

    OP: Your coworker is a jerk. You’ve done more than most people would. I would make sure your boss is aware of all the changes you’ve made and then refer Jane to HR every time she says something. Full stop.

    Reply
  29. kapers

    Wow. You’ve taken all reasonable steps mitigate this and she’s being extraordinarily inappropriate with you. She should take this up with the manager, not with you directly, and certainly not with little cutting comments instead of direct requests.

    Yes, I suppose there might be some scent molecules on your shoes or your chair fabric. Is your manager willing to get the company to pay for your shoes and chair to be professionally (and secentlessly) laundered? Of not, then she can be moved to a less bothersome location.

    Reply
  30. agmat

    I’m surprised at the amount of comments that are focusing solely on how to ensure you emit no fragrances. OP has done a lot already and coworker is just being snarky.

    If this were me, I would tell coworker I’ve done what I can and she can take it to the boss or HR if she feels more should be done. I understand that fragrances can be bothersome (I don’t like many of them myself), but the coworker needs to define whether this goes beyond plain bothersome into I-cannot-concentrate territory. Her coworkers shouldn’t be expected to so drastically alter their personal habits and small joys during non-work hours. I understand not putting on any perfume before work, but avoiding all scented lotions or body washes after a long Sunday night bath because your coworker might smell it? No.

    Reply
    1. paul

      amen.

      It’s one thing to say don’t wear perfume/aftershave/etc at work.

      it’s another to try to force someone to, say, buy a new wardrobe and try pills and special washes to absolutely rule out any and all possible causes.

      Consideration and empathy cut both ways. It’s not a unilateral street.

      Reply
    2. Artemesia

      I would not send her to HR, they are likely to be the dingbats that will turn it back on you. I would go to HR myself and complain that I am being harassed by a co-worker who in spite of your having ended wearing the perfume that bothered her is waging a campaign of harassment against you. You want it to stop. Time for bending over backwards is past here.

      Reply
    3. a girl has no name

      I agree! I have been very confused about the comments. Glad I’m not the only one. OP has done put in a ton of effort to alleviate the smell. That’s why I like Alison’s advice. At this point you have done plenty to make her life easier, and she is being rude. It would be awful to hear that you smell everyday. You are kind co-worker. I agree to use Alison’s wording and put this back in her court.

      Reply
    4. Christine

      A hot bath, with scented salts and a glass wine after work sounds awful good to me right now. Stressful couple of days.

      Reply
    5. LiveandLetDie

      Same here. It’s like ‘take the LW at their word’ doesn’t apply to fragrance-based letters or something. It’s pretty frustrating to scroll through. I feel like the LW has done more than enough to ensure that they don’t smell strongly at work and that this coworker is being unreasonable and rude.

      Reply
    6. JGray

      I agree with you that the OP has already done a lot and the coworker is being snarky. If the coworker has a legit fragrance sensitivity than she needs to inform her manager and HR. HR will work on an accommodation & there will be a doctors note provided that actually talks about the fragrance sensitivity. It is possible that due to medication or something else the coworker is newly sensitive to fragrance but that’s not something the OP should have to worry about given what has already been done. The office could have other environmental factors that are actually causing coworkers issues- like dirt in carpets or something. But this sounds like a specific attack on the OP for some reason. I also think that the OP should go to HR and let them know what has been going on. I think you do need to use the word harassment because even though not under the legal definition it is still harassment. No one should have to be subject to being told you smell all the time when you have already done a lot to mitigate that. OP could also ask the HR person if they can smell anything on them. I also think that the manager needs to be a little more forceful with the coworker about the comments- tell the coworker to knock it off.

      Reply
      1. Artemesia

        This. Preempt HR. Make yourself the squeaky wheel and stop letting her harass you and bully you. Enough is enough. Suggest management isolate her if living in the world is too much for her once accommodations have already been made and she won’t. shut. up. about. it. Time to go on the offensive here. (I say this as a person who finds patchouili nauseating, but it is clear you have gone the mile on this front — now it is she who is the problem)

        Reply
    7. La Revancha del Tango

      Totally agree with this. Requesting a coworker to not wear perfume or oils to work is reasonable. Asking a coworker to switch soaps is ridiculous. Never would I not enjoy a nice bath one evening with some yummy essential oils because the smell “lingered” 12 hours later.

      Reply
      1. aebhel

        This. The coworker seems to expect a level of accommodation that you should really only expect from someone you’re cohabiting with. OP has been beyond accommodating; this is now a management problem to solve.

        Reply
  31. the raven

    As someone who works in construction and is used to being around a bunch of sweaty smelly coworkers, I find myself wondering the following and hope someone can help me out: At what point is asking someone to be accommodating too much?

    Several of the suggestions above talk about completely changing what products one buys and what one does while at home. I can understand wanting to be considerate, but doesn’t one still have the right to wear perfume on the weekends or burn incense? I’m genuinely curious about this.

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      I don’t necessarily think anyone should totally change the soap they use because as someone who is dramatically allergic/sensitive to smells, I really don’t think commercial soaps smell THAT strongly. Although if someone (politely) asked me to use a different detergent because it was making them ill, I probably would. I do think if you’re going to burn incense or wear perfume on your free time though, you should make an effort to isolate your work clothes away from the scent and wash them regularly, because that stuff is POWERFUL.

      I remember being at a conference and requesting that the organizers make some sort of announcement asking people not to spray perfume in the conference areas. Not even to not wear it, just to not bring the damn bottles in. And I was laughed at. I spent the rest of the conference in an anti-histamine induced haze. It sucked. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But the world is literally full of smells. At some point, you gotta be able to cope.

      Reply
      1. JanetM

        Huh. I have attended conferences where the registration page indicated “scent-free environment,” and at the opening meeting another announcement was made about not using scented products, including the soap, etc. provided by the hotel.

        Reply
        1. a different Vicki

          For a while I was attending a conference that made that request. Starting a couple of years in, they brought in unscented liquid soap for the public bathrooms, because there’s not much point asking everyone to use unscented products at home/in their hotel rooms if possible, and then have everyone use orange-scented hand soap all day.

          Reply
    2. Amadeo

      This is what’s confusing me about these suggestions too. They feel so over-the-top as to be completely unreasonable to ask of a coworker. Ask them not to wear perfume to work? OK, that’s fine and I can handle that. But you can pry my Gain laundry detergent out of my cold dead hands. Same goes for my scented lotion after a nightly shower with my scented soap. Those are lengths to which I am totally unwilling to go to accommodate someone at work and I feel are things that no one has the right to ask of a coworker.

      Ask your manager to move your desk if the faint scent of a lotion used the night before bothers you that much.

      Reply
      1. the raven

        That’s where my confusion is too. I can understand perfume as that can be very potent and seems to do well to linger in the air. But I love my body wash and would be very unwilling to give it up as it doesn’t seem to be nearly as potent as perfume. I’d be willing to use a different scent on works days if one really bothered someone, but not to give it up completely.

        That all said, if someone really has to try hard to smell things, then I fail to see how those scents could be so potent as to warrant the need to remove them. If you have to be within my personal bubble of space to even smell my body wash then there is a bigger issue then how I smell, and can be easily fixed by staying a respectable distance from me.

        Reply
    3. super anon

      you said exactly what I tried to say, but much more eloquently.

      i agree. i think many of the suggestions here are verging on unreasonable. if you have to entirely eradicate any scent you may have and completely alter your lifestyle in your own home and on your own time to accommodate someone else – that’s pretty unreasonable.

      Reply
    4. MegaMoose, Esq

      I am all about being considerate to the people around you, but I’m having a hard time with this one too, because I agree that no one should be expected to change their home/weekend habits and change up all their products to accommodate a coworker. I’m also all for respecting that people respond differently to things so I hope this isn’t just me going off my own instincts, but I think banning wearing perfume and colognes in the workplace is acceptable in a way that banning lotion and dryer sheets and bodywash at home just is not.

      Reply
    5. GreyjoyGardens

      I agree with you, and I think that so many of the suggestions here were way over the top. You can’t police what people do or wear on their own time.

      I think the LW’s coworker is bullying her and LW should respond accordingly. I’ve known people like this – who take kindness and consideration as a weakness and will exploit it.

      Reply
  32. Amber Rose

    I once used a mix of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and my favorite detergent to remove cat pee from a mattress. It took a long time, and as a result I can’t use that detergent anymore because I associate it with spending hours with a mattress that reeked of pee. It doesn’t smell anything like pee, but reminds me of the smell all the same. Your coworker may just be associating you with whatever smell she didn’t like before. Smells sink into our brain and memory and association in a way almost nothing else does.

    Either way, your coworker is being a jerk. Thank you for trying to accommodate her instead of dismissing her, but even if she had a legit complaint, she’s been a jerk about it from the start and her comments are uncalled for and unprofessional.

    Reply
    1. Allie

      Oh gosh, nothing makes you paranoid like cat pee. My cat peed on a mattress after a surgery and I could not get the smell out of my nose. I though he had peed on everything. My husband had to calm me down.

      Reply
  33. Former Retail Manager

    This may have already been mentioned, but the co-worker said the scent was “bothering her.” Bothering her as in “I don’t like that scent” or bothering her as in “I get debilitating migraines and cannot work due to that scent?” There is a big difference. I HATE floral scents in virtually all forms, but I don’t have severe allergies nor do I get migraines. They just aren’t my preference, but barring a health related consequence of great severity, I would never dream of asking anyone to change their scent of choice. Your co-worker sounds like she’s being a bit difficult and imposing unrealistic expectations on the OP. I’m sure she encounters scents she doesn’t care for every day that she has no control over and she just deals with it. Best of luck OP and as an aside, I LOVE patchouli. It doesn’t smell nice on me, but my husband used to wear it and I loved it.

    Reply
    1. Meg Murry

      Yes, I think this is a big difference too. If co-worker said that the scented oils give her migraines or make her feel like she’s going to vomit, I think that’s a different level than just saying “I don’t like that scent”.

      Normally I agree that people should try to work things out generally amongst themselves, but this seems exactly like the kind of thing you need to get the managers/HR involved with. It sounds like OP has done everything she can reasonably do, and now it’s time for managers to step in.

      I think it’s time for OP to otherwise adopt a broken record response, like “Nope, not wearing any perfume today. I stopped wearing it to work when you asked me to.” or just “Nope, not me.” and then either ignore the co-worker or go on talking about the TPS reports or whatever.

      Reply
    2. Anonymous for This (Scent)

      I think this is an important point too. On a related note, my ex-boss smelled pretty strongly of second hand smoke. But I was situated in front of the AC, I could open windows and office doors to ventilate, we had an air purifier in the office, and he had a fan pointed on him pretty constantly blowing the scent away from him. Sure, the smell bothered me and sometimes I had to go take a walk to the water cooler to clear my head, but we were doing everything possible to mitigate the scent in the office so I just had to suck it up and deal with it and I would never dream of asking my boss to change his lifestyle to accommodate me.

      Reply
    3. Smelly LW

      I think she’s using ‘bother’ in the “I don’t like it” sense. She’s never complained before now about my perfume, and I’m sure she would mention if she was having health issues based on it. Also, the day she complained I wasn’t even wearing patchouli!

      I will admit that I love patchouli, though. But it does have so many negative associations and smells so strongly to people that I wouldn’t wear it to work anyway.

      Reply
      1. Former Retail Manager

        Oh well then….if she just doesn’t like it, that’s just too bad. So many great suggestions here for how to deal with her from that perspective since she, not the scent, is the problem. And negative associations with patchouli? It’s a “hippie” scent…maybe. Hubby always got compliments from both people who knew what it was and those who didn’t. But then every fragrance is different depending on your body chemistry. Maybe he was just made to wear it. Makes me smell like an old shoe. :)

        Reply
      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Wait, she’s not allergic or so scent-sensitive that it’s giving her headaches, or other negative physiological effects? Screw this lady. She’s a massive jerk, and you owe her nothing. It “bothers” me to have to interact with assholes, but unfortunately, there’s no cure for that.

        I vote for the desk-moving solution. This is me being petty (so maybe don’t do what I’m about to suggest), but if she makes some snide remark or complains again, say to her (in a really “concerned” voice): “Have you considered getting help or initiating the ADA accommodation process? I’m worried that there might be an underlying medical issue.” And then walk away. You can put on a puzzled/pitying face and rotate in comments like, “Wow, that’s rude,” and “What a strange thing to say.”

        Reply
        1. Duck Duck Møøse

          Yeah, she sounds like a jerk who wants things her way all the time. I have an issue with some scents. I have a number of co-irkers that I want to tell “Nice perfume/cologne – must you bathe in it?” but I don’t, because it’s merely obnoxious, and I’m not a jerk. It’s my personal opinion. I turn on my fan to get it blown away from my desk. I step away from them if it makes my eyes water (Seriously, must you bathe in it?? Oh, it’s called scent layering? Fab. Go away. Jerk. ;)
          However, I draw the line at cheap room fragrance oil diffuser things – for some reason, those set off my migraines. I’m fine with solids, sprays, Febreze, Lysol, but not the oil based ones. The ones made with essential oils seem OK, it’s the more chemical created scents. I call them vanilla napalm (since every time I’ve had a migraine form at work, I’ve smelled cloyingly awful (probably fake) sweet vanilla, even if its supposedly a floral scent) So far, my management or OHSA rep has handled the dirty work of getting those removed. People are pretty accommodating when it’s a medical reason.

          Reply
  34. What?

    I will say re: patchouli that it’s a particularly lingering fragrance. My massage therapist uses a really nice patchouli blend oil (it’s the ONLY form of patchouli I like lol) and I can STILL smell it on my clothes I have washed several times since my last massage.

    So, if you use patchouli at all at home or on the weekends I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s noticeable to people. Or she may simply be nuts. ;)

    Reply
  35. Beth

    There’s nothing wrong with OP — coworker is being a jerk.

    We can list every single scented item under the sun that ~maybe~ is causing OP to have some sort of fragrance but really, this is over exaggeration and harassment on coworker’s part. Does coworker comment on every male in the office that uses cologne or Old Spice deodorant? Does she comment on people in the office who take smoking breaks and come back smelling slightly like cigarettes? Does she police every individual in the office? I’m guessing no, otherwise the coworker would have an office reputation for being sensitive. This isn’t coworker having a legitimate problem, this is coworker targeting OP for whatever reason. OP tell your coworker that you’ve done all you will do and to knock it off.

    Reply
    1. Smelly LW

      Oh, now that you say that I’m remembering that she didn’t complain once about the intern we had last summer who practically bathed in Axe products – I asked him once and he had the body wash AND the cologne/body spray stuff! He was like a little cloud of toxic masculinity.

      Reply
      1. MegaMoose, Esq

        I choked on my lunch at “little cloud of toxic masculinity.” My husband bought some Axe bodywash once because he’s oblivious and I had to tell him to replace it because that stuff was rank.

        Reply
      2. Hrovitnir

        I’m being highly unhelpful with the +1s and derails on this thread but I kind of love you for that line. :D

        Reply
    2. Venus Supreme

      I was wondering the same thing- I’m sure LW isn’t the only person in that office who uses scented products. And I find even men’s deodorants to be strong enough that I can smell it when they walk by.

      So, since there’s no history of odor-complaints… it sounds like Coworker found a bone to pick with LW and will exhaustively harp on any smell coming from her. All the more reason to use AAM’s scripts to squash the problem.

      Reply
  36. chickadee

    Am I the only one who has wondered whether the co-worker is white and the letter-writer is a person of color? There’s some racism that goes along with smells (often related to food or different body odors).

    Reply
    1. Serin

      Oh, dear, that’s true. Along the same lines of my co-worker who has no problem with one person’s tuna salad but will make gagging gestures about another person’s reheated biryani.

      Reply
    2. Rat in the Sugar

      I think Alison has asked us not to read race into letters because it can become derailing and it’s all speculation.

      Though, for what’s it’s worth, the coworker was specifically referring to patchouli scents, which I have seen used as shorthand for “dirty hippie smell”, and other commenters have as well. In the regions I have lived in, “dirty hippy” meant “white”, pretty much every time. I don’t think this is a race thing.

      Reply
      1. paul

        yeah, I’ve always associated with stoner culture more than hippies or POC to be honest.

        Guess it’s a regional thing

        Reply
    3. MuseumChick

      I suppose it’s possible but we have zero information from the letter to indicate race. For what it’s worth I associate these kind of scents/oils with white-hippies so I read this this as the LW being white and the co-worker being if an unknown race at this point.

      Reply
    4. L.

      Yeah, totally, for mention of patchouli above I think you can refer to the Zendaya – Giuliana Rancic dreadlocks saga of 2015 for an example on how this can play out.

      Reply
    5. PepperVL

      I had wondered that as well. In particular I’ve heard white people comment on how black people smell, though I’m sure other POC have similar experiences.

      Reply
  37. super anon

    I don’t have any advice, but I am wondering how it is fair or reasonable that the OP should even have to make all of these concessions at her own expense because her coworker won’t stop picking on her. I understand having to accommodate a coworker with an ADA request (although correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that would come directly from the company and likely wouldn’t require everyone to replace all scented everything they own because that seems like an unreasonable accommodation) but in this case it’s a coworker who is ceaselessly complaining about the OP’S existence rather than her actual scent, based on the steps she’s taken.

    From what I’ve read, it seems that if this happened to me I would have to spend several hundred dollars replacing every toiletry and all laundering supplies in my home, wash everything I own multiple times and most likely get all coats and heavy fabrics dry cleaned, and even THEN the coworker may still not be happy with my potential scent. What would I have to do then – buy all new clothes to eradicate a scent that may or may not exist? Stop eating any food that has the potential to be fragrant? That seems pretty unreasonable

    I would second Allison’s advice to talk to your manager – if this was happening to one of my employees I would want to know about it.

    Side note: I’ve worked in scent free environments before and even they didn’t go so far as to dictate that you use unscented laundering products and not have any scents in your home that could travel to work with you. I’m Canadian, so perhaps this is another cultural difference AAM has uncovered for me.

    Reply
    1. L.

      Honestly, the race to defer to the coworker in comments baffles me. I work in a normal law firm type atmosphere and several employees are rocking strong cologne and perfume that does indeed linger in the air or on my clothes/hair. But we shake it off, and the office culture is such that a person complaining about that sort of thing would be told to suck it up unless it presents a health concern. Then again, here the people rocking the strong scents tend to be older and more senior in the organization. Maybe the hierarchy of OP compared to the coworker is part of this.

      Reply
    2. Smelly LW

      To be fair, the only thing I’ve actually changed since she complained is not wearing the perfume. I’ve used unscented deodorant, detergent and dryer sheets for years since I don’t like the chemical scent that tend to be used with these. It is just normal unscented Sure/Tide/Bounce, though, not “natural” versions of these like you’d find in places like Whole Foods.

      Reply
      1. Rachael

        I commented below, but it seems to me that your coworker just doesn’t “like” your scent. From what you described she just wrinkles up her nose and is not having an allergy problem. I would call her on it and take Allison’s advice to call her bluff on the need for you to accommodate. If it is just a personal preference to what she is smelling you do not need to be so accommodating. I dislike 99% of perfumes and am allergic to many but I don’t go around making people feel like stinky people. She is rude.

        Reply
  38. bunniferous

    This may be snarky….but perhaps the coworker could simply rub a bit of Vicks Vapor Rub just above her upper lip. This should prevent any other smells from entering her nose. I have heard those who work in cleaning up behind animal hoarders,etc do this. I keep forgetting I probably need to try it for all those foreclosed houses I enter that simply reek of animal waste.

    But again, this might be me being snarky.

    Reply
    1. Jessesgirl72

      Snarky or not, it does highlight that the problem is the co-worker’s to solve, not the OP’s.

      She needs a personal air filter, and to leave the OP alone.

      Reply
    2. fposte

      That doesn’t keep the other odors from actually entering, though; it just overpowers them. So if the co-worker were to have a genuine allergy to patchouli, say, it wouldn’t help.

      I don’t think she does, but I think she does genuinely believe that the OP is still wearing perfume.

      Reply
        1. fposte

          As I said, I don’t think she has one. However, genuine allergic reactions aren’t necessarily going to manifest in front of their source–it’s not all doubling over in the moment.

          Reply
  39. Not a paralegal

    Sounds like your co-worker is on a power-trip. Constant snarky comments and exaggerated sniffing sounds like she’s having fun at your expense rather than suffering from scent sensitivities. Not to mention, if the only change was the perfume you started wearing, then not wearing it anymore and cleaning all your clothes should have stopped the problem. Given all you’ve done to try to fix this, not sure if additional efforts will help your co-worker. But doesn’t hurt to try, and Alison and others offer great suggestions. Just don’t feel bad anymore, because short of quitting, you can only do so much to accommodate your co-worker.

    Reply
  40. Delta Delta

    I feel like I’d want to get to the root of the problem. I’d ask the co-worker to describe the smell and when she smells it. Maybe it’s something as easy as lingering scent in a jacket; if you don’t wear the jacket the scent isn’t there. Or maybe it’s a combination of things that clashes to make a weird scent, like the OP’s lemon body wash combined with the office bathroom air freshener.

    If the co-worker was a jerk about it I might get dramatic and fling myself to the floor and wail, “what more do you want from me?” But that’s really better left for fantasy, I suppose.

    Reply
  41. AnonEMoose

    Whether or not the coworker has a sensitivity, her behavior is way inappropriate. At this point, it really feels to me like the coworker is acting like a middle school bully. The OP has been, it seems, acting like a reasonable adult, which is great when dealing with another reasonable adult.

    But that doesn’t seem to be what the OP is dealing with just now, so she may need to change from the “reasonable adult” playbook to the “dealing with a bully” playbook. It’s Bully 101 to push and push and push until the victim explodes, and then “so and so blew up at me for NO REASON…oh, poor me…”. Sadly, lots of people fall for this.

    So…what the OP might consider doing is going to her boss (assuming the boss is reasonable) and saying something like, “I’ve tried very hard to work with Coworker regarding her scent sensitivity. I’ve done X, Y, and Z. But she is still complaining and making snarky, belittling comments that seem out of place in a professional workplace. At this point, it seems to me that her behavior is/is verging on (whichever seems most appropriate to you) workplace bullying, and I am concerned.” Then see what Boss says, and go from there.

    Reply
  42. MicroManagered

    It seems like some people in an office environment get a pet Thing To Complain About and lose track of either the importance or the existence of the Thing, sometimes both. I think it becomes a way to get attention, vent frustration, or just ensure that others are as miserable as the complainer.

    I think OP has already made a strong effort to accommodate her coworker’s sensitivity, and I get a whiff (heh) that the situation is not even about that anymore.

    Reply
  43. paul

    You’ve done what’s reasonable at this point.

    All the advice about deep cleaning all bedding and coats and switching detergents and shampoos and the like is baffling.

    Telling someone they have to drastically alter their *non work life* to accommodate someone that doesn’t like a smell–hell, even someone with allergies or migraines–isn’t cool.

    Even assuming there’s a real medical reason for this (and that’s a leap on the presented facts) accommodation is on the employer, not fellow employees.

    If someone told me, for instance, I had to use an expensive, scent free shampoo vs my 1.09 bottle of Sauve, I’d tell them no. Period, full stop. I’m not altering a huge chunk of my life because someone doesn’t like how I smell.

    Reply
  44. Temperance

    Do you have a soft chair, or have you been wearing the same coat since then? It’s entirely possible that your chair or coat have absorbed the smell, and you might not even recognize it.

    Reply
  45. Rachael

    I am sensitive to fragrance. My stomach turns, I get stomach problems, my skin itches and my face turns red, headaches……however, I also hate the smell of “unscented” products. Even I can’t wear those. They do have a smell…lol. Therefore, I only bring it up to people if I can’t avoid the person and just deal with it because I feel that I shouldn’t dictate how others live their own lives. (I did draw the line when someone started spraying their AquaNet on their hair at their desk, though..)

    Now, I know that others who are sensitive cannot “deal” with it because of worse effects, but that doesn’t look like what is happening here. There are a lot of people who are sensitive to perfumes but don’t act like jerks. It looks like you just have someone who just “doesn’t like” your scent.

    I would follow Allison’s advice and go to HR with her to see how to accommodate her “sensitivity”. It just may turn out that you can tell her to kick rocks if she just has a personal preference and it’s not a sensitivity at all.

    Reply
    1. L.

      “Therefore, I only bring it up to people if I can’t avoid the person and just deal with it because I feel that I shouldn’t dictate how others live their own lives.” BINGO. Thanks for giving your more mature (compared to the coworker) perspective here.

      Reply
    2. hayling

      There’s no legal definition of “unscented” and “fragrance-free,” so companies can slap that label any product. There can be essential oils, plant derivatives, and masking fragrances in “unscented” products. My “unscented” antiperspirant has a masking fragrance, which fortunately doesn’t bother me.

      Reply
  46. Spelliste

    Seconding the thanks! I hope this works out and she backs off, but either way, as a scent-sitive person, thank you so much for going through all this effort. You’ve really gone out of your way to accommodate her, and she truly can’t expect (or reasonably ask) for more. You’re lovely!

    Reply
  47. Serin

    I once did a volunteer gig in a bingo hall — this was before tobacco regulations were tightened in public locations — and afterwards I could smell the smoke until I washed my sneakers, my purse (fabric, luckily), and my coat and scarf. I’m super-sensitive to the smell of tobacco smoke, but this does go to show you that it can linger in unexpected places.

    Reply
    1. Christine

      Same when I was a bartender as a 2nd job. Thrown everything in the washer when I get home, may not wash it than and there, and take a shower before heading to bed. When you’re a non smoker, it’s bad.

      Reply
    2. SimonTheGreyWarden

      Even the smallest amount of second-hand smoke can trigger my asthma, though I don’t always have a full on asthma attack from it. I’ve been even more sensitive to it with the pregnancy, and yet I wouldn’t dream of asking students to quit smoking before coming to class because I can’t make that request from them. I wear a peppermint lotion on my hands that I can hold to my nose to clear it, and just deal with it. If it were a worse reaction I might say something, but right now I don’t.

      The worst, though, is that my hair picks up smells like no one’s business and will smell like cig smoke even if I just walk past a group of people smoking. :(

      Reply
  48. Christine

    OP — How long have you and this co-worker worked together?

    Do you have a sweater or jacket that you wear on a regular basis that you keep in your office? they may be still carrying your scented oil. It’s also possible to have the upholstery and carpet in your office carrying the scent and be unaware of it.

    I recommend that you febreeze everything in your office if you have carpet or upholstery. Wash and dry clean any clothing that you wear that’s kept in your office. You can always go to HR on the day she complains about your scent, and point blank ask them if they smell it. But do what Alison suggests. It’s your co-worker’s responsibility to go to their supervisor with a request for accommodation, doing the formal form filled out by a physician versus going to you each time she doesn’t like the way you smells when you have done everything that you can do to accommodate her. The readers have some great ideas. But there is a question of how much you can accommodate a co-worker as an individual. She may have to wear one of those paper face masks.

    I used to love a scented oil, “Rose Musk” and I had to stop wearing it because I had two bosses that made their eyes water. We ended up deciding to go scent free office because both of them was sensitive to different things. Now that I’m older, I’m having issues with strong floral scents.

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      Febreeze is the worst. It’s always suggested as this neutral thing, but it’s extremely toxic, often even to people who aren’t sensitive.

      I’m not trying to like, lecture you, but I really think more people should be made aware of just HOW BAD Febreeze is. Several of the ingredients they use are irritants to lungs and eyes, several others are known allergens, and some of them are linked to neurotoxicity.

      I lost a week of my life once because my husband used one of their plug ins. We didn’t know. People tend not to.

      Reply
    2. Smelly LW

      We’ve worked together on this project for about six months, and been in the same office for about three years? She was here before me, and I’ve been here three years. I’ve also been wearing my oils since I started, and she only just complained about it a month ago.

      I do have a sweater that lives at the office, and I took it home and washed it after she complained.

      Also, I can’t deal with the smell of Febreeze. I’m not allergic, but it just has such a terrible chemical smell that just lingers forever – if my coworker wanted to get rid of me, spraying my stuff with Febreeze would do it!

      Reply
      1. MegaMoose, Esq

        For real – I understand if people *like* the smell of Febreeze, but seriously, it’s not some magical odor-disapperating powder, so don’t act like it’s automatically preferable to any other strong scent.

        Reply
        1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

          It used to be a magical odor-disappearing spray! When it was first released it was blissfully unscented, actually eliminated scents rather than covering them. Sigh.

          Reply
            1. MegaMoose, Esq

              Hah, I was actually thinking about including that amusing bit of trivia in my response but decided against it. Ten points to Gryffindor!

              Reply
    3. GreyjoyGardens

      I don’t think LW should have to go above and beyond and Feebreeze her office and dryclean her clothes and not take bubble baths on her *own time* and and and and. I think at this point LW is being bullied.

      Reply
  49. Maggie

    I’m pretty sensitive to smells (my husband says I’m part bloodhound; I just say that I’m allergic to everything), and my husband, back when we were dating, used the most foul-smelling (to me) soaps and laundry detergent. I just could not handle it.

    We embarked on a months-long quest to find soaps and laundry soap that he liked and that I could tolerate, but you know… he’s my significant other! I expected him to accommodate my scent-aversion because I lived with him! But a co-worker? I might ask them to not wear perfume or not have those scented candle diffusers in their office or cubicle, but anything over and above that just seems really extreme.

    Reply
  50. Katniss

    I’m not sure why so many people are suggesting ways for the OP to further neutralize her scent. She’s done more than is reasonable. This is on her coworker to figure out now, with the help of the company.

    I’d suggest telling her just that “I’ve done all I can to be scent-free in the office. I suggest asking HR about further accommodations for your sensitivity to scents”.

    Reply
  51. amy

    One, about patchouli — just don’t. It’s like cilantro: some people like it, but for others it’s a gag-a-thon. It’s not a neutral and pleasant sort of floral whatever.

    Two, if you’ve been using these scents for a long time, odds are good that your house or apt smells like them, too, and it’s going to take a while for the old “smell of you” to fade. Until then, yeah, the scent will cling to you and your clothes.

    If she’s got a serious problem with it, she needs to talk to the boss and make some sort of arrangement so she doesn’t have to get next to you, and also so the boss can make a general announcement about a scent policy. Which is a good thing to have anyway. Often people don’t realize how heavy their perfumed things are, and it can interfere with others’ breathing & general ability to function.

    Reply
    1. Jen RO

      But what if she likes patchouli? I don’t think it’s reasonable for her to avoid a scent just because someone somewhere might hate it. It’s not like we banned cilantro-flavored food…

      Reply
      1. seejay

        Yeah, I get not bringing scents into the workplace and all, and I’d try to be cognizant of it, but I love patchouli and I have a serious smell problem I need to deal with at home that I use a lot of incense and scented oils for (and patchouli is one of the smells I use specifically because it’s strong enough to deal with it). If I was told to not ever use it again in my personal life because it was bothering someone at work, I’d be mighty peeved off. I get it, scent sensitivities are no joke, and I am more than willing to do what I can make the office space as pleasant as possible, but where’s the line on what you can and can’t use in your personal life because it might bother someone somewhere if you step out your front door?

        Reply
        1. Sprinkled with Snark

          I’m in the group that hates the smell of patchouli. It’s not so bad, really, to catch a whiff here or there, but a lot of patchouli is in the form of oil, which makes it even more concentrated and in your face. It’s also not a popular smell for body fragrances either, which tend to be floral or fruit based. It reminds me of funerals and old churches. Where a light scented spray of perfume or body mist or even deodorant will fade away throughout the day, patchouli oil is there forever. I had a co-worker who used it and one day I gave her a ride to a work function and my car smelled like patchouli until the day I traded it in, especially on hot summer days at 5:05pm. The scent literally makes me a little queasy, just like the smell of too many lilies or orchids, which are toxic to many people, especially children. This co-worker is handling things very immaturely, but patchouli is a big red flag.

          Reply
      2. Sabine the Very Mean

        But I agree that patchouli is one.of.those.smells. I find it appalling. Offensive even. The most I would do, though, is remove my own self from the area. I would only put it on the wearer if they were not respecting my desire not to be around it. Most wearers would recognize such disgust like the OP did and stop wearing it but I can see others loving it so much that they would not give it up.

        Reply
        1. Sabine the Very Mean

          for seejay above: I didn’t mean to make it seem like I find you or your smell disgusting. I want to clarify that my “But I agree that patchouli is one.of.those.smells.” line meant that most will either love it or hate it as evidenced by our two opinions here. I meant no offense and should have not used the word ‘disgust’.

          Reply
          1. seejay

            oh I get it… I know that people either love or loathe it. I had an ex call it my “spooky foo tarot card shop” smell. I have a whole mess of oil perfumes and about half of them use patchouli as one of the base scents (I rarely wear them to work though, as in, maybe once every two months and no one’s ever said anything).

            For me though, I have three cats in a small apartment and I do my best to keep the cat stink under control. This requires a somewhat herculean effort of open windows, incense, scented candles, oil burners, and oil diffusers, plus regular cleaning of the litter box with high quality litter. Sometimes though, the cat wee smell will catch up to me and I’ll get home from work and WHOA. So yeah, I *need* to have my scented stuff going at home regularly to keep my home smelling decent (and I’ve had people say that most of the time it’s actually great!) If I had to start changing out my entire home routine to unscented products and avoiding incense and oils at home just to avoid bringing them into the office… well… chances are I’d probably start stinking like cat. :/ And yeah, patchouli, being one of my favourites, definitely is one of the more intense and stronger scents that helps beat down the ammonia smell of cat wee, that’s for sure.

            Reply
        2. Gadfly

          It is going down the whole “ethnic food” route of complaining about stinky food. For those who like it and for whom it is normal it is fine. For the people who dislike it or for whom it is an unexpected smell, it is hated. And a lot of it just depends on if it is “normal” to you.

          Reply
    2. Smelly LW

      I actually find the smell of patchouli very pleasant, but I do recognize that a lot of people have negative associations with it. What can I say, I both went through a goth phase in high school AND lived in San Francisco for several years! :)

      That said, though, the perfume I was wearing the day she complained didn’t actually have any patchouli in it, and I wear my patchouli-scented oils very sparingly. I’ve never had anyone else mention my scent unless I specifically ask, and even then it’s usually so faint that they have to sniff the crook of my elbow or whatever to smell it. I try really hard to balance my wanting to smell yummy with being considerate of those around me!

      Reply
    3. aebhel

      Just don’t… what? Don’t wear it to work, fine. But unless we’re also banning Axe body spray or Febreze from the public sphere (if only), people get to wear whatever scent they like in public even if it annoys some other people.

      Reply
      1. Lissa

        Yup. Don’t wear it to work is really reasonable, but asking someone to never use it is not – like you said, there are other scents that are also hated by some. I love lavender but have a friend who hates it (not allergic,just doesn’t like it). I’m not going to never use it ever because of that. Everything could be hated by someone, and yeah, so long as Axe is still allowed…

        Reply
        1. seejay

          Yep, I’m not going to stop using incense and oils at home out of the worry that it might travel with me to work on my clothes, or spend inordinate amounts of time washing my clothes to make sure they’re pristine so I don’t smell like patchouli. I need to deal with the smells in my apartment as best I can and the routines I have are the best solutions I’ve found so far. Plus I like the scents I have. I’d be pretty miffed if I had to stop using things in my personal life. :(

          Reply
    4. SaraSmiles

      Agreed- the smell of Patchouli makes me nauseous due to being forced to smell it for 3 years straight while working part time in a health food store while in high school (Bread & Circus anyone?). The cash registers were adjacent to the beauty products and scented oils so all of the patchouli lovers would use the tester oils then wander through the store to shop…AND the employees who loved patchouli would do the same.
      Anyway, since then the smell is so offensive to me. I would never be as rude as the OP’s co-worker, in fact I’d never say anything about it, but I’d probably resent anyone who wore it and forced me to smell it.
      Sorry, I might sound rude but I personally think all offices should have a “no parfume/no strong aftershave rule” – because although the wearer of a parfume may love the way it smells, odds are NO ONE ELSE does. And people tend to become immune to the smell of their own parfume so they wear much more than they need to…..which is essentially overkill and obnoxious to everyone around them. I was definitely guilty off that when Obsession first came out: people used to complain to me and I’d just laugh because they just didn’t know a good smell when they encountered one. Ha ha ha! I was a dingaling.

      Reply
  52. HeatherT

    I actually had a coworker use this as a bullying tactic about 7 years ago. The “scent” I was wearing suddenly started being unbearable right after I received a promotion. I didn’t wear any scent, but switched to unscented everything to be polite and actually reported the change to HR and my manager.

    The employee still kept reporting to HR that I was spritzing perfume in my cubicle and even alleged that I was purposely spritzing her cube while she was away. I literally invited HR to do spot checks of my cubicle to find the phantom spray. In the end she still has the same title as seven years ago and I (and another co-worker she bullied) have moved on to bigger organizations, titles, pay and mindsets.

    This feels very much like using HR to bully an employee while acting like the victim.

    Reply
    1. ifeelyourpain

      I also had a situation similar to this – i never wore perfume and switched to unscented everything to accommodate a coworker who kept complaining that I smelled. She would wear scarves over her mouth all day at work and cough and cry about how bad I smelled. My boss’ solution was to buy her a fan that she could turn on while I was in the room to point at me to keep my stink away from her. However, nothing I could do would fix the problem. My coworker was just a bully. I never smelled when she needed a ride anywhere or we weren’t in the office. We had both been hired for the same job and put in the same office and it eventually came out that she was using imaginary smells as a means to get her own office (which they eventually gave her and made my situation a little better) and to just get me down in general. Nobody wanted to deal with her because she was insane in many ways. It was just easier to ask me not to let it bother me and keep asking me to try new products and deal with her myself. I had to go see the ombudsman and talk to HR, but nothing helped. I eventually left for another job and I’m told she left right after.

      In other words, I tried steps 1-4 above, but was on my own to deal with this nut and couldn’t get anything to work. I hope something works for the person who wrote this! But you’re not alone and I for one believe you’re probably not the problem.

      Reply
        1. Lissa

          I’m not surprised. As soon as you have something unprovable that isn’t supposed to be questioned, bullies and jerks will latch onto it. It’s too bad because it is important not to question people about things like allergies, but as soon as somebody realizes nobody’s allowed to do so..also I think it’s worse with smells because telling somebody they smell is a very personal, emotional thing So if someone realizes they can “get at” someone like that, while covering it up with “oh, my allergies!” then it’s going to happen.

          Reply
    2. Smelly LW

      I was thinking about this, too, but I haven’t gotten any promotion, raise or recognition since we started working on this project. (I mean, other than the usual feedback from my manager.) We haven’t had any disagreements about politics, pop culture or anything to make her suddenly dislike me. I’m in the US and this started fairly soon after the last Presidential inauguration, so I thought maybe we were aligned differently politically. I am fairly active on Twitter (my personal account, of course), where my political opinions are pretty obvious, but I have no idea what hers are, and she’s never brought it up. So as far as I can tell, this came out of left field.

      Reply
      1. HeatherT

        Love the Smelly LW title! :) All in all, it’s just frustrating when you’ve done everything to accommodate someone and they are still abrasive. If it is bullying, then standing up for your right not to be verbally abused may help. And that is what this is. She has the option to politely manage this scenario and isn’t. It’s kind of sad that management isn’t reprimanding her behavior. Even if she genuinely believes she smells something, it is not her prerogative to treat you like this.

        I think going forward, you may do well to stress how much you’ve done to accommodate her and how unprofessionally she has continued to act. Focus on her behavior rather than any more placating action on your part. You’ve done your fair share in this situation, she is the one lacking.

        Best wishes!!

        Reply
  53. Sabine the Very Mean

    I’d start ignoring her as you would when someone enters a room and says, “my, I love your rust-colored high-top shoes!” You know you are wearing black pumps so certainly no one is talking to you. Don’t even turn your head. Say nothing. If she tries cornering you and directly accusing you, you just shrug your shoulders confused and say you don’t know how you can help her solve her problem of the phantom scent.

    Reply
  54. Ask a Manager Post author

    I put this at the top of the post but am adding it here too:

    There have been loads of suggestions above for additional ways the letter-writer could tackle potential scents and stamp them out. I’m going to ask that we stop with those suggestions now and instead focus on how she should deal with the coworker, which I think will be more helpful to her. At this point, the issue is that she has a coworker who’s being rude and snarky to her, not that she should just stop using bubble bath on weekends or so forth.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  55. Anonymous 40

    I wonder if the OP’s coworker has developed a heightened sensory sensitivity to even trace amounts of certain smells and isn’t being honest with herself about it. It wouldn’t make the way she treats the OP any more acceptable but it would at least explain what’s happening. In the last few years I’ve suddenly become extremely sensitive to eating sounds. First it was people smacking gum, then chewing crunchy foods with their mouth open, and now it’s almost any audible chewing sounds at all. At the same time, my regular hearing has worsened noticeably. Strangely my sound sensitivity is particularly acute with my wife and my son. My wife gave up chewing gum around me years ago, before I realized I was the one with the problem. Our nine-year-old son has trouble remembering to chew with his mouth closed. We go out to eat Mexican food at least once a week, and each time I remind him at least once to chew his chips with his mouth closed. Lately I can’t sit next to my wife at the dinner table at home without hearing her chew her food. It’s not anything she’s doing wrong, of course, but the sound makes me nauseated and irrationally angry. I’ve started turning music on while we eat as a distraction, even though I usually find background noise annoying, I just requested a two-sided headset to replace my one-sided one so it will fully block the sound of a cubicle neighbor slurping on lollipops and tapping them against her teeth.

    It’s like once I hear a sound that bothers me, I can no longer filter it out. When my problem first started, I steadfastly blamed the people around me for being inconsiderate and expected them to fix it. Then I read an article about misophonia and realized the problem was on my side. Since then I’ve tried to find ways to compensate for it without putting it off on people around me. (Though I do still wonder what it takes to teach kids to chew with their mouths closed…)

    My point is that maybe something similar is happening with OP’s coworker and smells. Maybe at one point she noticed a particular scent OP used to wear and now smells even lingering traces that no one else would be able to smell. If that’s the case, there’s likely nothing anyone can do about it. I doubt she’s likely to react well to someone suggesting this possibility. Even if she were aware the problem was on her side, the sensitivity would remain the same. I can’t hear what my son’s saying if he’s sitting next to me but facing the other direction, but can’t not hear him eating popcorn from the other room. And many, many people will never consider that they might unwittingly be the source of a problem.

    I wish this was more helpful to the OP. It just struck me how familiar some of this sounded and wanted to offer another possibility.

    Reply
    1. kb

      I was thinking something similar– it could be an issue developing with the coworker that they don’t even realize is happening yet. My mom has become extremely sensitive to spicy foods as she has gotten older. Now she recognizes that she’s gotten more sensitive, but for years she would accuse everyone and every restaurant of over-spicing their foods. It could be that the coworker hasn’t realized they have the issue, not our delightful LW. (LW, you have been so funny in the comments)
      Regardless of what is going on with the scent mystery, the coworker is handling it tremendously inappropriately and management needs to address that. LW has gone above and beyond in their accommodation.

      Reply
    2. peachie

      It sounds like you have misophonia. I do–it’s with very specific chewing noises (luckily not all–I know some people with this who can’t go anywhere people are eating). Basically, it’s when a sound–usually, a ‘biological’ sound like eating or nail-tapping–wires in to your fight-or-flight response. I’ve always had it and it’s bananas impossible to explain to anyone without coming off as a jerk when I’d suddenly fume or snap a pencil under the table or run away from the dinner table. Like, yes! I know this reaction is inappropriate! But it really, truly is an instant, intense ‘fight-or-flight’ feeling and knowing it’s irrational doesn’t make that kind of heart-pounding, blinding adrenaline go away.

      (I try to share this with people if they’d believe me and not be offended [e.g., my boyfriend] so they know why I might have to suddenly leave the room, but lots of people think this is totally fake and incredibly rude [e.g., my mother, who unfortunately chews with her mouth open in a way that taps into my crazybrain]. In those cases, if I have to eat around those people, I spend a LOT of time getting up to use the bathroom, flitting around the room to tidy/wash dishes, and otherwise avoiding and noise-covering as covertly as possible until it ends.)

      Reply
  56. Viola Dace

    OP needs a second opinion. Because if it is lingering on a jacket or handbag (or even jewelry), she won’t be able to smell it. I arrived at an Airbnb on a recent trip and the ENTIRE PLACE absolutely reeked of Glade. They were everywhere. When I mentioned it to the host, she looked baffled and said she couldn’t smell anything. It’s super easy to become immune to a constant smell.

    Reply
  57. Amy

    If the coworker is just complaining about a scent she doesn’t like, I think it’s sufficient to just treat her comments like the ridiculousness they are. You could play it off like a joke (“Haha, X, I haven’t worn anything like that in ages! Maybe you should get your nose checked out!”) or tell her to cut it out (“X, I stopped wearing that when you originally asked me to. At this point, I’m starting to feel like you’re just looking for an excuse to complain about me. Please cut it out.”)

    If the coworker is treating this as a medical sensitivity, or is escalating her complaints to your boss, then I think you need to get some help with the situation. You could try talking to your boss (“I’ve stopped wearing the scent she asked me not to wear, and don’t otherwise use scented products. I don’t know what she’s smelling, but I’ve done everything I can reasonably do to accommodate her needs. However, she’s still having this sensitivity. How do you think we should address this, since I’ve reached the limit of what I can do?”). Or, you could treat it like other medical accommodations, and look to HR for guidance on how to make things work.

    Reply
  58. Sprinkled with Snark

    I agree that Alison has given you some very good advice and some good conversational points to start with. The exaggerated sniffing definitely sounds like she is just being a pain. If some of these ideas don’t work, I might try asking her, “What, exactly, are you smelling? Is it my body? My jacket? My purse? My yoga mat under my desk? Is the problem with ME personally or something that I am wearing or carrying?” Let her sniff your jacket or your bag for example. Oils, especially, can seep into fabric and smell forever, even though you are no longer wearing scented products. This accomplishes TWO things. First of all, if there REALLY is a smell, even a very faint one, that she’s making a big deal about it, you have shown her that you are and have dealt with it and now the matter is settled. You can tell her, “You said the smell was on my purse and now I have a new purse, so I don’t think you’re being fair.” Secondly, this smell process should embarrass her enough to put a lid on the sniffing and the comments. If she says the smell is on your scarf, but you have a new scarf, then I’d get a second opinion. Ask Fergus, “Does this scarf smell offensive to you? Jane says it smells like patchouli.” Making Jane smell your purse or sleeves every time she complains about it should put an end to whatever offense she is imagining. Hopefully she’ll decide it’s too embarrassing to continue on with her charade if there are no more items left for her to be offended by.

    Reply
    1. EddieSherbert

      Haha, I’m not sure if this is a good idea, but I love it.

      I got to “Let her sniff your jacket or your bag for example.” …. and was thinking well, that might be awkward enough to end the whole thing… and then you said exactly that :)

      Reply
  59. Student

    Your boss took this seriously the first time. As part of following AAM’s #3 advice, you should ask your boss to help you figure out if you still have a scent issue. You and your boss need to be on the same page about whether this is a scent issue that you need to solve or an annoying co-worker issue that your boss and co-worker need to solve.

    Reply
  60. Purple Jello

    Just because she can smell something doesn’t mean it’s bothering her. I am scent sensitive, and some scents/smells do trigger headaches, sneezing, running nose, nausea, and/or migraines. So I do what I can to not work right next to those coworkers with triggering scents, and ignore the ones that are just annoying or that I just don’t like. (One of the worst smells for me is certain types of cigarette smoke: I dislike all of them, but some brands trigger a sinus headache, or a migraine if I’m around them too long. I would love to see someone tell all my coworkers who smoke that they have to quit “because Purple Jello has an allergy”.)

    BUT… you’ve gone above and beyond. Please follow Alison’s advise, and let us know what happens.

    Reply
  61. Menacia

    I was wondering about the timing of these complaints, OP mentions they started about a month ago, did anything happen at that time between OP and this coworker? Were there any complaints prior to this (about anything, not necessarily OP’s scent)? Just wondering if a pattern can be established regarding the coworker. I agree with the other posters who mention getting a second opinion and Alison’s advice to bring in your manager to mediate. You seem to have accommodated your coworker but to no avail, so now it’s time for something different.

    Reply
  62. Lady Unemployed

    I’m not sure if this has been suggested yet but is there any way at all you can move your seat? If I were in this spot, I swear at this point I would assume she’s only doing this to bother me.

    Reply
  63. Ima introvert

    This is so timely! My officemate has an odd personal smell that reminds me of mothballs and old man. He doesn’t wear cologne, and keeps up his hygiene (and doesn’t use mothballs). I’ve never complained, as I realized there’s not much he can do to change it, so I resorted to using some (in my opinion) very mildly scented body lotion on my neck before I come in to work so I can smell that instead of him. Guess what? He just complained to me that he has a strong dislike for *any* fragrance and nicely asked if I could stop. Ah well. Back to old man smell. Maybe if I just put the lotion in my nose…

    Reply
    1. Ima introvert

      Oh! I have to add that this isn’t to imply that OP has an odd personal smell at all! I think OP’s complainer is being kind of a jerk. This only hit home for me because it was related to scent sensitivities, and this issue just happened to me today.

      Reply
    2. BadPlanning

      I wonder if he has a front loader washing machine that is moldy and stinking up his clothes — or he lets them sit for awhile before drying. I can’t leave my clothes in my front loader over night or they smell bad (at least to me). I do keep it open when not in use, but it gets gross anyway. Sigh.

      Reply
      1. Allison

        My parents have one of those. I’m one of the rare 20-somethings that doesn’t take laundry to my parents house to do, because their washer smells funky and the funk seems to come off on my clothes a little. If I really need to do laundry and my parents invite me over for an evening, I may take some over then, but just enough to tide me over until I have time to do laundry in my own building.

        Reply
      2. Ima introvert

        Oh, that’s interesting! I know he hangs his clothes out to dry, but he’s a super cost cutter when it comes to his home, so that’s possibly the issue. Hmmmm food for thought.

        Reply
  64. Side-Eye

    The advice is spot on. It strikes me that she was initiating a power play. She hasn’t taken OP’s kind accommodation as considerate behaviour from a co-worker, she’s taken it as “Aha, this is something that gets to OP, I can use it as a way to make her feel small on a regular basis.”

    Reply
  65. 2horseygirls

    Ask your manager if you can relocate your desk. If co-worker seeks you out to complain about the smell, then she’s just being a snot, and trying to stir up trouble.

    FWIW, our former college president was sensitive to smells. No flowers, no lotions, no perfumes, no candles, wallflowers, diffusers, etc. It became a campus-wide thing.

    I worked in a department that she visited maybe once a week. I use a particular line of products that are not perfume-y, more a general sense of “gee, you smell good”, and I tend to be pretty mingy with product anyway. Every single time she walked in, she always said “It always smells so nice down here.” And then she would call me by the wrong name. Every. Single. Time. :)

    Reply
  66. Argh!

    I personally hate perfumes of any kind, and I know people who get migraines from them. If most people can’t smell whatever your current perfume load is, then it’s not your problem if one person is bothered.

    Your coworker could merely be bothered, in which case it’s up to them to get over it.

    If your coworker has Aspergers or some kind of sensory processing disorder, they could go through a doctor to have HR find them accommodations away from other people. Since the boss is familiar with the situation, it’s really up to the boss to insist that short of a doctor’s order, there’s nothing to be done.

    Reply
      1. boop the first

        Oh this is way better! :D
        That’s right up there with “You think it’s cold in here? Go stand in the snow for a bit and it will seem so nice and toasty in here when you come back!”

        Reply
  67. Clever Name

    Oh, man. I really feel for you. I’m the same way about artificial fragrances and I love essential oils. I found a great hand cream that is lavender scented. Unfortunately, it made my office mate sneeze, and similarly to your coworker, he was sensitive to it. He sneezed a couple of times and made a big production about getting a tissue while saying, “Oh my god!! What is that smell!?!? It’s making me sneeze sooooo bad!!!” I apologized for using my lotion and took it home. Fortunately, he did not continue to complain about my scented lotion.

    Since your coworker is making comments about patchouli, which has certain connotations, their excessive reaction feels, I don’t know, prejudice or politicized almost? Either way, what your coworker is doing is not cool, and you have standing to talk to your manager if it continues.

    Reply
  68. Jill

    I’m crying foul. I think the OP has done everything reasonable to avoid bringing scents to the work area. One of the easiest ways to make someone squirm is to imply that they “stink.” No one wants to be the smelly guy in the office. No one likes the idea of others wondering if they shower properly. I think coworker, at this point, enjoys seeing OP fly into a panic about “stinking” so she’s keeping up the “Ooh, you stink!” commentary.

    It’s bullying. Take AAM’s suggestion’s to speak to Manager or to take it to HR and see what kind of reaction you get.

    Reply
  69. Statler von Waldorf

    Ok, I’ve got my asbestos underwear on, let’s do this. There’s a lot of people here with many suggestions on how to work with your co-worker to stamp out any lingering smells. While I do believe that those people are offering these suggestions in good faith, I also think that this is absolutely the wrong track to take.

    I’m a smoker, and I have been for several decades now. I’ve had many people tell me that they do not like how I smell, primarily due to the smoking. I will happily concede that these people are probably right. Smoking stinks, in addition to all the other negative side-effects.

    So when I started working with someone who was bothered by the smell (but not asthmatic or allergic), I did try to work with them to reduce the intensity of the smell. Wash my hands right after, that’s not a problem. Wear a “smoking jacket” when I stepped out? I can do that too. Clock out and walk around the block for 15 minutes before I come back to my desk? Sorry, but no. Quit smoking entirely during the working day? Not just no, but hell no.

    You see, it seemed the more I tried to accommodate, the more entitled she felt to make me accommodate her even more. Short of quitting smoking forever and replacing my entire wardrobe, there was no way that I was ever going to make her happy. So one day I stopped accommodating completely. When she complained, I told her she could either get a doctor’s note and take it HR, she could quit, or she could go pound sand. I wasn’t rude or mean, just cold and matter-of-fact about the whole thing.

    It worked like a charm. For the two years I worked there, there was not another issue.

    Reply
    1. Allison

      Seems like once someone gets a little of what they want, they feel comfortable asking for a little bit more. They figure X wasn’t so hard, so X+1 shouldn’t be a big deal either. They’re going to keep pushing and pushing until either they 100% get their way, or the person accommodating them says “no, I’ve done enough for you, that’s all your getting.”

      Reply
  70. GreyjoyGardens

    As I see it, LW is the victim of a bully at this point. I think that Picky Coworker is one of those types who will demand more and more concessions from LW until she has LW thoroughly buffaloed and walking on eggshells.

    LW – treat this as a bullying issue, not a health issue, and proceed accordingly.

    Reply
  71. Gadfly

    OP, it could be in coworker’s head. They’ve done studies where a bunch of cotton balls are all scented with the same “unscented” lotion and then people rate and describe the smell of the “different” unnamed “new scents” that have different art with them. One discovery–fat people (and more dramatically women, of course) in the material always resulted in people claiming the scent stank even when they rated the scent as pleasant or neutral when other images were involved. I believe it also has been done with similar results for people of color.

    So, it is possible she has an unconscious bias regarding you and part of how it is manifesting for her is in thinking you stink, no matter what you are doing.

    It doesn’t help with co-worker, but since what co-worker is doing can be utterly crazy making and gaslighting feeling, I hope it helps you see how it could be just her.

    Reply
  72. Casuan

    [there are too many comments to read so I apologise if this is redundant]

    For some reason, your colleague has become unreasonably fixated on you being the sole cause. She might be unwittingly attributing what she smells to you for the simple reason your scents bothered her. The sense of smell is one of our strongest senses & it can cause strong emotions.

    OP, you’ve done all that’s reasonable & more. Alison gave you the next steps so go from there. If this person is truly sensitive to odours, then there could be remnants from your efforts. If so you’ve gone above & beyond & you’re under no obligation to do more. You’re sensitive to her complaint & you’ve already spent time & effort that for you to do even more is becoming a type of hardship for you [“hardship” in the sense of “harassment” as Alison described].

    Has she told others that their scent bothers her? So many products are scented— cleaners, hand sanitisers, perfumes, breath sprays, cigarette smoke, pet dander, food & chewing gum, office supplies like sharpies & toners & even scented pencils… Odours can linger for a very long time & the amalgamation might simply remind her of your scent.

    Be clear that you took her complaints seriously & you’ve done all you can reasonably do, then suggest that she look for other causes that aren’t you.
    Good luck!!

    Reply
  73. Chatterby

    Being told I smell when I know I don’t would make me feel a tad insane and like I couldn’t trust my senses.

    Reply
  74. LG

    As someone who is very sensitive to scents, I just wanted to say to the LW how NICE it is that you put in so much effort to be un-scented! I so rarely tell anyone if their perfume or whatever bothers me (especially since it is often some other product that it scented–people who use scented detergents can smell really strongly to me) because it seems so loaded. I think I’ve only asked someone once to stop wearing her perfume (I only worked in that office a few days a month so I figured she could maybe just not wear it those days, and she generally didn’t after that which I really appreciated.) Anyway, it is nice that you tried so hard with the changes you already made, and I hope that the scripts provided help your unappreciative coworker to back off. Good luck!

    Reply
  75. Noah

    Okay, what??? OP says she stopped wearing the perfume, but specifically notes in the letter she also wears essential oils. STOP WEARING THE ESSENTIAL OILS. That is what co-worker is complaining about.

    I know we’re not supposed to criticize OPs, but come on.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It seems pretty clear to me that she was referring to essential oils as a subset of perfume, and when she said she stopped wearing perfume she stopped wearing the oils too.

      Reply
  76. Anon Anon for this

    I’m late to the party, and haven’t read all the comments, but I’m finding this fascinating because I could imagine being the coworker writing to Alison about this same issue:

    Hi Alison.

    I’d appreciate feedback on how I can approach an issue in my workplace. In recent years, I’ve developed a strong sensitivity to certain smells. I used to enjoy perfume, but now find that even the slightest hint of perfume or essential oil can trigger a bad headache. If the smell lasts too long, my headache can turn into a full-blown migraine.

    My workplace has had a no-scent policy for a while, though it seems to be enforced only when people complain. I have coworkers who occasionally wear scents, but we work in different areas, and I only have to endure the smell during the elevator ride, etc. , so I haven’t said anything about them.

    Unfortunately, I have a colleague with whom I work quite closely who wears a perfume/scent that I’ve become quite sensitive to. On a particularly “strong scent” day a few months ago, I mentioned this to her, and she seemed quite responsive and apologetic. For about a week, it was great! (Relatively scent-free.) The following Monday, though, I noticed the scent was strong again, so commented to her about it. This happened a couple more times over the next few months, at which point I went to my manager to let her know this was impacting my health and work and to see if it would be possible to find a resolution.

    I don’t think my colleague is trying to make give me migraines with her perfume. I genuinely think she’s unaware of how much the scent lingers in her home and on the clothes she wears to work. I’m going to talk to my manager about a possible accommodation (e.g., one of us moving to another desk), but I’m not sure how to handle my colleague who seems so livid with me. Thoughts?”

    Reply
    1. MegaMoose, Esq

      If it’s at the point where it’s only popping up twice over a few months, and your coworker is upset that you keep bringing it up because she feels she’s addressed it, it seems like your coworker has done what she can and it would be a good idea not to bring it up with her anymore. But definitely talk to your manager about moving spaces. That’s rough, though – I hope you can work it out.

      Also, if you were considering making exaggerated sniffing noises and jokes about patchouli, it might not be helpful. *grin*

      Reply
      1. Anon Anon for this

        Thanks MegaMoose.

        With my coworker, it gets bad every few weeks. She’s good about remembering the week I mention it, but by the end of the following week (or especially the week after that), it starts getting bad again.

        Interestingly, I’m really sensitive to patchouli. I’m aware of it even if it’s barely an element of the scent. If someone is wearing perfume with patchouli in it, I get an immediate headache; if it’s a “lingering” scent from a previous day’s perfume, I’ll be aware of it and will develop a slow headache over the course of the day the longer I’m around the scent.

        The OP writes that she wears scents with patchouli on the weekend. I’m sure she thinks that the scent is gone – I have no doubt about her sincerity – and I’m also pretty sure I’d be able to tell on the Monday if she’d worn patchouli that weekend. (Which is why, if I were her coworker, I’d be looking for accommodation. It’s unreasonable of me to ask a coworker to adjust her perfume when she’s not at work.)

        Reply
    2. Stellaaaaa

      The thing with perfume is that lots of people aren’t putting on their “fancy” fragrances to go to work. A lot of times they put them on 12 hours ago for a night out and aren’t planning on taking a shower until after work the next day. I would abstain from actively putting on perfume before work, but I wouldn’t get up early to shower before work if that wasn’t something I felt like doing. I’m bringing this angle up because your coworker was wearing it after a weekend and doesn’t seem to wear it every day. You might have to accept it for now, since you can’t reasonably ask her not to wear her favorite perfume on dinner dates, nor can anyone else dictate her showering schedule for her.

      Reply
  77. Dare

    I suffer from phantom scents (associated with seizures). Perhaps she does as well and is associating them with you?

    Reply
  78. boop the first

    Yeah she can look for more scent sources, but none of this makes any sense. Are they the only three people in the workplace? It doesn’t make sense that OP needs to suddenly cut out all shampoo and all bath products when seemingly everyone else can use them without judgement, including us.

    Oil tends to penetrate and spread, so yeah, maybe it’s in the clothing permanently. Maybe it’s in the desk chair. Maybe it’s made a home in her subcutaneous fat. But more likely these coworkers are the only people left with improvements to make in this situation.

    Reply
  79. BigSigh

    I have a coworker who DROWNS himself in cologne at the end of the day, every day. It literally smells so strongly it reaches the entire office. For the most part, he leaves juuuust late enough 4 days out of 5 that it happens either as everyone else is about to leave or has already left, so no one has ever said anything to him about how unpleasant it is.

    The other day, I was waiting for the elevator and he hurried over, asked me to hold the elevator so he could leave too. I hesitated, but in the end, I just couldn’t ride in such a small box with him smelling like that. I explained his cologne was overpowering and offered him the elevator while I would take the stairs. In the end, he just didn’t ride down with me, but in the days since then he’s retold the story to all our coworkers about how I made him feel bad by saying he smells.

    If anything, I’ve been thanked by the majority of the office for saying something.

    Reply
  80. textbookaquarian

    The fact that Coworker is specifically naming the scent (patchouli) which OP is clearly not wearing/has never worn makes me wonder if its coming from someone else passing by/sitting near their area or even through the ventilation system if it recycles the air. Unfortunately there’s no way to pinpoint it unless you literally go sniffing around. However the company could send an office-wide email advising folks be aware of strong scents causing issues.

    Meanwhile I agree that its time to tell Coworker to stop. OP has done everything possible to accommodate them. It makes me wonder if there’s a bigger issue going on with Coworker’s opinion of OP.

    Reply
  81. Arduino

    I had a similar experience with my uncle. He says patchouli makes him sick and we were staying at a house that used patchouli Landry detergent. He complained for months after we stopped using the detergent that we smelled like patchouli. I guess people who are sensitive to it can smell it long after use. :(

    He even complained once a full year! After we stopped that we smelled. The only thing I can think of is that it was not washed as much as the other clothed. :(

    No advice just that I feel your pain.

    Reply
  82. Lee

    Why is Alison mentioning lemon scented body wash? There was no mention of this in the letter.
    Also…I used (briefly, because I am sensitive to Aluminium) a non-scented deodorant (Tom’s I think) and after 5 days…it had a smell and that smell was on me. And it smelled basically like light body sweat. So…I’m thinking that could be the problem. I’m very self-aware of scents I give off though, so it’s easy for me to find a substitute. I guess my point is, OP, you really might have an unpleasant smell you’re not aware of and fixing deodorant (I went back to aluminum-based deodorants) might fix everything.
    Also, I hate patchouli and it’s a strong fragrance once associates with folks that make their own clothes so if you’re in a professional setting, I’d just avoid ever wearing it…

    Reply
  83. Rabbit Gal

    I’m allergic to a ton of fragrances. My bosses and I came up with some unique ways to handle my problem until I finally got a remote job for the same company. I would sit with all the other allergic/asthmatic people (this was a call center without assigned seats), or in a more isolated area when possible.
    If the co-worker keeps complaining, I’d see if maybe someone else in the office can do a “smell check” to see if anyone else notices and can back you up if there’s a complaint that day.
    Honestly, as someone with deadly allergies, I’d appreciate the effort you were putting in. Life is hard enough without complaining about the scents that don’t try to kill me.

    Reply

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