Losing a Job Because of Fragrances: Deanna’s Story


I have lost my job of fifteen years because of fragrance in the workplace. I worked for a financial institution that claimed to have a fragrance-free policy, but their policy was not enforced, even though they would send emails requesting coworkers to be considerate of others when using fragrance. Here is an example:

Good Afternoon,

We have an employee in the area that is very sensitive to fragrance/fumes. Therefore we are asking for people to avoid fragrances, or strong smells of any kind to avoid a medical reaction.  This request is being made in Card Services and passed along to managers of neighboring units.  This shouldn’t be anything new or a surprise since it is part of the Dress Code policy we review yearly.  Please be sensitive about the amount of fragrance that you are wearing.  Fragrances are found not only in perfumes and colognes but also in hand lotions, aftershave, hairspray, cleaning products, etc. 

My company’s Dress Code policy included the following section and also stated that an employee could be sent home on their own time if it was determined that they were not abiding by the policy and were wearing fragrance in excess.

Be sensitive to the amount of fragrance that you are wearing. Perfume, cologne and heavy scented hand lotions, hairspray, aftershave, etc., cause a number of reactions to coworkers including full-blown asthma attacks. If you wear a fragrance, please put it on lightly. Try not wearing fragrances on days when you know you will be attending meetings. Also, be sensitive to using hairspray and fragrances in the restrooms. Your coworkers will greatly appreciate it!

Unfortunately, this policy was never sufficiently enforced to keep me from having bad reactions at work. One of the worst symptoms I got after exposure to fragranced products at work was instant intense headaches along with difficulty concentrating. I often became hoarse and developed a sore throat soon after entering my building, and coughing bouts were also a problem. The glands in my jaw and neck would swell and become extremely painful after exposure to fragranced products, and that pain would last for several hours. Severe fatigue would also set in after an exposure.

For most of the fifteen years that I worked for that financial company, I had problems like these reactions to fragranced products and I kept expressing these concerns. There was even a time when someone sprayed my keyboard with a fragrance because they thought it was funny. People can be so cruel.

In 2016 my Human Resources department told me that I could take a medical leave of absence and I would get 2/3 of my pay for a year, but I was hesitant to do that because I needed my pay and insurance for my family. I became so ill every day, however, that I often had to leave work part way through the day and use family medical leave absence and burn up all my paid time off. That is why I decided to ask my doctor to write a statement in support of my leave of absence request. Unfortunately, my application for short-term disability was denied and then again denied on appeal with the reason given that my records didn’t show enough problems for me to be eligible. I was told by one of the HR reps at my work that she knew I would not get short-term disability but she neglected to tell me this before I took the leave of absence. They just wanted me out of there since I was at the top of the pay scale.

Having no choice left, I took the leave of absence for a year without pay starting July 2017. I stayed home because luckily l have a wonderfully understanding husband who has seen and experienced my many different severe medical reactions and knows I am not faking or “making it up.” His pay is enough to cover our household bills, food, gas, etc., but he does not have health insurance and we make just enough not to be eligible for help of any kind and we cannot afford to buy health insurance, so we are just winging it for now. Hopefully we won’t experience any type of serious illness or injury. My husband is trying to find other work, but I have not been able to find a workplace without fragrance and I do not have the resources to work from home. We are not well-to-do. We have cancelled our cable service and our landline and have just basic slow-speed Internet at this point.  

I have also lost my social life and my friends due to this illness. It’s like being in solitary confinement. I have had to stop going anywhere with my husband, like concerts and to visit family. My family does not fully understand why I do not go to their houses and have pretty much written me off. I was told by a brother-in-law that there is a pill for my reaction. He was really offended by me not going to their house because they spray a well-known product on their couches and carpet and use a lot of plug-in air fresheners in their home. My brother-in-law has now cut all ties with my husband and me. (Both of my brother-in-law’s dogs died mysteriously within a six-month period of each other, and it makes me wonder. The first one had unexplained diarrhea for a year and the vet could not find anything wrong in multiple bloodwork tests as well as countless visits and meds.)

Please pray for us because I am afraid that we will end up homeless. My husband cannot continue to do hard labor for what he is being paid currently. My life is so broken now by this sensitivity to fragrances that I feel like I am a burden to this earth and my family, but my husband tells me differently. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. I am so alone now because of this, but at least I am still surviving.

It is so hard to try to explain to people, including friends or family, why I am going into a coughing fit or developing a red, burning rash on my face which spreads to my arms and legs after an exposure.There are so many products out there that cause me reactions that I cannot pinpoint. For example, I can walk into my mother’s house and after a few minutes I start to get a tickle in my throat and I know right then and there I should leave, but this offends her because she thinks she is not using anything scented. So I stay until I start having a full-blown coughing fit and tell them I have to leave, only to piss them off because they “do not use anything.”  

I was trying to help my parents by doing their laundry, but their laundry products are really bad. The scented products DO NOT WASH OUT.  I had to give up helping my parents with their laundry because fabric softener and detergent fragrances cause the glands in my neck to swell and make my lips, gums, and nose numb.

People do not realize when they use these products, especially laundry products and air fresheners, how they cling to their clothes and how hard it is to wash them out. The laundry products today basically turn your clothes into portable air fresheners. 

I feel like I am beating a dead horse now. I did that at work for YEARS only to get nowhere. I guess I have just given up because you can only do that for so long and I am just waiting to die basically. I have no purpose here anymore. I can’t do anything to help anyone and I cannot work, I am just a burden. My husband is the only one who truly believes me because he sees it first hand and does his very best to help keep me from things that harm me. He also is bothered by some of the same products as me but is just not as sensitive to them as I am. He also tells me I am not a burden, I take care of him.

Editor’s note to Deanna and others who are experiencing despair because it is so frustrating to try to live in a world in which they are surrounded by fragranced products that make them feel awful and prevent them from enjoying the company of family and friends that is such an important part of life.

Don’t give up yet, bleak as your prospects may seem. Society appears to be moving quite rapidly in the direction of fragrance-free workplaces, and as the idea that fragrances are causing serious reactions in many people becomes more widespread, there will be a snowball effect, as there was in the case of smoking in the workplace. As that happens, your family and friends and the general public will become more sympathetic to your plight and your life will become a little easier.