How Good Should We Smell at Work?


For this edition of the Fashion Friday post, I’m tackling a very sensitive issue that I often get asked about. While my own policy might not be popular, I think it’s the right one. So what’s the place of cologne or perfume in the workplace? How much or how little should you wear to work?

How much perfum to wear at work?

Before I answer that, here are a few thoughts to consider:

Cologne or perfume smells different on each person depending one’s our body chemistry. What smells like lavender fields on you might smell like a can of  sardines on me. Well, not really, but you get the point.

The more you wear it, the less you smell it. That’s a tough one to balance. Like most chemicals, perfume dulls your senses. In other words, the more you use it, the less you smell it. However, the rest of us can smell it whether or not you can. Not long ago I found myself  locked in a conference room with a power-cologne wearer at 8 a.m. The man  might as well have been wearing paint thinner. My head was spinning, my eyes watering, and at one point I thought I was going to lose breakfast. It was so bad that I texted a friend to call “with an emergency” so I could excuse myself from the room. I even suggested a bomb threat so we could evacuate the building and get everyone some much needed fresh air.

Not all scents are created equal. If you’re going to wear it,  you need to know the difference:

  • Perfume extract (Extrait): 15-40% aromatic compounds. This stuff is powerful and like most deadly poisons, it only comes in very small packages. A little goes a long, long way.
  • Eau de Parfum (EdP), Parfum de Toilette (PdT): 10-20% aromatic compounds. Sometimes listed as “eau de perfume” or “millésime”. Concentrated but not deadly.
  • Eau de Toilette (EdT): 5-15% aromatic compounds. No, it’s not made with toilet water.
  • Eau de Cologne (EdC): Chypre citrus type perfumes with 3-8%  aromatic compounds. Light and bearable.
  • Splash and After-Shave: 1-3% aromatic compounds. Like the name, splash, mostly water.

Most office settings are now open environments. A strong scent can be disruptive and compromise your effectiveness as a professional before you even open your mouth.

If you bathe at least every other day, which I hope you do, unlike the French who invented the all-powerful perfume extract (if you’ve ever been in a Paris subway at 5 p.m. you know why they need it), I would be very careful wearing anything more than an eau de cologne to work. My personal policy is not to wear any cologne until after 5 p.m. That way I’m certain not to dull my senses or offend someone’s olfactory sensitivities.

What’s your take on the smelly stuff at work?

  • @petebillingham

    Interesting post! I have worked in the past with people who smell like the perfume counter at a local department store and others who, well …. let’s leave it there! I travel on planes a lot and it could be said about the same situation, how good should we smell when we sit in close proximity to a total stranger for 8 hours? I think a trip through the duty free for a “sample” smell should be mandatory.

    In all seriousness, as a leader of staff teams and sometimes when the smell (especially in Summer months with no air con) is not good, how do we handle the delicate conversations that need to take place? In my experience many managers and leaders are not willing to have that sensitive conversation that says, “you may not be aware, but your body odour is …” most people who you tell are very glad that you had the courage to speak to them rather than just talk about it a round the cooler to others …

    • That’s a tough one. Once while in college I had to have the same conversation with my entire traveling singing group. “Sometimes we are not as fresh…” So awkward.

  • @barrylandis

    I still have a book on my shelf called “Moving Up In Style”, published in 1980. The sub title is “The Successful Man’s Guide To Impeccable Taste”. Beyond teaching me about classic cars, furniture and art, it had a great line I never forgot. “The problem is that you get used to a cologne as you apply it. You can apply too much without realizing that the smell is approaching combustible levels”. In the words of this book, we should smell “clean” at work, not “sweet”.

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