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The etiquette of (not) wearing scent: the Etiquette Guy speaks
The etiquette of (not) wearing scent: the Etiquette Guy speaks

By Jay Remer, the Etiquette Guy

Walking into old houses sometimes reminds me of visiting favourite relatives in my younger days. And what is more welcoming than walking into a friend’s house greeted by the wonderful smell of freshly baked bread or chicken soup simmering on the kitchen stove? Or how about walking through the perfume section of a department store or past the open door of a candy shop, flower shop or fast food store? All of these places have distinctive smells associated with them that conjure up either pleasant or very unpleasant memories.

From childhood I recall the distinct stench of the fish market, the peanut factory or the strong perfume of a school teacher. Today, these aversions to specific odours have become classified as actual allergies. Who knew that our strong dislikes might be in fact triggers for allergic reactions?

Many of us are so busy in our daily lives that we blithely go through the day unaware of the additional space around us is occupied by scents. We spritz or slather over our faces and bodies these potions with the idea of being more attractive to those around us or at least ourselves. After all, we choose perfumes because we like them, not because others do. Thankfully, more and more people are becoming aware of just how offensive Shalimar or Patchouli oil are to more and more of us.

Excuse me, what is that scent? It stinks!

Excuse me, what is that scent? It stinks!

It is only courteous to be mindful of others where we work. Even though Chanel No. 5 may be the bees knees to one person, it isn’t to everyone. And in fact, some people are legitimately allergic and can break out in a rash, develop a swollen throat, or become physically ill. Most HR departments have policies for their companies of a ‘no scent’ office space. This is the first cousin of a no smoking policy in most public and many private areas. After all, now that so many people have given up the unhealthy smoking habit, we notice the smell of cigarette smoke far more acutely when we get a whiff of a lit cigarette. I recall learning about the power the smell of cigarette smoke during the Vietnam War where it was discovered that soldiers who were smoking could be detected literally a mile away.

Most of us would not leave the house to go to work or to visit friends without bathing and putting on clean clothes. Right? We do that habitually for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is not to offend those around us. What makes people think that strong scents, sometimes purchased at great expense, do not offend people equally as much?

"What makes people think that strong perfume"

Seriously, that's too much perfume!

Some people carry pleasantly scented hankies with them at all times just in case they encounter an upsetting odour. No one likes overtly strong smells in general. Apart from stopping to smell the roses, even some flowers can have smells, which are too overpowering for many of us. After all, the perfumery of a flower has a purpose, namely to attract pollinators.

The best scent today is not scent at all. To avoid the need to use chemically laden air fresheners, perfumed/scented cleaners or laundry products, simply clean your house with fragrant free products. Keeping Rover and his bedding clean also contribute to an odour-free environment. Research has shown that the perfumes put into the products we use are in fact harmful and in certain instances carcinogenic. Personal hygiene products such as deodorants now come in the perfume-free variety. Unscented by the way is not a guarantee that the product is without a scent of some sort.


If you feel obliged to apply cologne or a spritz of perfume before going out on the town for the evening, do so with restraint. Drawing attention to oneself by ‘bathing’ in a powerfully scented lotion or potion is - more often than not - offensive to many of those around you.

What does one do if caught in the uncomfortable position of being around someone who is too heavily scented? From a practical point of view, move away. Do so as quietly as possible and if pursued, honesty must prevail — and with as much grace as possible. Simply explain you must have an allergy (which is in fact likely the truth). If this is in a work place, you can ask the person to refrain from wearing the scent. Hopefully a straight forward discussion will end the problem.

If a family member or close friend is guilty of this unfortunate habit, draw them aside privately and make them aware of the problem. Many people do not realize how strong the scent is as they are quite used to it. It is not the intention really to deliberately offend anyone.

Following a cardinal etiquette guideline of being respectful of and not offending the people with whom we come in contact easily correlates with being mindful of the perfumes and scents we choose to wear. When in doubt, go without.

Jay Remer is the Etiquette Guy, and is certified by the Protocol School of Washington as a consultant for corporate etiquette and international protocol.

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