Perfume At The Office : Workplace and Scents

My friends who know about my fragrance hobby always ask me which perfumes might be appropriate for office/work situations and which might be overkill.  In today’s cramped spaces, the question is more important than ever.  Joy might be a joy for you, but not for your office mate!


I don’t wear perfume to work, but I don’t feel cheated. I only wear it socially. This break from perfume also means that I am not competing with the strong smells occasioned by my job—I’m an events photographer and I attend a lot of catered functions where the air is often thick with garlic, cheese, coffee, chocolate, and wine. Phew! I do my part not to contribute to the overload.  Believe me, a ripe Brie duking it out with Frédéric Malle Noir Epices is not entirely pleasant.

While some workplaces are specific about wearing scent, others have no restrictions.  Still, even if you work in a space where there are no rules, it’s always a smart idea to practice discretion. If you do receive a complaint, by all means stop wearing the perfume in question. Since not everyone would have my personal limitations, I’ve compiled a list of ways to wear fragrance and even certain fragrances that shouldn’t trip anyone’s alarm.  They are discreet enough to only remind you that you are wearing fragrance.  Since most of us spend a better part of our day at the office, finding ways to enjoy scents  in the workplace without disturbing others should not be an afterthought.

Creams, Dry Oils and Lotions

Soap, shower gel, lotions, and oils are excellent ways to wear fragrance in a low-sillage form.  I adore Chanel soaps (No 5, Coco Mademoiselle, and the now discontinued Coco soap) for the light trace of scent they leave on the skin.  Soaps don’t need to match a perfume, either: Another favorite is Maria Evora Black soap, which leaves a pleasant nutty/herbal aroma of carob behind.  On a more prosaic end, Whole Foods 365 brand of lavender soap is divine.

I always keep a giant container of original Vitabath Original Spring Green in the shower, for its wonderful pine, patchouli, and rosewood scent that lingers on the skin.  If I have sensory overload at work, this is what I want to smell.

Dry oils are an excellent way to wear a softer version of a fragrance.  Brands like Ahava make dry body oils with light scents that act as fragrance and as skin conditioner.  Cult favorites Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse, Fresh Sugar Body Oil, and Nars Monoi Body Glow (original and II) are delectable and low-key. Fans of L’Artisan Parfumeur La Chasse Aux Papillons will swoon over the dry oil version.

Lotions and creams offer more scent and can stand in for perfume when used as one would a perfume; namely, a dab on the wrists and neck.  This is a way to wear stronger perfumes that might be too forceful for the workplace.  Sisley Eau du Soir body cream, with its pungent grapefruit opening, is one I enjoy. I also have Chanel Coco body cream, Donna Karan Black Cashmere lotion, Rochas Femme lotion, among others.


I often like to wear light fragrances just because. There are whole lines of fragrance that are on the lighter side (L’Artisan and Fresh are two examples).  I love L’Artisan Mandarine, which is as delicate a fragrance as you are likely to find.  White, so-called “laundry” musks from Clean are engineered to smell like t-shirts, skin, and warm cotton.  They are so understated that they blend into the surroundings. For a more complex white musk, try the gently fruity L’Artisan Mure et Musc.  For citrus, Christian Dior Eau Sauvage is crisp unisex perfection, and their Escale series of women’s scents are like tonics rather than perfumes.  Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Bahiana is a tropical escape in a bottle featuring pineapple and dry woody base.

Sometimes, purported strength has nothing to do with actual sillage.  For instance, Bath & Body Works Cherry Blossom may appear light, but its sillage is as strong and as persistent as Thierry Mugler Angel‘s.  To test a sillage of your favorite perfume, spray it once on a blotter or a piece of paper and leave it in the room. Come back 15 minutes later and see how strong the scent is. Is it light and gentle, or heady and rich?  If someone is worried about wearing perfume to work, the latter might not be a good choice.


You can also consider your method of application:  I know of people who spray onto a cotton ball and tuck into their shirt, or who use just a small dab of body cream in the cleavage.  Take what you think is a rational application and cut it in half:  Two spritzes become one; one spritz might get mixed into a non-scented body lotion before applying.

Perhaps my favorite un-perfumey perfumes come from the men’s counter and are made by Hermès. These are Eau d’Orange Verte, Eau de Pamplemousse Rose, and Eau de Gentiane Blanche.  A traditional orange cologne is Frédéric Malle Cologne Bigarade, which works the orange note through kitchen spices.  Also from the Malle line-up comes L’Eau d’Hiver, or “Winter Water,” a gentle and transparent heliotrope. There is also good old 4711, and for those desiring a Seventies flashback, Jean Nate.

I’d love to hear your best workplace hints and tips, and which fragrances you find suitable for the workplace!  Have you ever had negative or positive comments on your favorite scents?

Image: Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour.



  • Lucas: Love the article. So many people will find it useful. September 21, 2012 at 7:30am Reply

    • Suzanna: Wonderful! I’m glad you found it useful, Lucas. September 21, 2012 at 9:14am Reply

      • Lucas: I will tell more. We think in similar speed. I just posted an article about what scent will be good to wear for university return September 21, 2012 at 9:38am Reply

  • J.: Very timely, because just this morning I think I overdid it. September 21, 2012 at 7:45am Reply

    • Suzanna: J., who hasn’t overdone it? September 21, 2012 at 9:14am Reply

  • Zazie: Interesting article, and I agree on “If you do receive a complaint, by all means stop wearing the perfume in question. ”
    However I firmly beleive that it is not much *what* you wear, but *how much* of it you are applying (and how).
    If you love a very diffusive fragrance, like chanel number 5, you can enter a small space with a dab of the parfum and nobody will really notice your perfume, it will be just a subtle part of yourself. Spray the edt with abandon, and you’ll clear the elevator.
    Besides, as you say, many fragrances that do not register as heavy might be extremely diffusive and more likely to be judged obnoxious.
    Dab, reduce, and wear what you love!! September 21, 2012 at 8:11am Reply

    • Suzanna: Zazie, isn’t subtlety a wonderful thing? September 21, 2012 at 9:19am Reply

  • Nick: I have never known a workplace in the UK that has fragrance restrictions, although some hospital wards do (thus for the employees there I assume).

    I would much rather smell someone’s over-application of the latest fruitchouli, or old 80s classic, than smell the person themselves. There is nothing worse than someone’s body odour in the work place. Having spent several months working in an office with Mr StinkyPits and Mrs Smelly otherbits once upon a time, the great unwashed/unscented need never grace my nostrils again. Public transport is another place of horror. Soap & Deodorant People!!!!

    I wear fragrance for myself, I do not give a thought to any one else’s preference. If there was a medical reason then I may reconsider what I wear, as I did when looking after my mother who had terrible COPD in the last years of her life, but not for any other reason.

    Why should I? Do we have restrictions for people who are “blessed” with poor dress sense, bad attitudes and bigoted ignorance, or people who are perpetually cold in the office, but will insist that the temperature is raised rather than wear more appropriate clothing. NO!

    If you don’t like the way I smell, move away, I don’t like your shoes, shirt or mind that much…….

    Rant over 🙂

    I always smell fantastic anyway. September 21, 2012 at 8:36am Reply

    • Suzanna: Nick, I’m sure you do (smell fantastic, that is). Perhaps one day I will pass you in the street and notice you by your sillage! September 21, 2012 at 9:16am Reply

    • silverdust: You have a way with words, Nick. I LOL’d. September 21, 2012 at 12:37pm Reply

    • Shoshi: I totally agree with everything you said. Amen. September 21, 2012 at 1:07pm Reply

    • solanace: Yeah!! I can’t help thinking of that Canadian city where perfume is kind of forbiden, Halifax. it is a fishing community, for Shalimar’s sake! September 21, 2012 at 5:18pm Reply

      • Shoshi: lol solanace September 22, 2012 at 10:01am Reply

    • MissK: “There is nothing worse than someone’s body odour…” – I beg to differ – i.e. that body odor, masked with a heavy fragrance is just as bad. There is no substitute for an adequate shower habit! September 24, 2012 at 4:09pm Reply

  • Glen Swain: I mist the air above my head and then let it settle down over my hair and shoulders. It’s actually more about me feeling good at the start of my day than carrying a scent around for hours. I am a total fan of Jean-Louis Scherrer, which is heavy, but by the time I get to work, a person has to sit very close to me to notice any scent at all. I am fortunate to be able to work and JLS gives me 20 mins. of feeling glamourous.
    I just wish the eau de whatevers came in a non-spray option so I could dab on which gaves way more control. September 21, 2012 at 8:53am Reply

    • Suzanna: Glen Swain, those sprayers can be hard to tame! I just worked at an event where a woman seems to have had a losing battle with Angel. Imagine that the sprayer won and doused the poor thing with this fabulously enormous scent.

      JLS is one that would need careful application, as you point out! September 21, 2012 at 9:18am Reply

      • Glen Swain: Meant to say I am fortunate to be able to WALK to work and like to imagine that many people who pass me by are suddenly struck with a whole new dimension to their morning. September 21, 2012 at 9:33am Reply

      • OperaFan: Suzanna – Love your wording on the battle with Angel! That one would really benefit from a dab option. September 21, 2012 at 11:01am Reply

      • rosarita: Sometimes I decant a heavy hitter into a small screw top bottle so that I can dab, not spray. And I always wear just a dab on my chest so that I can smell a scent when no one else can. Then when I get home I spray on a cloud of whatever I want! September 21, 2012 at 11:15am Reply

  • Melissa: I wear what I want to work, but I am very careful about application. The tables have turned on me a little. Over the years of wearing many different fragrances, I’ve developed what might be called hypernosmia to some of the synthetic white musks and sharp synthetic wood notes. I experience them as piercing and unpleasant. If someone overapplied a fragrance with those notes and shared a tight work space with me, I would be at the least, irritated, and at the most, hit with a nasty headache. So I try to have courtesy for my colleagues. I’m sure that I’ve missed the mark a few times though! September 21, 2012 at 9:04am Reply

    • Suzanna: Melissa, I have the same issue with those wood notes and the musks. The latter make me reel, and the former just won’t go away. September 21, 2012 at 9:18am Reply

  • Maureen: This just struck me as funny. I have been working in an office for a Human Resources Director for 18 years. I always was very careful to spray lightly so as not to ever offend him. Well, recently I noticed a very distinct chemical smell coming from the mail machine ( the ink stamper had been stopped up & overflowed ). I called him over to look at it to explain why I was calling for service. He said he could not smell anything at all, that he does not have much of a sense of smell. OMG….I could have been wearing all my heavy hittters all this time!

    I still will not heavily apply, as I must deal with employees & the public at times, but I think maybe I can experiment and experience samples at work now. Yeah! September 21, 2012 at 10:20am Reply

    • solanace: That was funny! Now you must go for you heavy hitters, LOL! September 22, 2012 at 5:46am Reply

    • Suzanna: Too funny, Maureen! Thanks for adding that story to the discussion. An anosmic boss! Sure, go for the biggest and boldest, proudly! September 22, 2012 at 7:17am Reply

  • D: I don’t have specific restrictions, and as the only woman partner, I can make my own rules. Usually, I just wear what I like, and, indeed, no one seems to notice that I am wearing perfume at all.
    On days, when I want to wear a fragrance, to boost my own spirits, I will sometimes want to go for what I call a “boardroom” scent, what I imagine a woman in a Donna Karan suit wears when addressing her board of directors, elegant and powerful, but not overly “purfumey.” Any suggestions here.

    Other times, I think that I want a scent beautiful enough to please me, but so subtle that others would only notice it sublimely, if at all. (some of the Atalier Colognes work for this)

    Frankly, on me, I think these all might be moot points. I seem to a sillage black hole. As far as I can tell, unless I spill perfume on myself, (right before a party, I spilled Daphne all over my color and neck, my coat smelled of CDG all winter) or hold up a scented wrist in front of someone, no one seems to even notice perfume. September 21, 2012 at 10:23am Reply

    • Maria: Dear D, have you tried Debut of Delrae Parfums? I always thought that is the perfect smell for a business woman in a smart suit. September 21, 2012 at 10:43am Reply

      • D: I was just about to order it, when it came up as out of stock. September 21, 2012 at 1:47pm Reply

    • OperaFan: I think that several of the Chanel LE’s were designed with “suits” in mind. Personally I would put Cuir de Russie high on the list of candidates to wear into the boardroom. September 21, 2012 at 11:05am Reply

      • D: The much maligned Lutens L’Eau is also good office wear. Once you’ve worn if a few times, you begin to appreciate its subtle complexity. However, a non fume head would simply smell it as a clean sense. September 21, 2012 at 1:52pm Reply

        • Suzanna: D, I have not tried that one, but will, thanks. September 22, 2012 at 7:19am Reply

      • Suzanna: A friend of mine calls those LE Chanels “body sprays” and I agree. They are pretty light, Cuir de Russie in particular. I don’t much care for leather and I wear it easily in all situations. September 22, 2012 at 7:18am Reply

  • lari: I NEVER leave the house unscented and do manage to keep things very quiet. Has anyone ever been in a NYC subway or enclosed space in summertime? In addition to loving scents I have asthma…I was soooo glad when NYC department stores stopped spraying everyone who walked in the door with the latest and greatest (and generally killer) perfumes. I prefer to pick my own poison. Thanks much for this post, I’m going to rethink lotions and creams. September 21, 2012 at 10:30am Reply

    • Suzanna: Ian, those were the days. You should have smelled Manhattan when YSL or Lauder released a new frag.

      I have a lot of lotions I save for these “special occasions.” Black Cashmere is a fave. September 22, 2012 at 7:16am Reply

  • Jack Sullivan: I’m a research scientist, which means that I spend my days i) in front of my computer in my (heavily) air-conditioned office or ii) wearing a lab coat, using smelly chemicals and running all over the place. That makes applying “the right perfume, at the right dosage” tricky for most people in my line of work.
    Since I can’t see myself going to work unscented, in any circumstance my routine is: a couple of sprays to the chest and lower back before dressing up, plus 2-3 sprays to the nape of the neck after brushing my hair (here I reapply after lunchtime). This way the scent stays quite close to me (even more so when I let my hair fall on my shoulders, which is most of the time), even with powerful perfumes, and I never get any complaint (compliments, rather). September 21, 2012 at 10:37am Reply

    • Suzanna: Jack Sullivan, I will add you to team of “good-smelling guys” in the office, and applaud you for standing up to those stinky chemicals and showing them who’s boss. September 22, 2012 at 7:14am Reply

      • Jack Sullivan: There is just one little problem Suzanna: under the male alias I’m really a woman (hence the long hair, although it’s not as gender-specific as it used to be). But keep applauding all the same, I do fight a daily battle against very nasty smells. September 22, 2012 at 7:56am Reply

  • Steve: Great article and great tips. Fragrance is an essential part of my day. Working for the federal government in a drab and dreary building full of gray and beige, it’s like a flower that lifts my spirits throughout the day. I try not to offend but have found that some scents defininately are a bit overpowering (Hermes Bel Ami which I love). I’ve never had any complaints, but have had many compliments and am basically known as the “good smelling guy” in the office. September 21, 2012 at 11:04am Reply

    • Suzanna: Steve, there is always room for a “good-smelling guy” in any workplace environment. Keep up the good work! September 22, 2012 at 7:13am Reply

  • OperaFan: Choosing perfumes to wear to work each morning is always a challenge. Fortunately I rarely receive any comments from my colleagues and most of the time, they are positive. Only once, when I was testing from a vial of Montale’s Gold that my cubicle neighbor remarked it was “strong.” I immediately went into the bathroom and rinsed my wrists.

    When I was pregnant, the smell of CK Eternity would make me ill. I was also sensitive to strong, sweet ambery scents but I ddidn’t have the same reaction as Eternity. To this day I try to avoid the proximity of anyone wearing it so not to stir up those memories.

    If I know something has a strong sillage, I always apply with care. Luckily – as others have mentioned, most of the sillage monsters have time to dissipate while I’m in-transit to the office, and the walk from car to bldg and any accompanying breeze takes care of the rest.

    I think it’s also different depending on skin chemistry. Those with scent-glue skins need to take more care. Mine seems to eat them up. My husband always tells me that my scents are subtle even when they smell strong on me, and only occassionally does he remark on the strength of something I wear. 🙂 September 21, 2012 at 11:20am Reply

    • Suzanna: Aren’t you lucky, OperaFan, to have “discreet skin”? Imagine, you can wear all of the big chypres and powerhouse florals, all day long! So envious! September 22, 2012 at 7:12am Reply

      • OperaFan: Maybe so, but it also mean I need to use more to maintain the sillage level to be able to smell it myself, thus, a quicker supply depletion. Also the reason why I’ve learned a lot of tricks to help extend the life/boost the volume of the fragrances I wear. 🙂 September 24, 2012 at 10:50am Reply

  • civava: I usually did the overload when testing Serge Lutens line. But I try not to wear so offensive perfumes for office. I give myself more freedom in winter of course but mainly the perfume stay on my scarf before I arrive to my job. September 21, 2012 at 1:10pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Civava, thanks for commenting. It is hard not to overdo Lutens; I did the same. September 22, 2012 at 7:11am Reply

  • Barney A Bishop: Great article Suzanna. I talked about the same topic this week, albeit not as thorough as yours. We both agree, however, discretion is the best solution. September 21, 2012 at 2:42pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Barney, discretion in general tends to be a smart course of action. September 22, 2012 at 7:11am Reply

  • Daisy: I just finished my graduate studies in French, so you can imagine that in a French Department, I had zero qualms about stinking away! A more powerful blast of someone else’s perfume was usually just around the corner, so I was free to indulge in whatever struck my fancy that day.

    However, now that I’m about to go on the job market, I am a little nervous about having to change habits. I like my stinky little cloud! But just in case I do have to alter my m.o., I really thank you for this helpful list of fragrances and tips! September 21, 2012 at 5:18pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Bonne chance, Daisy, on your career! (I think you should treat yourself to a new French parfum for the occasion.) September 22, 2012 at 7:10am Reply

      • Daisy: Already did 🙂 It was the most satisfying buy ever! September 24, 2012 at 4:53pm Reply

  • NeenaJ: Airplanes are even worse than the office.

    I don’t know what possesses a person to spritz themselves into oblivion before getting on a plane. Seriously: skin scents – look into them. If your neighbor has BO or cropdusts, just sniff your wrist. Or spritz a hankie in your purse and cover your nose with it. (Hopefully, while giving the offender the “I know it was you” stinkeye – pun completely intended).

    It’s easy to smell lovely, in a discrete way so, please, don’t make the rest of the passengers sneeze and gag their way through the flight. #endrant September 21, 2012 at 5:24pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Neenaj, thanks for adding that. I agree completely. Air travel can be unpleasant enough as it is without having to suffer scent overload. September 22, 2012 at 7:09am Reply

  • annemariec: Mixing strong fragrances with unscented lotion works well for me, and after discovering that trick I realised that it is almost pointless buying cream versions of my favourite fragrances. I will say though that if you can afford them, Chanel body products are superb, absolutely worth the money. Estee Lauder not so much.

    This morning I wore Nuxe oil in my hair for the first time and it had quite a tussle with my Diorissimo. Must remember to save the Nuxe for after an evening shower! September 21, 2012 at 7:56pm Reply

    • Suzanna: annemariec, I use Nuxe by itself and with nothing else. It stands in as a perfume (and a nice one!). September 22, 2012 at 7:08am Reply

  • scentandshinythings: Scent in the workplace can ease stress and lift mood. I am experimental there and find I can wear almost anything given time to plan and choose. Time to plan and choose is rare!! So my no fail spritzes are Prada Infusion D’Iris, No 5 Eau Premiere, Guerlain Vetiver and L’Artisan Mure et Musc. JM Lotus Blossom and Water Lily gets so many compliments – I think it destresses everyone around. September 21, 2012 at 8:20pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Scentandshinythings, I am going to take your rec about this Jo Malone. I think you have swayed me to your “side” and I will wear it to my next big job! Wow! September 22, 2012 at 7:07am Reply

  • solanace: Where a live, the perfumophobic trend has not picked yet. I guess it’s the “armpit effect” Nick talked about above. I live right in the tropic, and everybody is happy enough if you keep your natural odours checked! I like to wear “serious”, very put together, but still very feminine scents to work – as a political stance. L’Heure Bleue is my favorite, if the weather is not too hot and humid. It is also such a good company through a rough day. Some time ago I would go for my husband’s Terre d’Hermès, because it made me feel strong, and ‘one of the guys’. But the older I get, the more I think it is important to show these men who rule the world, you know? September 22, 2012 at 5:36am Reply

    • Suzanna: Solanace, I wasn’t able to appreciate L’Heure Bleue until I wore it in the heat! Isn’t it funny how fragrances react differently on different people. September 22, 2012 at 7:06am Reply

      • solanace: Oh, but it is always hot here, LOL! I only avoid it when the weather is really mean, like over 90 degrees F!
        Lovely post, by the way. Even as I enjoy my powerhouses, it is great to learn new ways of applying them with a light hand…. September 22, 2012 at 10:06am Reply

  • Ariadne: I work in GIANT corporate, supporting alpha types. I dress very well and wear potent perfumes every day. I have NEVER had a complaint about my perfume in 30 yrs. I’ve found I command better attention and cooperation the more impactful my scent is. The alpha women love my Bal A Versailles and the “A” men are snapped to attention by Chanel #22 and Bulgari Jasmine Noir. I think it also helps that I am “older and have more insurance”, as the movie line goes, and I also have better shoes. ;+) September 22, 2012 at 10:00am Reply

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