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Rebecca Flanagan, owner of Urban Healing, in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak

It was after some clients complained about the different scents wafting inside her Vancouver massage therapy clinic, from perfume to cigarettes, that Rebecca Flanagan decided to create a new policy to cut down on odours.

The owner of Urban Healing recently posted a notice on her website asking clients to “refrain from wearing scented personal products, and smoking before your treatment.” The goal being to create a “reduced scent environment” that would be more inclusive of people who are sensitive to different scents.

The clinic has also stopped using scented detergents, burning scented candles and removes any scented advertisements that come in magazines left in the waiting area.

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Urban Healing is among a growing number of small businesses, from massage clinics and fitness studios to cleaning companies, working to reduce scents in their operations to cater to those sensitive to certain smells. For some customers and staff, scents are not just an irritant but a health issue. Fragrance sensitivity can bring on severe allergy-type reactions such as headaches, sneezing or shortness of breath. Many workplaces have adopted scent-free policies, but the efforts are now extending to businesses open to the public.

Ms. Flanagan has had some resistance to her new policy. Still, she’s not backing down.

“I’m going to roll with it. I’d like the space to be as accessible as possible to a greater range of people. If someone says they can’t come in because it smells too strongly, then I’m going to make every effort I can to include them,” she says, adding that most people are on board. “I’m holding out for it to become a normal thing everywhere.”

At Modo Yoga in East Vancouver, owner Monique Harris has been highlighting the global hot-yoga franchise’s scent-free policy more in recent years. The studio posts signs asking its students to not spray scents on them, such as perfume and deodorants, and to be mindful of what odours they might be coming in with, including cigarette smoke and other unpleasant body odours.

“It’s tricky. You don’t want to make people feel bad around wearing perfume. They might be wearing it because they’re embarrassed about [their] odour,” Ms. Harris says.

However, in a hot-yoga class where people are in close proximity for anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes, Ms. Harris says it’s important to enforce the policy to create a more inclusive environment for all students.

“Some people won’t be able to practise if there is a lot of scent around,” Ms. Harris says.

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She says the vast majority of members abide by the policy, with no conflicts when asked to come scent-free. However, Ms. Harris realizes it can be a sensitive topic.

“For some people, scent is a personal thing. They wear it because they really love it and it helps them to express themselves,” she says. “To ask someone to change that thing that’s associated with them feels a little bit confrontational, but it actually ends up being fine. … We try to make it more about the studio environment, not the members.”

The studio has also gone scent-free with its laundry detergent, using only odour-removing products such as vinegar and Borax, and not odour-masking scents. Only the body washes in the showers have a light scent from essential-oil ingredients.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says having policies on scents are a good way for businesses to set the standard for what to expect from customers and employees. However, a policy for customers can be tricky because it could mean losing them.

“If you’re serving customers, having a policy you can fall back on is a positive thing, but be careful about the wording, so it doesn’t end up offending your potential client base,” he says.

The Canadian offices of MaidPro housing cleaning services switched to scent-free cleaning products in late 2017 after concerns from both customers and employees, president David Buckler says.

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“We spent years trying to find a scent all our clients liked and it was impossible,” Mr. Buckler says. “We’d get complaints from clients who didn’t like the scent or employees who misused the sprays we provided. We’d also have employees who would get headaches from some of the scented cleaners we used.”

He said the performance of the unscented products is the same and clients are fine with the neutral smell. Now, its unscented products are a selling feature.

“We rarely get any complaints about the lack of fragrances, where we used to get regular complaints about it smelling wrong or too powerful with our old chemical line,” he says. “Also, zero headache complaints from the staff, which is probably the most important factor.”

At Urban Healing, dropping scents has also helped put some clients – and their spouses – at ease, says Ms. Flanagan.

In the past, she used a lavender-rosemary-mint scented product on a male client to help relieve his muscle cramps. His wife immediately picked up on the scent when he got home.

“[She] thought he was having an affair because he smelled like perfume,” Ms. Flanagan says. “He explained, delicately, that his wife was in some distress about it and if we could stop using the product it would help him. So we discontinued the scented product and carried on with the treatments."

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