Perfume etiquette

Perfume may be a pleasure to those who wear it, but its over-application is often a nuisance to others. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

We've all been there. Trapped in an elevator with an overly perfumed passenger who has you holding your breath until the doors open. Held hostage at a restaurant next to a fellow diner whose Poison is tainting your filet mignon. Ambushed at a movie theater where the only recourse is to bury your nose in the popcorn.

Perfume may be a pleasure to those who wear it, but its over-application is often a nuisance to others. Though fragrance is often worn to attract, it stands an equal chance of repelling because scent is so subjective.

So what's a perfume fanatic to do?

"Go easy," said Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of the woman who's helped generations mind their manners. "Just because you might not be able to smell it doesn't mean other people can't."

Post suggests spraying one or two spritzes of perfume and walking into it or dabbing just a small amount of perfume on the pulse points. She recommends going "minimal," or even going without perfume, during interviews, traveling on airplanes, dining out and working out.

It isn't only a matter of courtesy. In some cases, it's a health issue. About a quarter of the U.S. population suffers from allergic rhinitis, according to James Wedner, chief of allergy and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. Their eyes water or their noses run when they breathe in various substances, whether it's dust, dander, pollen or perfumes, the last of which contain hundreds of different chemicals.

"If you figure that maybe 2% or 4% of those have major problems with odors, you can see it's a big problem. It's not unusual for me as an allergist to have three or four patients a week who say, 'I went to the symphony, or a restaurant or the doctor's office, and I had to leave because the lady in front of me had on perfume,' " Wedner said.

"It's not inconsequential. The problem allergy sufferers run into is that people don't believe them, but it's a real phenomenon. I don't mean to diss the perfume manufacturers. I really don't, but it's a fact of life."