His smell made me fail: should we have scent-free schools?

By Mohan Dhall
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Representational Photo by CDC on Unsplash

I ask Mike a question.

He replies, “My tongue is numb,” sticking his tongue out and amplifying his words.

I look at him.

He repeats, “My tongue is numb… I cannn…t…. ta…a..…kkkk.”

A few minutes earlier a student in my class had sprayed some deodorant onto his shirt underarms, having come from a physical education (PE) class. Another student in my class reported headaches and dizziness a short time later. She also stated that her skin was itchy.

Studies show that up to one-third of people experience fragrance sensitivity. Steinemann (2019) reported that just under 33% of people surveyed reported adverse health effects from fragranced consumer products. Her study showed that people experienced a range of negative impacts including breathing difficulties, headaches, skin irritation and asthma. Steinemann also found that just under 13% of people had migraine episodes arising from fragranced products.

Teachers must contend with the effects of fragrance induced health effects on students in virtually every class. Students who are affected by chemical fragrances can feel restless, find it hard to concentrate, may be irritable, physically uncomfortable, and psychologically unsettled.

Fragrances can also negatively impact teaching staff because up to one-third of them can be similarly affected.

Adolescents and changing bodies

Hormonal changes occurring during puberty and adolescence can mean that young people are having to contend with their own changing smell. They may sweat to an extent they feel anxious about how they smell around others and at school.

Consumer-product manufacturers and retailers specifically target adolescents because they know young people feel vulnerable around being judged about personal odour. Products that are heavily fragranced adorn supermarket shelves. Many shoppers will have seen clusters of teenagers in supermarket aisles trying deodorants and fragrances as a rite of passage.

Personal cleaning products and household cleaning products

Products used for personal hygiene and grooming are often fragranced, some heavily so. Cleaning products such as alcohols wipes and sanitisers, hand washing gels and soaps, shampoo and conditioner, skin creams and moisturisers, spray and roll-on deodorants can all be infused with chemical fragrances that impact negatively on the child’s psychological and physical health and wellbeing.

Carpet cleaners, dishwashing tablets, washing powders and liquids and aerosols may all be heavily fragranced, and this can mean that even if not wearing or washing with fragranced-laced products, children can be exposed to chemicals on their clothes, in their classrooms, and on plates, glasses and utensils.

In schools this can mean particular rooms impact on some children and their learning. Whiteboard cleaners, for example, may be used routinely in some rooms. These alcohol-based cleaning agents are highly volatile and release chemicals into the classroom environment.

His smell made me fail!

Students often experience the effects of environmental factors which can significantly impact on their academic performance and ability to concentrate. A student in one class exclaimed after an exam, “His smell made me fail!” He was referring to his best friend’s use of a cologne that gave him a headache and made him feel nauseous.

…a scent that covers the Sun

Another student who experienced regular migraine headaches in a French class characterised the effect of the teacher’s perfume as being, “a scent that covers the sun.” The student’s migraine headaches featured intense sensitivity to sunlight and seeing patterns of black squares before her eyes.

Can scent improve memory/learning?

Despite the issues arising from chemical scents and fragrances negatively impacting students, studies have also been done that link some smells with positive effects on learning. Some studies suggest that lavender oil as a natural oil may have a calming effect on students and thus enhance a child’s capacity to concentrate and learn. However most studies have not conclusively found a causal link between improved academic outcomes and olfactory stimulus.

Scent-free schools?

In some nations, clusters of schools have sought to implement scent-free environments. There are several difficulties associated with this such as educating diverse communities about so-called “nice smells” being potentially highly toxic. Informing communities that students with severe allergies can face significant health risks if exposed to some of three-thousand chemicals that can be found in fragrances. Some parents prefer to exercise  their right to choose and many adolescents resist being told what to do, or seek to subvert school rules, especially if their own health is not affected by the products they routinely use.

Catering for the most vulnerable

Gandhi is often attributed with the saying, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Students and staff impacted by the chemicals in fragrances can be respected in learning environments if those environments implement new learnings to adapt and accommodate sensitivities.

Perhaps the maxim for every classroom should be: You may enter the room—but leave your scent behind.


The views expressed are those of the author’s. Mohan Dhall is a Lecturer in Education at UTS, the CEO of the Australian Tutoring Association (ATA) and the Global Professional Tutors Association (GPTA). He is also a Chartered Manager and Fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders

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