Going Postal: Addressing the Perfume Mailability Problem at USPS with Technology

USPS Mailability of Perfumes

Yes, Virginia. You can mail fragrances without lying. And the USPS is now helping you to do it.

I will admit that I’ve been a merciless critic of the USPS in regard to fragrance mailability.  When it was pointed out to me on Basenotes that it is far easier to mail fragrances in China – as in RED CHINA – than it is in “red, white and blue” America….. well, that was the point where I basically decided that I would not bother to live in any country where I could not mail fragrance.  And while it was looking pretty grim for continuing to live in Uncle Red’s Cabin, here in the good old USA, I have good news for more than just my beloved family members, who all love our current location dearly.  You, too, can now mail fragrance in the United States.  And you can do so without having to lie about it.

So, the executive summary version is that the USPS did something right, by using technology to help interpret their own rules.  You can leave with that thought, if you’d like.  But if you care about certain things – fragrance, sharing fragrance, and truth – then I think you deserve the full story.

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Where do I begin?  I could go on forever.  But let’s try to do it in one sentence.

You have always been able to mail fragrance domestically in the United States, but the damn rules are so complex, ever-changing, and impossibly worded, that almost every single postal employee was under the impression that perfume simply could not be mailed, thereby inducing millions of honest Americans to LIE about whether their packages contained fragrance.

Yes.  The rules are so bad, that – refusing to lie – I was once forced to call a variety of USPS and DOT officials, from my truck, in the Post Office parking lot, to ascertain whether I could either mail fragrance, or have my biggest-ever blog scandal scoop.

Sadly – or gladly, depending on your point of view – the truth was that I could mail my fragrance samples, and the clerk was – more or less – wrong.  Somewhere between “restricted” and “forbidden”, somebody either wasn’t getting the message, or wasn’t actually supposed to get the message.

Generally speaking, your fragrances can always be shipped domestically by ground.  Up to a shockingly large quantity.  With a simple “ORM-D” marking on the parcel, that can even be drawn by hand.  You can start to read all about ORM-D here, although once you go down the rabbit-hole of regulations, you will surely begin to freak out.  That link drops you in the middle of the rules – something like opening an organic chemistry book in the middle.  If you follow it long enough, in multiple directions, you will eventually discover the rules for packaging your fragrance.  Or at least the probable rules.  I’ve actually gotten slightly different rules from different officials.  So it’s a mess.  I don’t dare quote the packaging rules for you, since I have multiple versions.

But it gets worse.

The situation is so bad, that in one of my many frustrated readings of the regulations, I discovered a 30-mL small quantity exception that – as far as I can tell – nobody is even telling us about.  Not only would the small quantity classification seem to cover almost all reasonable quantities of fragrance samples – it seems to be a very preferable alternative to ORM-D classification because – shockingly – it would allow your small samples to travel by air, domestically.  However, in trying to determine which one trumps the other – small quantity or the USPS “simple dictum” that no flammable materials can go by air, I am simply running into a brick wall of logic.  The regulations as posted online clearly are not giving us the full story.

Worse still, I think I have an idea WHY they’re being a bit coy about letting us know our rights to mail things.


Yeah.  Fragrance is suffering because of the drug wars.  OY.

Unfortunately, even correcting things online would be yet another waste of our tax dollars.  Why?  Because ORM-D is going away, to be replaced by something new, which is supposed to allow harmonization with international regulations.  That something new was supposed to arrive here in January of 2013, and then January of 2014, according to one source I found, but was apparently delayed.  However, you can see some of the new labeling requirements here.  Try to make sense out of it.  I dare you.  No – I double dare you.  Because, quite honestly, I cannot tell you whether I will be able to mail fragrance a year from now.

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Every trip to the post office for the last six years has been a nightmare – a gauntlet of bureaucracy, as a lone redneck perfumisto, insisting on telling the truth about his fragrance parcels, had to run a gauntlet of underpaid fellow citizens who were simply doing what they thought was their duty, honorably and professionally enforcing a lie.

So – imagine my surprise when I mailed my most recent package of fragrance samples to a fellow Basenoter.  Instead of the usual problems, when I was asked if my package contained anything liquid, fragile, or potentially hazardous, and I answered (more or less) “yes”, I was directed to a signature pad and a stylus.  With the message (roughly)….

Does you package contain lithium batteries, paint, perfume, matches, etc.?

To which I answered…


Does your package contain hazardous materials?

Now I have to admit that I talked to the clerk, just to make sure, and for alcohol-based perfume, the answer is still…


Done.  Same price by weight as my non-fragrance mailer, which I sent at the same time.  Both were projected to make it to my friend 3 days later.  The fragrance package actually did.  And the non-fragrance package actually arrived in only 2 days.

Although I had marked my fragrance package ORM-D and SURFACE MAIL ONLY as usual, there was no checking for it.  There was no special tagging or labeling of the fragrance package.  Instead, it was all done electronically.  The “hazardous” package simply went by ground, as a USPS First Class Mail Parcel, while the other, non-hazardous package – presumably – went by air as the same thing.  Now I have to caution you that the ORM-D rule probably still applies, but the clerk did not seem to care about it.

The bottom line:  The machine has taken the job of interpreting arcane postal rules away from the clerk.

Shocked.  Shocked, I say.  Shocked, that our government did something so sensible to solve a problem.   Shocked enough, that I think this is worth examining in some detail.

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There is a techie demi-god named Tim O’Reilly, of the animal-covered IT books variety, and no relation to Bill O’Reilly, who is a big advocate of using technology to solve government’s problems.  Many of us – and that would include ME – are very wary of technology in government’s hands.  But sometimes, you just have to admit that it can and does solve problems.  We just have to be careful – to remain questioning, in order to remain free.  To do that, we have to KNOW what the truth is supposed to be.  But as long as we do, it makes sense to use technology to help us rule over ourselves more smartly and more honestly.

Let’s take our simple example of perfume mailability.  Can we make it Orwellian?  Absolutely.  We’ll simply add the Overton window to it.

What if – once we have a friendly, never-mistaken computer asking us about perfume in our packages – we start changing the laws that we are no longer looking at?  What if the computer, one day, says that our package weighs a bit too much, even though we could have sworn that we mailed a 4.2-oz bottle yesterday, and now the limit is 3.4 ounces.  That’s the way these guys work.  “They” will lull you into easy compliance, and then start changing the rules to fit their control agenda.  You are the frog.  They are the human.  And the pot – that is now everywhere.  No pun intended.

Or the government could simply inspect the package in mid-route, and determine which labeling regulation the civilian failed to perform properly.  Is it ORM-D, or the fancy new label?  Or WHICH fancy new label?  Who the heck knows?   Just BUST THE PERP.  Who is probably just a little old lady, but hey.  Maybe she’s in the Tea Party.

You could be suspicious of the government here, and I would argue that you should be.  But I also have to give somebody in the USPS credit, because if you look at the bottom of the picture above, located on the web right here, under the “Restricted” tab, there are links to the text of the regulations, here and here.  So if you don’t believe the interpretation by software, you can go to their website, and view the regulations themselves.  You can do exactly what the requirements analysts, programmers, and quality assurance people did.

Ghastly regulations, as demonstrated above, I will admit.  But at least they’re trying.

So let’s say that you’re in the Post Office, and the software mistakenly tells you that you can’t mail something.  I’m an IT guy.  I can tell you, most assuredly – software lies all the time, and fixing that is what pays my bills.  But I can also tell you, most people are going to believe it.  And most people will do what they were doing before – coming back a week later and lying about whether their package contains fragrance.  Of course, now their lie is actually caught in data, but you might say that the government’s lie – innocent as it may be at the programmer level – is caught in algorithm.  And here you thought Al Gore Rhythm wasn’t a dangerous thing.

Still, there’s something beautiful about that.  One lie undoes the other until they both go away.

Anyway, I think there’s a bigger lesson here.  Sometimes, technology can keep us free, if we use it correctly.  And a big part of that, is using it for truth.

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PS – Just to make this perfectly clear, I am strongly recommending that all you good folks out there start telling the truth about your perfume when the little YES / NO thing flashes in front of you.  Just in case the guv ain’t doing this for YOUR benefit. 


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Additional References:

(1)  Appendix A:  Hazardous Materials Table:  Postal Service Mailability Guide

(2) Postal Service Table Entry For Perfumery Products


(3) Appendix D:  Hazardous Materials Definitions

(4)  CFR Hazardous Materials Table

(5)  CFR HazMat Table Headings

CFR HazMat Table Headings

CFR HazMat Table Headings

(6)   CFR HazMat Entry for Perfumery Products

CFR HazMat Entry for Perfumery Products

CFR HazMat Entry for Perfumery Products

(7)  UPS International Shipping of Dangerous Goods, Including Perfume: PDF File

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