Today’s post is an interview with (and case studies from) Reading-based (UK) Reiki Master / Teacher, human and animal Aromatherapist Chrissie Slade. Chrissie is the founder and owner of Gorgeous Guineas, the world’s first company to create aromatherapy products specifically developed for guinea pigs. Since March is Adopt a Guinea Pig month, I thought it would be an extra appropriate time to learn a bit more about Chrissie and Gorgeous Guineas.
Chrissie came from a background in IT and sort of fell into her business by chance when she adopted a guinea pig from Reading Guinea Pig Rescue and became friends with Karen, who headed up the rescue (Karen “retired” from rescue at the end of last year). What started as a “pet project” grew into a full-blown business with customers all over the world. But I’ll let Chrissie tell us all about what happened:
Chrissie, thank you for taking the time to talk to me! How did you get into aromatherapy to begin with?
Back in 1995 I did an Aromatherapy Diploma for my own interest while I was still working full time. I had no real interest in doing aromatherapy massage (which is mostly how aromatherapy is delivered here in the UK), but was fascinated by essential oils and wanting to make my own aromatherapy products, so this was the only way to learn. Once I qualified, I just used the knowledge I had gained to experiment making products for my own use.
What made you switch to working with guinea pigs?
A guinea pig called Florence! I’d had guineas as a child for many years and really loved them. Back in 1998 I decided to buy two for myself as a birthday present, and ended up getting more over the next couple of years. At that time I had no idea that you could adopt guinea pigs, but in 2002, there was an article in the paper and Reading Guinea Pig Rescue were looking for an experienced home for a feisty long-haired sow called Florence. I was lucky enough to be chosen to give her a Forever Home. It was through her that I met Karen who ran the rescue from her home and we soon became friends.
My twin passions in life are aromatherapy and guinea pigs and these two worlds collided at the end of 2002. Shortly after I adopted Florence, 17 guineas with bad fungal skin problems landed at Reading Guinea Pig Rescue. After a couple of weeks, Karen wasn’t having much luck clearing up the problems with Veterinary products (most of which are quite harsh and designed for either cats or dogs). So, I offered to “have a go” at making something nice to help the guineas and the rest, as they say, is history. The guineas soon started improving with some nice gentle oils and shampoos – their crusty skin started to heal, leaving nice healthy skin behind. The bald patches grew hair again and the guineas started to look and feel a whole lot better.
What was in that first “magic potion”?
The first products were a conditioning shampoo (Original 4 Oil) and an Oil Soak to help with fungal skin problems.
Did the effectiveness of the products surprise you at all?
Yes and no! Yes because I’d not used aromatherapy products on guinea pigs before, but no, because I had already seen how effective these types of products can be for all sorts of human problems – both physical and emotional.
And that was the beginning of your guinea pig skin care business?
Yes. I carried on with my own research and development during 2003 and Gorgeous Guineas was launched in December 2003 with just 3 products. I played with all sorts of ingredients during this time and was helped a lot with product “testing” by Karen and another friend Wendi who runs Thistle Cavies Rescue (www.thistlecaviesrescue.com). The great thing about working with guinea pig rescues is that they usually have guineas coming in with skin problems, so there are always plenty of opportunities to see how effective the products were.
Are those original products still in your line today?
The Original 4 Oil is, but the Oil Soaks have been replaced by Marvellous Melts which are based on Coconut Oil which is very nourishing for hair and skin.
And this is now your full time job?
Yes it is now. For the first few years I was working full time and making products at the weekend and posting them out during my lunch hours! I was then lucky enough to be able to negotiate my job down to 3 days a week and spend more time developing and making products. Eventually I quit my job and now run Gorgeous Guineas full time.
Do you have employees?
No, there is only me, but I do outsource some of my work (such as accounts and admin work) as you can’t do everything yourself. Employing people is not something I want to do as there is so much legislation around this area, so for me, outsourcing work to others is the way to go.
How do you market Gorgeous Guineas?
I’ve got a website, blog, use Twitter and Facebook and there is also a newsletter. There are also my contacts around the world that run guinea pig rescues / blogs / guinea pig forums where they are happy to recommend Gorgeous Guineas products. Here in the UK there is also a growing band of enthusiastic Vet Nurses that are starting to offer guinea pig health checks at their practices, so I often send them samples, business cards and flyers to hand out.
And you have customers all over the world?
Yes, my lovely “little customers” can be found on all 5 continents from America to Australia, Norway to New Zealand, Britain to Brazil, Africa, Middle / Far East / India and all points in between! We’ve even got a couple of customers in the wilds of Alaska! Funnily enough we don’t have any customers in Peru where guineas are kept as a food source…
How do you develop and test new products?
Many of the products have been developed to solve a specific problem and often requested by a customer who had tried the original Conditioning Shampoo, but wanted more! I started out with just 3 products, but as time went on, customers became more demanding, and so the range grew to what it is now.
As an example, the Lice ‘n’ Easy Shampoo was requested to wash away lice and other external parasites that are commonly found on guinea pigs. There are Veterinary products available, but they are very harsh and stuffed full of chemicals…not something I would want to use on my own guineas. I did a lot of research to find out which essential oils / herbal ingredients were traditionally used to get rid of insect nasties, and started experimenting! It really was a case of trial and error – everything was being made up as I went along as there was nobody to follow. It took 3 rounds of testing and 6 months to come up with the right combination of ingredients to deal with the lice. This is probably the product that I am most proud of in terms of the amount of effort it took to develop. It also took a lot of help from my chief product testers. Without their dedication and feedback, it would have been very hard to develop the products and see how they worked (or didn’t in a few cases).
I’ve never believed in animal testing, so any new products are always tested on Humans first! All my suppliers also have Animal Testing Policies in place:) The only “testing” we do is to see how a product works (i.e. does the lice shampoo remove lice), and no guineas have ever been harmed during this process.
And it’s all natural ingredients?
The ingredients are as natural as possible. However, (for example) shampoos and lotions contain water, so need to be preserved to stop bacteria and fungi growing. Parabens are the most commonly used preservatives in cosmetic products, but they have had a bad press. Because of this, I use a different one that is just as effective. There is also no such thing as a “natural detergent” that could practically be used to make shampoo, so the gentle base products that are used for our products are derived from Corn, Sugar and Cocount. Guineas have sensitive skin, so we’ve never used SLS or SLES which are much harsher detergents.
It sounds like guinea pigs have a lot of skin problems?
Yes and no! If they are kept in the right conditions, on appropriate bedding (i.e. not shavings / sawdust), cleaned out / disinfected regularly and bathed every 4-6 weeks, many skin problems can be avoided. Climate can also affect them as they are originally from Peru which is warm and dry. Here in the UK, there is a particular problem with damp which can lead to fungal skin problems – in the summer it is arm and humid, and in the winter it is cold and damp, so not ideal weather for keeping guineas outside – ideally they should either be kept indoors with their Humans, or in a shed or unused garage as wooden cages do not offer enough protection for them in all weathers. Guineas can also get fungal and parasitic problems at the same time, so they often need treating for both after proper diagnosis from a Vet.
Do people use your products in addition to or instead of allopathic medications?
Mange Mites live under the skin and must be treated with Ivermectin from a Vet, but other surface skin problems can be helped with the range of Gorgeous Guineas products. I would always recommend that people choose either Veterinary products or Gorgeous Guineas products and not mix and match. If you are throwing a lot of products at a guinea pig, how do you know what is / is not working?
Can your products be used as preventative care?
Yes – regular bathing every 4-6 weeks along with using the correct bedding / disinfectant can help to reduce the risk of skin problems. Useful Top Tips can be found here: www.gorgeousguineas.com/toptips.html
Are they safe to use on all guinea pigs?
I never recommend the use of products containing essential oils on sows that are, or may be pregnant. For pregnant Humans, there are restrictions on essential oils that can be used during each trimester and as the oils haven’t been tested on pregnant sows, it is always safer to avoid them. So, I created a small range of products without essential oils especially for pregnant sows with skin problems. Every product also comes with an instruction sheet and contains appropriate cautions – for example with leave-on products such as lotions, a patch test is required on a small area behind the ear before using them on larger areas of skin. A couple of products also contain a nut oil, so appropriate warnings are on the product, the instruction sheet and the website to ensure that Humans with nut allergies are kept safe.
And the products work on other animals as well? (I saw in one of the success stories on your site that somebody had successfully used your products on a dog)
Yes – although they have been designed specifically for the types of skin problems that guinea pigs have, they are also successfully used on all sorts of “small furries” such as hamsters, mice, rats, chinchillas and rabbits as well as dogs!
Do you have a “top 5” of products every guinea pig guardian should use?
You really don’t need 5 products for guineas with nice health skin – just a Conditioning Shampoo and maybe Perfect Paws Ointment if the feet are dry:)
1) For regular maintenance, one of the Conditioning Shampoos can be used every 4-6 weeks. For guineas with no skin problems, you really only need this one product.
2) For dry feet, Perfect Paws Ointment provides nourishment.
3) For fungal skin problems Manuka & Neem Shampoo, CocoNeem Melt and Kwench Lotion are all designed to work together to clear the problem up.
4) For external parasites such as lice, the Lice ‘n’ Easy Shampoo will wash these insect nasties away.
5) For Bumblefoot (red, very swollen feet), the F&M Ointment is the best product to use.
What should people who are thinking about adopting a guinea pig keep in mind?
Please do your homework before you think about taking on any animal. Just because guineas are small doesn’t mean that they don’t need a lot of attention. Guineas need more than a small cage at the bottom of the garden with a bit of food thrown at them now and again.
They also require prompt Veterinary attention when they get sick as they are prey animals and very good at hiding illness – often until it is too late. Also, please always think about adopting wherever possible and find a reputable guinea pig rescue where they will match pigs to people and offer sensible advice about how to care for guineas to give them a good life. There are some good pet shops out there (often independent ones), but some of the larger chains often churn out poor advice, guineas that have been poorly bred, wrongly sexed, pregnant or unwell and they usually only have youngsters that are just a few weeks old an not always suitable for family life which can make life very stressful for guineas and their Humans.
What’s next for Gorgeous Guineas? You have already achieved world domination…
During 2011 there was a lot of work behind the scenes, and a whole re-branding process has been taking place. A gorgeous new logo / colour scheme / product labels / business cards / car stickers have been designed for me by a very talented team of people. The final piece of the jigsaw is a gorgeous new website which will be going live sometime next month. It is really exciting because it looks and feels so different to the current website, and unique to Gorgeous Guineas. There is also going to be a new limited-edition shampoo available soon, so watch out for that. I’m also always on the lookout for new ideas, new product ingredients or new ways of doing things / improving on what is already out there so I never get bored