A Q&A with the founder of Earth Sisters

After growing up with severe allergies, Yvonne Gemmell is mindful of what she puts on her skin. We talk with her about co-founding natural skincare company, Earth Sisters.

What led to you starting Earth Sisters with your sister, Pat, in 1997?

I was still working full-time (in finance) when Pat retired from work and completed an aromatherapy certificate. I sent her some books with skincare recipes and she suddenly rang me with the idea that we make some really good natural products and sell them via home shopping

You struggled with severe allergies throughout your childhood and into your 30s. Tell us more about that.

When I was about seven months old I had one intestine collapse into another and had an operation to untangle them. This isn’t that rare and it’s treated differently with modern medicine, but this happened during WWII and the anaesthetics were fairly primitive. The shock of the anaesthetic triggered allergies to just about everything and caused chronic asthma and unbelievably itchy hives. One of my doctors eventually tried a new allergy treatment from overseas that involved weekly injections to desensitise me to most of the problem foods, dusts and pollens. I improved dramatically but still did homeschooling with my mother on our farm. I really improved with the advent of asthma-targeted drugs and by 35 had married and had three daughters.

How did you go about developing your natural skincare products?

First you have to have a skin condition and type in mind. With Earth Sisters products, we research active oils and extracts to obtain a product that will work well on that particular skin. We use a botanical base, to which we add our formulation blend and then send it out to willing victims for use and comment. With our aromatherapy essential oil blends, we asked our city clients to choose the best.

Pat retired to be a “grey nomad” in 2008 and you now run Earth Sisters with your daughter, Penny. What has it been like to run a family business?

It has been interesting. Pat liked to say the only way it worked was that we lived 600km apart. Penny ran the home shopping in Queensland, Pat had a shop in Coffs Harbour and my daughter Fiona, an ag scientist, had a shop in Dee Why and then Sydney, while I did the backroom tasks. We changed direction in February 2008 when the lease on our city shop was up. Now it’s just Penny and me. We picked a pharmacy in central Sydney to take some products, where it’s still stocked. We cut down the product range for this, keeping most on our website, and started to formulate our new range of certified organics and natural skincare with Australian native extracts and oils.

You were diagnosed with cancer in 2008 but have since been given the all-clear. How did this impact on Earth Sisters?

During the treatment stage, creating a new range of certified organics was fantastic therapy. Just working with the oils made me feel better. The treatment made me ill but I didn’t go to the suggested Look Good…Feel Better community programs, as I wasn’t sure what cosmetic products they used and I still have allergies to some synthetics on my skin. About this time, Penny wanted me to formulate a medium-priced blend for stretch marks using organic ingredients. I had radiation burns plus surgery scars, so it seemed smart to do a general oil that covered a lot of skin problems. The market leader in this area is an imported petroleum/synthetic product. There are several good natural ones but no certified organic one, so we made one, tested it on ourselves and Organic Skin Oil was born.

Where to from here for Earth Sisters?

We are in the testing stage for more medium-priced organic products and should be launching them later in the year. We love experimenting with the rarer extracts and I am cultivating some on my farm, such as ashitaba, the Japanese tomorrow herb.

What do you do when you’re not running your business?

(My husband) David and I spend as much time as possible at our farm at Coomba Bay on the NSW mid north coast where we are planting rare medicinal and edible plants. We are totally off-the-grid as far as electricity is concerned, using gas for cooking and hot water. Our next plan is to build a small home. We both firmly believe life begins at 70.

For more details, visit earthsisters.com.au.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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