Cary Caster, an aromatherapist and ethnobotanist, has founded a company that is making aromatherapy and essential oils accessible and user friendly for the masses.
Caster's field is one rarely explored in the U.S, and is far from glamorized. Aromatherapy - relaxation, healing through oils and blends and the purest of ingredients has a tendency to be perceived as a whimsical field, especially given the lack of information, until now. Caster is bringing the information, the science, the reputability, and has transformed these into an incredibly cool brand.
“People often don’t realize the rigorous scientific research that has been done on aromatherapy. We now know what scents affect which part of the mind and body and how to harness that for greater health,” says Caster, who has spent years poring over research about the correlation between the immune system and the brain, and how these oils can help the two.
Further to this Caster has looked into how these essential oils can help with sleep patterns - getting your required REM cycles in during a short or long sleep time. Below, she talks with SWAAY about her findings and how very essential these oils are in today's world and the busy U.S market.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your aromatherapy and ethnobotany - how long were you studying these disciplines?
I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Botany in 1981. Upon graduating, I worked for 3 years at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami. It was working at the garden that stimulated my desire to return to college for a master’s degree in Ethnobotany. While I began my graduate studies in conjunction with the New York Botanical Garden’s Ethnobotany program in 1984, I got married and moved back to FL, where I began raising my family. When I became pregnant with my first child 30 years ago, I began using essential oils more extensively. I quickly became addicted to learning more about these botanical wonders! In wanting to learn more about the effects of the essential oils on the body, I became a Licensed Massage Therapist in 2000, which I still maintain today. However, it was when I lived in London in 2002 that I obtained a formal yearlong Certification in Aromatherapy from the Institute of Traditional Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy, which incorporated the additional influence of the principles of Traditional 5 Element Theory of Chinese Medicine. I later continued on with both an Advanced Aromatherapy Certification from Aromahead Institute in 2008 and further obtained a Clinical Certification in France in 2009 from Essential Oil Resource Consultants. This formal education in Aromatherapy from these institutions in Europe is considered a complementary modality and recognized as a form of alternative medicine, unlike here in the United States, where Aromatherapy is not yet regulated. I resided on the board of directors for the Alliance of International Aromatherapists from 2012-2016. I also attend an Aromatherapy conference, reviewing the current research on and application of essential oils, every year since 2002. I continue to learn more about this profound growing science every day!
2. When did you decide to launch the 21 drops line?
I decided to launch 21 drops 10 years ago when I began seeing and hearing the word aromatherapy used more frequently but was truly discouraged by the quality of the products I found claiming to be “aromatherapy”. I felt and continue to feel that the public deserves to have a more pure, higher quality essential oil experience to truly understand their powerful healing properties.
3. What is the science behind the drops? How long does it take to formulate the ingredients?
Each essential oil has its own unique makeup of phytochemical components. These numerous components work on different systems of the mind, body and emotional state by fitting into receptor sites in our olfactory bulb, which then trigger electrical impulses to different body parts. While we know that lavender is “relaxing”, it can take years to fully understand the chemistry of lavender’s 100+ naturally occurring components and the diverse effects these. Have on different systems of the body, as Lavender isn’t good for just one thing due to its complex chemical makeup. Depending on the condition one is trying to address, you would focus on the chemical makeup of an essential oil, but with my additional training in The 5 Element Theory of Chinese Medicine, I also look at the energetics as well, such as hot/cold, wet/dry, yin/yang, etc. I also take into consideration numerous safety concerns and contraindications that should not be taken lightly when using essential oils. I had my private massage and aromatherapy consulting practice for many years before launching 21 Drops®, so I utilized these learnings of recurring issues and solutions to create our blends.
4. Is it difficult to navigate this industry - as it's in between beauty and holistic therapy?
Aromatherapy is a relatively new category of the larger consumer product industry here in the United States and is quickly growing. However, because it does hover between beauty and wellness as a holistic therapy, many retailers don’t know exactly where these products belong. We had an experience where 21 drops® was brought in by a large national retailer, only to find our products placed in the fragrance department, where we didn’t belong. That being said, essential oil use in this country is not formally recognized as a holistic therapy, and the schools for Aromatherapy certification vary from a few days to over 360 hours for a basic certification. There’s no nationally recognized regulating body, which makes the industry a bit of a “free for all”. Also, there are huge differences in the quality of the essential oils being marketed and one isn’t going to get any great benefit from EO’s that have been synthetically altered or created, which unfortunately is more than 90% of essential oils on the market. Thus, certain oils are used more for their beautiful scent, rather than their therapeutic value. This is why 21 drops has self-imposed quality standards of 3rd party GC/MS testing of all our essential oils, which we make available per batch on our website, so there’s full transparency of the quality of our oils.
5. How do you market the drops? Are they a difficult seller?
We have found that the spa market is the best market for our products for several reasons. First of all, massage therapists working in these locations are usually more familiar with essential oils with a better understanding of product quality and sourcing. Also, we sell more of our retail product where our back-bar products are also being used in treatments because the client has the opportunity to experience the blends and the wonderful effects they create. In addition, Aromatherapy requires a bit of education since most people have heard the term but aren’t familiar with what essential oils actually are or how they work. The spa customer usually has a bit more time for learning about products instead of a mass retail setting. It’s also interesting that many store owners who buy 21 drops are more familiar with the new upcoming trends, whereas the average consumers are still a bit behind in this area and thus the products that the buyer likes aren’t always appreciated by their customers without the input of more information and knowledge.
6. What claims are you allowed to make about the effectiveness of the drops?
According to the FDA, any claim about changing the structure or function of the body is considered a “drug”. Because of this, there are very little, if any, definitive claims one can make about the effectiveness of any essential oil product without having done specific testing. That is why we can only offer language as to their suggestive effectiveness, rather than being able to state their upfront health benefits. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about the use of essential oils for more extreme illnesses by people who have not been clinically certified by an approved school. By unqualified people making claims without proper training, it makes it more suspect for the essential oil therapy industry to progress as a validated modality. That being said, it exciting to learn about the amount of research confirming the effectiveness of essential oils on a clinical level. This science is quickly expanding by qualifies doctors and researchers and confirming what many who have been using essential oils have known for a very long time.
7. Did you need FDA approval before releasing the line?
As an essential oil consumer product, we hired an attorney who specializes in FDA review of packaging copy to make sure we were compliant with our verbiage so as not to mislead the public nor neglect any regulations. We did not need FDA approval because we do not make any strong claims to “cure or heal”, and purposely moderated our language so as to being suggestive about the benefits of our blends without making any definitive assertions.
8. Where do you source all your ingredients from?
We source our essential oils from Artisan distillers from all over the world. Our distillers use either sustainable or organic farming practices. The processes of distillation that these distillers use differ in that they use lower temperatures for a longer period of time to extract the most complete essential oils for their therapeutic components. As an example, our Ylang Ylang EO comes from Madagascar, our Rosemary EO comes from Tunisia, our Myrrh and Frankincense EO come from So Africa and our Lavender comes from France, our Sandalwood comes from Australia, while our Cedarwood comes from the USA.
9. Are you self-funded? Tell us a little about the investment process for a brand like 21-Drops.
21 drops® is a self-funded company and like most young brands, all of the profits go right back into the business for sales and marketing to develop brand awareness and growth. As a Clinical Aromatherapist, I had little business background in consumer goods and thus had to rely on other experts who I felt knew the industry better than I did, yet that didn’t always translate to successes and we have had an interesting but not unusual journey.
10. Why are essential oils becoming increasingly relevant in today's market?
Essential Oils are becoming relevant in today’s market because a good quality essential oil has the ability to work incredibly well at addressing a multitude of issues and concerns. A very important factor to consider is the science of olfaction and how this relatively young science is beginning to show promise in the holistic approach to the way we think and feel. I am particularly fascinated with psychoneuroimmunology and how our thoughts can affect the way we are feeling. I think essential oils fill a huge gap by offering a more holistic approach by helping us to feel better emotionally, which in turn, helps our entire physiology function more optimally.
11. Is there anything you would have done differently - looking back on the business journey so far?
Looking back, I have numerous things I would have done differently! First and foremost, I would have started with fewer blend options, because it’s now proven that people become overwhelmed with too many choices. Many times, I would have customers walk up and say, “I need all of these blends!” and then continue to walk away without purchasing any of them! I also would have hired a consulting CEO a lot sooner, had I realized the vastness of the business options and avenues of where one can easily spend too much money, trying to get a company off the ground. Otherwise, I must say it’s been and continues to be an amazing journey, with new learnings along the way every day! I’m most excited for the next chapter!
In 2016, I finally found my voice. I always thought I had one, especially as a business owner and mother of two vocal toddlers, but I had been wrong.
For more than 30 years, I had been struggling with the fear of being my true self and speaking my truth. Then the repressed memories of my childhood sexual abuse unraveled before me while raising my 3-year-old daughter, and my life has not been the same since.
Believe it or not, I am happy about that.
The journey for a survivor like me to feel even slightly comfortable sharing these words, without fear of being shamed or looked down upon, is a long and often lonely one. For all of the people out there in the shadows who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I dedicate this to you. You might never come out to talk about it and that's okay, but I am going to do so here and I hope that in doing so, I will open people's eyes to the long-term effects of abuse. As a survivor who is now fully conscious of her abuse, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, quite frankly, it may never go away.
It took me some time to accept that and I refuse to let it stop me from thriving in life; therefore, I strive to manage it (as do many others with PTSD) through various strategies I've learned and continue to learn through personal and group therapy. Over the years, various things have triggered my repressed memories and emotions of my abuse--from going to birthday parties and attending preschool tours to the Kavanaugh hearing and most recently, the"Leaving Neverland" documentary (I did not watch the latter, but read commentary about it).
These triggers often cause panic attacks. I was angry when I read Barbara Streisand's comments about the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them, as detailed in the documentary. She was quoted as saying, "They both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized for her comments. I was frustrated when one of the senators questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (during the Kavanaugh hearing) responded snidely that Dr. Ford was still able to get her Ph.D. after her alleged assault--as if to imply she must be lying because she gained success in life.We survivors are screaming to the world, "You just don't get it!" So let me explain: It takes a great amount of resilience and fortitude to walk out into society every day knowing that at any moment an image, a sound, a color, a smell, or a child crying could ignite fear in us that brings us back to that moment of abuse, causing a chemical reaction that results in a panic attack.
So yes, despite enduring and repressing those awful moments in my early life during which I didn't understand what was happening to me or why, decades later I did get married; I did become a parent; I did start a business that I continue to run today; and I am still learning to navigate this "new normal." These milestones do not erase the trauma that I experienced. Society needs to open their eyes and realize that any triumph after something as ghastly as childhood abuse should be celebrated, not looked upon as evidence that perhaps the trauma "never happened" or "wasn't that bad. "When a survivor is speaking out about what happened to them, they are asking the world to join them on their journey to heal. We need love, we need to feel safe and we need society to learn the signs of abuse and how to prevent it so that we can protect the 1 out of 10 children who are being abused by the age of 18. When I state this statistic at events or in large groups, I often have at least one person come up to me after and confide that they too are a survivor and have kept it a secret. My vehicle for speaking out was through the novella The Survivors Club, which is the inspiration behind a TV pilot that my co-creator and I are pitching as a supernatural, mind-bending TV series. Acknowledging my abuse has empowered me to speak up on behalf of innocent children who do not have a voice and the adult survivors who are silent.
Remembering has helped me further understand my young adult challenges,past risky relationships, anger issues, buried fears, and my anxieties. I am determined to thrive and not hide behind these negative things as they have molded me into the strong person I am today.Here is my advice to those who wonder how to best support survivors of sexual abuse:Ask how we need support: Many survivors have a tough exterior, which means the people around them assume they never need help--we tend to be the caregivers for our friends and families. Learning to be vulnerable was new for me, so I realized I needed a check-off list of what loved ones should ask me afterI had a panic attack.
The list had questions like: "Do you need a hug," "How are you feeling," "Do you need time alone."Be patient with our PTSD". Family and close ones tend to ask when will the PTSD go away. It isn't a cold or a disease that requires a finite amount of drugs or treatment. There's no pill to make it miraculously disappear, but therapy helps manage it and some therapies have been known to help it go away. Mental Health America has a wealth of information on PTSD that can help you and survivors understand it better. Have compassion: When I was with friends at a preschool tour to learn more about its summer camp, I almost fainted because I couldn't stop worrying about my kids being around new teenagers and staff that might watch them go the bathroom or put on their bathing suit. After the tour, my friends said,"Nubia, you don't have to put your kids in this camp. They will be happy doing other things this summer."
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. They showed me love and compassion, which made me feel safe and not judged.