We use cotton swabs for a variety of reasons these days. But it was a 1923 invention that turned them into ‘Q-tips’ for generations of people.
Q-Tips celebrate their 100th anniversary this year. It was a Polish-American inventor, as the story goes, who created them after watching his wife wrap cotton around the ends of toothpicks to clean their infant’s ears. It sounds a bit terrifying to think of sticking a toothpick in a baby’s ears. But apparently she used enough cotton to not cause damage and to inspire a huge idea.
Leo Gerstenzang developed the first mass-produced cotton swab. The original name of the product was “Baby Gays,” which then became “Q-tips Baby Gays.” Eventually, we came to know them as just “Q-tips.”
What did the ‘Q’ stand for?
In the early part of the twentieth century, before refrigerators and freezers were common in homes, health was always a concern. In fact, watching History’s The Food that Built America series, I wonder how we even survived the early 20th century. The White Castle restaurant, for example, dressed their restaurants and employees in white to symbolize cleanliness.
I imagine the Q in Q-tips, which stands for quality, may have come out of this same mindset of stressing healthy benefits.
We use cotton swabs for more than just ear cleaning
The most common use of the cotton swab is probably what you and I use it for: cleaning one’s ears. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
We also use cotton swabs in first aid, particularly for applying antiseptic or ointment to cuts or bites. You can remove or touch up makeup with them.
Plastic model kit builders use cotton swabs to help spread or clean model clue. Artists sometimes use cotton swabs in art applications. Let’s face it: If Bob Ross could sometimes apply oil on canvas with a painting knife, others can certainly paint with a Q-tip once in a while, right?
Photographers and videographers might occasionally use a cotton swab to clean lens. Engineers might similarly use a swab to clean delicate electrical equipment. Computer users might even swab their keyboards to remove dust.
In the world of medical research, scientists use medical-grade cotton swabs to take cultures.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all saw footage of doctors swabbing patients’ noses to test for the disease.
Ear specialists probably wish we’d avoid the ear cleaning part
The website Healthline states that earwax, which is what most people use cotton swabs to remove, is actually beneficial for your ear. Most people use the swabs to reach down into the ear canal where the wax is.
But the site states this can do damage. Rather than removing earwax, it can actually push more of down deeper into the ear canal to the point that it starts to press against the eardrum. That’s not a good thing.
Cotton swabs are fine for cleaning the outer ear — the visible part of the ear everyone can see.
But when it comes to sticking a Q-tip (or any other type of cotton swab) into the ear, doctors say that should definitely be a no-no.
Now you know!
Why we call cotton swabs ‘Q-tips’ even if they aren’t
The familiar name for cotton swabs has become so common it likely worries trademark attorneys. Companies are required to police the use of their trademarks to avoid losing trademark protection.
Aspirin was once a trademark. But because it became so common for any kind of pain killer, whether it was the brand-name aspirin, it lost its trademark status. So now many brands make “aspirin tablets.”
It’s the same problem trademark owners for products like Kleenex and Xerox have. We grab a cotton tissue — it might be Kleenex or it might be Puffs — but we call it a Kleenex. When’s the last time you heard someone ask for “a facial tissue?” Likewise, we go to Xerox something, even if the copier in the office is a Hewlett-Packard or a Toshiba.
In a way, I’m sure it’s flattering for companies that their product has become so familiar and engrained in people’s vocabulary that they use those names universally. But legally, those companies probably wish we wouldn’t. It’s a double-edged sword.
The Q-tip is the most widely sold brand name of cotton swabs in North America. Johnson & Johnson sells “Johnson’s buds,” which is their answer to the Q-tip. But somehow, a “Johnson’s bud” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way, even if that’s the brand we might have in our home.
Unilever, which owns the Q-tip brand, is probably both happy and concerned about that fact at the same time.