How We Got Addicted to Using Cotton Swabs Wrong

Every box of swabs (or as we say in Australia, swabs) has a warning label, “Do not put swab in ear canal”, and if you are going to use it to clean your ears, gently wipe the outer part only .

But extracting wax from our ear canals is exactly why most of us buy Q-tips in the first place.

The simple Q-tip was so perfectly designed for this purpose that it became a generic word for a product.

Yet somehow we use it precisely for what it specifically warns us not to do.

Even the makers of cotton buds are clear: don’t put these in your ears.

The origin of this strange consumer phenomenon can be traced back to Leo Gerstenzang, an immigrant from Poland.

In 1923, Gerstenzang thought he could improve on his wife Ziuta’s method of wrapping a wad of cotton wool around a toothpick to clean their newborn daughter Betty’s eyes, ears, navel, and other sensitive areas while bathing.

Gerstenzang started a company that year to develop and manufacture the first ready-to-use sterilized swabs for baby care. In the following years, he worked on designing a machine that could produce cotton swabs “untouched by human hands”.

“Baby Betty Gays” was the original working name for the swabs because daughter Betty laughed when her parents tickled her with it, according to her 2017 paid obituary. By the time Gerstenzang ran one of the first newspaper ads for his invention in 1925, it was cut short. to ‘Baby Gays’.

Gerstenzang soon changed the brand name to “Q-Tips Baby Gays”.

By the mid-1930s, “Baby Gays” was dropped from the name.

There are competing histories where the addition “Q-tips” came from. According to a spokesperson for Unilever, the consumer goods conglomerate that bought cotton swabs in 1987, the “Q” stands for “quality” and “tips” describes the swab at the end of the swab (the first swabs were sold single-sided in sliding tin boxes). .

But according to Betty’s obituary, “Q-tips” was a “Cutie-Tips” playoff because she was so cute as a baby.

Q-tips, a Unilever brand, can be seen in a store in the US. (REUTERS)

Q-tips never told us to stick the cotton swabs in our ear canal to remove earwax. But from its inception in the 1920s, it made ear care a major focus of his marketing strategy. This has trained generations of Americans to associate it with cleaning there.

Mid-century advertisements often featured illustrations of men and women cleaning their ears or baby’s ears, including an image of a man taking water from his ears after a swim.

Old versions of boxes listed “adult ear care” as the main use for the product.

Even Betty White later appeared in TV spots for Q-tips in the 1970s and 80s, promoting them as the “safest and softest” swabs on the market for your eyes, nose and ears.

Q-tips are almost addictive to use to remove wax, and it becomes a vicious cycle when we do, said Douglas Backous, a neurotologist who specializes in treating ear and skull disorders.

Removing earwax creates dry skin, which we naturally want to scratch with a cotton swab.

Sticking Q-tips in your ears can also damage the ear canal. Most people don’t really need to remove earwax either, because ears are self-cleaning. Inserting a swab can trap earwax deeper inside, he said, and “you’re actually working yourself against it by using it.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, under previous owner Chesebrough-Pond’s, that Q-tips added a warning not to stick the thing in your ear. It is unclear what prompted this change.

“The company has no details as to why they did this, and our search for the data has not turned up a publicly available case of someone with a brain smear,” the Washington Post reported in 1990. “Something must have happened, and Chesebrough-Pond’s didn’t want to be blamed.”

But by the time Q-tips added that warning label, it was too late. It had become impossible to break consumer habits and swabs controlled about 75 percent of the swab market.

“It just became accepted that people used it that way,” said Aaron Calloway, the Q-tips brand manager at Unilever in 2007 and 2008.

Cotton swabs are not meant to be used in your ears – so what should they be used for? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

And then should do you use Q-tips for? The company has several suggestions. For decades it has tried to emphasize the versatility of cotton swabs.

During the 1940s, Q-tips were positioned as an essential tool for women’s cosmetics and beauty routines.

“Mom, do you know you can use Q-tips for many things?…You can also use them yourself if you’re using cream or makeup, mom too!” read a print ad from 1941.

Another print ad ten years later described Q-tips as a “beauty assistant” for women.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Q-tips started telling consumers they were for more than just babies or women they were useful for just about any project in the house or in their lives.

“To lubricate power saws and drills… guns and fishing reels… teacup repair and jewelry cleaning… Outdated furniture,” read a 1971 ad.

Nowadays there are no ears in the advertising of Q-tips. A spokesperson for the brand says 80 percent of consumers use Q-tips for purposes other than personal care.

Sinkholes from all over the world

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