Each Q-tip box has a warning label: “Do not insert the swab into the ear canal,” and if you are going to use it to clean your ears, just wipe the outer part gently.
But extracting wax from our ear canals is precisely why most of us buy Q-tips in the first place. The humble Q-tip was so perfectly designed for this purpose that it became a generic word for a product.
Yet, somehow, we use it for exactly what it specifically warns us not to do.
The origin of this strange consumer phenomenon can be traced to Leo Gerstenzang, an immigrant from Poland.
In 1923, Gerstenzang allegedly thought he could improve his wife Ziuta’s method of wrapping a cotton ball 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 produce the first ready-made sterilized cotton swabs for baby care. Over the next couple of 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 cotton swabs because her daughter Betty laughed when her parents tickled her with them, according to her paid obituary from 2017. When Gerstenzang published one of the first newspaper ads for his invention in 1925, it was abbreviated to ” Baby Gays. ”
Gerstenzang soon changed the brand name to “Q-Tips Baby Gays.” In the mid-1930s, “Baby Gays” was dropped from the name.
There are competing stories about where the “Q-tips” grant came from. According to a spokesman for Unilever (UL), the consumer goods conglomerate that bought Q-tips in 1987, “Q” stands for “quality” and “tips” describe the cotton swab on the end of the swab (the first swabs were unilaterally sold in sliding tin cans).
But according to Betty’s obituary, “Q-tips” was a plot of “Cutie-Tips” because she was as cute as a baby.
Q-tips never told us to stick the pins in the ear canal to remove earwax. But from the beginning of the 1920s, it made ear care a central focus of the marketing strategy. This 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 with them, including one depicting a man removing water from his ears after a swim.
Old versions of boxes listed “ear care for adults” as the main use for the product.
Even Betty White later appeared in TV spots for Q-tips in the 1970s and 1980s, promoting them as the “safest and softest” swabs on the market for eyes, nose and ears.
Q-tips are almost addictive to use to remove wax, and it becomes a vicious circle when we do, said Douglas Backous, a neurotologist who specializes in the treatment of ear and skull disorders. Removal of earwax creates dry skin, which we then want to itch with – of course – a Q-tip.
Sticking Q-tips in the ears can also damage the ear canal. Most people actually do not need to remove earwax, too, because the ears are self-cleaning. Inserting a cotton swab catches earwax deeper inside, he said, and “you are actually working against yourself by using it.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s, under former owner Chesebrough-Pond’s, that Q-tips added a warning not to poke the thing in the ear. It is unclear what led to this change.
“The company has no details as to why they did this, and our search of the records shows no published case of anyone with a cotton swab,” the Washington Post reported in 1990. “Something must have happened, and Chesebrough-Pond’s did not want to be blamed. ”
But when Q-tips added the warning label, it was too late. Consumer habits had become impossible to break, and Q-tips controlled around 75% of the market for cotton swabs.
“It was just accepted that this was the way people used it,” said Aaron Calloway, Q-tips brand manager at Unilever in 2007 and 2008.
So what should do you use Q-tips for? The company has several proposals. For decades, it has tried to emphasize the versatility of cotton swabs.
During the 1940s, Q-tips were positioned as an important tool for women’s cosmetics and beauty routines.
“Mom, do you know that you can use Q-tips for many things? … You can use them even when you use cream or makeup, mom too!” read a print advertisement from 1941.
Another print ad, a decade later, described Q-tips as a “beauty assistant” for women.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Q-tips began to tell consumers that they were for more than just babies or women – they were practical for just about any project around the house or in their lives.
“To lubricate chainsaws and drills … guns and fishing reels … repair a teacup and clean jewelry … antique furniture,” read a 1971 ad.
Today, there are no ears in Q-tips’ advertising. A spokesperson for the brand says that 80% of consumers use Q-tips for purposes other than personal care.