How We Got Addicted To Using Q-tips The Wrong Way

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 the very thing it specifically warns us not to do.

The origins of this strange consumer phenomenon can be traced back to Leo Gerstenzang, a Polish immigrant.

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

Gerstenzang started a company that year to develop and manufacture the first ready-to-use sterilized cotton swabs for baby care. Over the next two years, he worked on designing a machine capable of producing swabs “untouched by human hands”.
“Baby Betty Gays” was the swabs’ original working name because his daughter Betty laughed when her parents tickled her with them, according to his 2017 paid obituary. newspapers for its invention in 1925, it was shortened to “Baby Gays”.

Soon, Gerstenzang changed the brand name to “Q-Tips Baby Gays”. In the mid-1930s, “Baby Gays” was dropped from the name.

There are competing stories behind the addition of “Q-tips”. According to a spokesperson for Unilever, (UL) the consumer goods conglomerate that purchased Q-tips in 1987, the “Q” stands for “quality” and “tips” describes the cotton swab at the end of the stick (early cotton swabs were sold single-sided in sliding tin boxes).

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

‘Adult Ear Care’

Q-tips never told us to stick the swabs in our ear canal to remove earwax. But, from its beginnings in the 1920s, it made ear care a key focus of its marketing strategy. It has formed generations of Americans to associate it with cleaning up there.

Mid-century advertisements often featured illustrations of men and women cleaning their ears or their babies’ ears with them, including one depicting a man removing water from his ears after a swim.
Older versions of the boxes listed “adult ear care” as the primary product use.
Even Betty White later appeared in TV spots for Q-tips in the 1970s and 1980s, promoting them as the “safest and gentlest” swabs on the market for your eyes, nose, and ears.
A Q-tips advertisement in Life Magazine from 1956. Some advertisements from the time showed men cleaning water from their ears with Q-tips.

Q-tips are almost addictive to use for wax removal and it becomes a vicious cycle when we do, said Douglas Backous, a neurotologist who specializes in treating ear and skull conditions. Removing earwax creates dry skin, which we then want to scrape off with – of course – a cotton swab.

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

It wasn’t until the 1970s, under former owner Chesebrough-Pond, that Q-tips added a warning about not sticking 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 of records reveals no publicly available cases of anyone with a brain swab,” The Washington Post reported in 1990. “Some 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. Consumer habits had become inescapable, and cotton swabs controlled about 75% of the cotton swab market.

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

“Beauty Assistant”

So what should you use Q-tips for? The company has several suggestions. For decades, he tried to emphasize the versatility of cotton swabs.

During the 1940s, cotton swabs established themselves as an essential tool for women’s cosmetic and beauty routines.

“Mom, do you know that you can use cotton swabs for a lot of things?…You can use them yourself when you use cream or makeup, mom too!” read a print ad from 1941.

In the 1940s, Q-tips were marketed to women as a tool for their beauty routines.

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 weren’t just for babies or women – they were handy for just about any project around the house or in their life.

“To lubricate electric saws and drills…guns and fishing reels…fix a teacup and clean jewelry…Antique furniture,” reads one advertisement from 1971.

Today, there are no ears in Q-tips advertising. A brand spokesperson claims that 80% of consumers use Q-tips for purposes other than personal care.

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