Each box of Q-tips has a warning label: “Do not insert swab into ear canal”, and if you are going to use it to clean your ears, gently rub only the outside.
But extract wax from our ear canals that’s precisely why most of us buy Q-tips in the first place. The humble Q-tip was designed so perfectly for this purpose that it became a generic word for a product.
Yet somehow, we use it to the same thing specifically warns us not to do so.
The origins of this strange consumer phenomenon can be traced back to Leo Gerstenzang, an immigrant from Poland.
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 newborn daughter Betty’s eyes, ears, navel, and other sensitive areas during bath time.
Gerstenzang founded a company that year to develop and manufacture the first ready-made sterilized cotton swabs for baby care. For the next two years, he worked to design a machine that could produce swabs “untouched by human hands.”
“Baby Betty Gays” was the original working name for the swabs because her daughter Betty laughed when her parents tickled her with them, according to her 2017 payment. obituary. When Gerstenzang published one of the first newspaper advertisements for his invention in 1925, it was already shortened to “Gay Babies”.
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 about the origin of the addition of “Q-tips”. According to a Unilever spokesman
(UL)the consumer goods conglomerate that bought Q-tips in 1987, the “Q” stands for “quality” and “tips” describes the cotton swab on the end of the stick (early swabs were sold single-sided in tin boxes sliders).
But, according to Betty’s obituary, “Q-tips” was a play on “Cutie-Tips” because she was so cute as a baby.
Q-tips never told us to stick the swabs into the ear canal to clean out earwax. But from its beginnings in the 1920s, it made ear care a key focus of its marketing strategy. This trained generations of Americans to associate it with cleanliness 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 the water from your ears after swimming.
Older versions of the boxes listed “adult ear care” as primary use for the product
Even Betty White later appeared in television commercials for Q-tips in the 1970s and 1980s, promoting them as the “safer and softer swabs in the market for your eyes, nose and ears.
Q-tips are almost addictive for cleaning out earwax and it becomes a vicious cycle when we do it, said Douglas Backous, a neurotologist who specializes in treating conditions of the ear and skull. Removing earwax creates dry skin, which we then want to scratch off with, of course, a cotton swab.
Putting cotton swabs in the ears can also damage the ear canal. Most people don’t need to remove earwax either, because the ears clean themselves. Inserting a can of cotton swab traps earwax deeper, she said, and “you’re actually working against yourself by using it.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s, under previous owner Chesebrough-Pond’s, that Q-tips added a warning about not sticking the thing in your ear. It is not clear what caused this change.
“The company has no details on why they did this, and our search of records does not reveal any publicized cases of someone having a brain smear,” the Washington Post said. reported in 1990. “Something must have happened, and Chesebrough-Pond’s didn’t want to be blamed.”
But when Q-tips added that warning label, it was already too late. Consumer habits had become impossible to break and cotton swabs controlled about 75% of the cotton swab market.
“It was just accepted that this is how people used it,” said Aaron Calloway, brand manager for Q-tips at Unilever in 2007 and 2008.
And that should Do you use Q-tips for? The company has several suggestions. For decades, attempts have been made to emphasize the versatility of cotton buds.
During the 1940s, cotton swabs became an essential tool for women’s cosmetics and beauty routines.
“Mommy, do you know that you can use cotton swabs for many things?… You can also use them when you use cream or makeup, mommy!” read a print ad 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 useful for just about any project around the house or in their lives.
“To lubricate power saws and drills…guns and fishing reels…repair a teacup and clean jewelry…antique furniture,” read a 1971 ad.
Today, there are no ears in the hype for Q-tips. A representative of the brand says that 80% of consumers use cotton swabs for purposes other than personal care.
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