1923: Leo Gerstenzang, upon observing his wife apply wads of cotton to toothpicks, invented the first ready-to-use cotton swab, marketing as baby care accessories. He introduced Baby Gays, the first sanitized cotton swaps made of wood and single-sided. When Baby Gays came out, there was no discouragement of putting them inside of ears.
1927: A print advertisement read, “Every mother will be glad to know about Q-tips Baby Gays (the Q stands for “quality”), sanitary boric tipped swabs for the eyes, nostrils, ears, gums, and many other uses.”
Over the years, many things changed about the Q-Tip, including the material and marketing for multiple uses. One thing didn’t change: the absence of a warning.
1970s: This was the first time Q-Tips warned against using the swabs in the canal. On the front of the box, it did say, “For adult ear care”, but the back began to caution against sticking things inside the ears: “The careful way to clean ears: hold swap firmly and use a soft touch. Stroke swab gently around the outer surfaces of the ear, without entering the ear canal”
1980’s: A television advertisement featuring Betty White encouraged the use of cotton swaps on eyebrows, lips and ears. Branded “the safe swab”, Q-Tips were marketed as a multi-use care accessory for any age.
1990: A piece published by the Washington Post made a comparison that telling people to use the swabs on the “outer surfaces of the ear without entering the ear canal” was like asking smokers to dangle cigarettes from their lipswithout lighting them.
Today, the warnings are explicit: “Do not insert swab into ear canal”. Despite this explicit message, Q-tips are still marketed as a tool for cleaning and implied as a tool to clean your ears.
Even if Q-Tip manufacturers changed their marketing strategies, it would be difficult to change how people perceive the brand. The only way to change this perception is to take the product off the market. But since Q-Tips have been around since the early twenties…this long-standing product is destined to keep its place on the shelf.