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.
Soon, Gerstenzang changed the brand name to “Q-Tips Baby Gays”. In the mid-1930s, “Baby Gays” was dropped from the name.
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.
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, as 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.
But by the time the 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.
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.
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 the advertising of Q-tips. A brand spokesperson claims that 80% of consumers use Q-tips for purposes other than personal care.