The origins of this strange consumer phenomenon can be traced to Leo Gerstenzang, an immigrant from Poland.
In 1923, Gerstenzang supposedly thought he could improve upon his wife Ziuta’s method of wrapping a wad of cotton around a toothpick to clean their newborn daughter Betty’s eyes, ears, belly button and other sensitive areas during bathing.
Soon, Gerstenzang changed the brand name to “Q-Tips Baby Gays.” By the mid-1930s, “Baby Gays” was dropped from the name.
But, according to Betty’s obituary, “Q-tips” was a play off “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 clear out earwax. But, from its beginning in the 1920s, it made ear care a key focus of its marketing strategy. This trained generations of Americans to associate it with cleaning there.
Q-tips are almost addicting to use to clear out wax and it becomes a vicious cycle when we do so, said Douglas Backous, a neurotologist specializing in treating ear and skull conditions. Removing earwax creates dry skin, which we then want to scratch with — of course — a Q-tip.
Sticking Q-tips in your ears also can damage the ear canal. Most people do not actually need to remove earwax, as well, because ears are self-cleaning. Inserting a swab can traps earwax deeper inside, he 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’s unclear what prompted this change.
But by the time Q-tips added that 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 that’s how people were using it,” said Aaron Calloway, the 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, it has tried to emphasize the versatility of cotton swabs.
During the 1940s, Q-tips were positioned as an essential tool for women’s cosmetics and beauty routines.
“Mommy, do you know you can use Q-tips for many things?…You can use them yourself when using cream or make-up, too mommy!” read a 1941 print advertisement.
Another print advertisement, a decade later, described Q-tips as a “beauty assistant” for women.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Q-tips began to tell consumers they were for more than just for babies or women — they were handy for just about any project around the house or in their lives.
“For lubricating power saws and drills…guns and fishing reels…mending a tea cup and cleaning jewelery…Antiquing furniture,” read a 1971 ad.
Today, there are no ears in Q-tips’ advertising. A spokesperson for the brand says 80% of consumers use Q-tips for purposes other than personal care.
CNN’s Leidy Cook contributed to this article.
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