Next to toilet paper, nothing in your bathroom may be as indispensable, useful, and plentiful as Q-Tips. The trademarked cotton swab has been a staple of medicine cabinets since 1923. Check out some facts that may have you looking at the cotton-topped sticks in a new light.
1. THEY WERE ORIGINALLY CALLED “BABY GAYS.”
Polish inventor Leo Gerstenzang was struck by the idea of a mass-produced swab when he saw his wife stick cotton balls on both ends of a toothpick and use the makeshift tool to clean out their child’s ears. He marketed them under the name Baby Gays from 1923 to 1926, when the name was changed to Q-Tip Baby Gays, and eventually just Q-Tips. (The “Q” stands for “quality.”)
2. THEY WERE DIPPED IN BORIC ACID ...
Wanting to promote the idea of the Q-Tip as a personal hygiene instrument, Gerstenzang had his factory workers dip the swabs in boric acid before being shipped out. The chemical has antiviral and antifungal properties and was used to sterilize the swabs.
3. … WHICH ONCE RESULTED IN A GOVERNMENT SEIZURE.
In 1939, U.S. attorneys reported that a sample size of Q-Tip shipments contained only a trace of boric acid; the swabs themselves were contaminated with micro-organisms. Declaring Q-Tips were misbranded as sterile, the government seized over 200 packages and the product was destroyed.
4. THERE WAS AN ENTIRE “Q” LINE OF GOODS.
Gerstenzang initially offered an entire line of infant care products with the “Q” prefix: Q-Talc, Q-Soaps, Q-Oil, and Q-Cream, which came in a kit labeled Q-Things.
5. THEY STAYED WOODEN FOR DECADES.
Q-Tips were made using a wooden stalk until 1958, when the company bought Paper Sticks Ltd. of England, which made paper sticks for confectionary companies.
6. YOU REALLY AREN’T SUPPOSED TO USE THEM IN YOUR EARS.
Though the company originally endorsed the Q-Tip as being useful for cleaning out earwax, the medical community didn’t agree. Speaking with National Public Radio in 2008, otologist Dennis Fitzgerald summarized concerns by saying that swabs of any kind tend to push earwax further into the ear canal, cause abrasions on the skin of the canal that can lead to infection—and even the very occasional impalement if someone happens to hit your arm while you’re cleaning. Chesebrough-Ponds bought Q-Tips in 1962 and added a warning about using them in the ears in the 1970s.
7. THEY’RE GOOD FOR CLEANING FAUCETS.
Unilever, the current parent company of Q-Tips, suggests that consumers can clean the gunk from their faucet edges and nozzles using the swabs.
8. THEY GOT A LITTLE SALTY WITH JOHNSON & JOHNSON.
In 1958, Q-Tips sued Johnson & Johnson for trademark infringement, arguing that the latter’s Johnson’s Cotton Tips were derivative of their own swabs. In its ruling for injunction in favor of Q-Tips, the court found that J&J’s use of “tips” as opposed to “swabs” was intended to “come as close as it thought legally possible to Q-Tips and bask in the reflected popularity of plaintiff's name.” The company also slapped down Twin-Tips and Tips for Tots in similar fashion.
9. THEY CAN HELP GET A ZIPPER UNSTUCK.
According to the personal grooming experts at Cosmopolitan, a Q-Tip dipped in shampoo and rubbed into the area where a zipper is caught on a jacket can loosen the entanglement and help resolve your clothing crisis.
10. IT’S PART OF POLICE LINGO.
When police officers arrive at the scene of a crime and emotion or adrenaline threatens to override their training, dispatchers or other officers will use the code word “Q-TIP.” It’s an acronym for “Quit Taking It Personally,” and it’s intended to remind them to maintain control of the situation.
11. THEY MIGHT HELP YOUR CELL PHONE CHARGE.
Q-Tips’ official list of recommended uses includes cleaning the battery contacts on your cell phone and charger to provide a dust-free connection between the devices.
12. BABIES CAN USE THEM FOR PAINT BRUSHES.
Tiny hands find Jackson Pollock-sized brushes difficult to grab; Q-Tips recommends using the swabs for arts and crafts projects when a regular brush is too large.
13. THE JAPANESE PREFER BLACK SWABS.
Not strictly Q-Tips, Japanese cotton swabs are sometimes found as black-tipped sticks. Why black? According to one Japanese travel blog, the color makes it easier to see what kind of wax or other assorted gunk you’ve pried out of your orifices.
14. THEY CAN HELP DETECT NICKEL IN JEWELRY.
Some people can develop a local allergic reaction to nickel in jewelry, causing redness and irritation. To see if your bracelet is among the offenders, you can rub a Q-Tip containing ammonia and dimethylglyoxime (a compound that detects nickel) on the surface. If it turns pink, it’s probably lousy with the metal.
15. MAN VS. Q-TIP DID NOT END WELL.
When Buddy Stanley walked into Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on December 25, 2007, a discarded Q-Tip on the floor proved hazardous: Stanley claimed he slipped on the swab, fell, and injured his shoulder and lumbar areas. According to the Madison Record, he sued Barnes for $50,000 for “failing to warn him” of the danger. The case was dismissed in 2013.