The strange life of q-tips, the most bizarre thing people buy – the washington post electricity cost las vegas

####

Like so many others, my mother had been using Q-tips to clean her ears. But in doing so she was also messing with a natural process. Her ear was hurting because she had an ear infection, and there’s a decent chance her routinely using Q-tips had helped cause it.

Q-tips are one of the most perplexing things for sale in America. Plenty of consumer products are widely used in ways other than their core function — books for leveling tables, newspapers for keeping fires aflame, seltzer for removing stains, coffee tables for resting legs — but these cotton swabs are distinct. Q-tips are one of the only, if not the only, major consumer products whose main purpose is precisely the one the manufacturer explicitly warns against.

The little padded sticks have long been marketed as household staples, pitched for various kinds of beauty upkeep, arts and crafts, home-cleaning, and baby care. And, for years, they have carried an explicit caution — every box of Q-tips comes with this caveat: "Do not insert inside the ear canal." But everyone — especially those who look into people’s ears for a living — know that many, if not most, flat out ignore the warning.

The versatile little household staple was the brainchild of a man named Leo Gerstenzang, who thought to wrap cotton tightly around a stick after watching his wife preen their young child. She was using a toothpick with a cotton ball on the end to carefully apply various things to the baby, a clever but easily improved trick.

In 1923, Gerstenzang introduced Baby Gays, the first sanitized cotton swabs. They were similar to those sold today, save for a few key differences. They were made of wood, instead of plastic or paper; they were single-, not double-sided; they were meant to be used for baby care, rather than everything under the sun; and, most importantly, they didn’t discourage putting them inside of ears.

In the years that followed, many things changed, including the name, which was shortened to just Q-tips; the material, which shifted to paper; and the marketing, which broadened to include all sorts of other household uses. But one thing didn’t: the absence of a warning.

It wasn’t until sometime in the 1970s that boxes began to caution against sticking the things inside of ears. A vintage box from shortly after the new labeling practices ( available for purchase on Ebay) says "for adult ear care" on the front.

"The marketing expanded to ‘all purpose’ use in the late 1990s and 2000s," said Svetlana Uduslivaia, who is the head of tissue and hygiene at Euromonitor, a market research firm. The firm estimates $208.4 million in Q-tips sales in the U.S. in 2014, up from $189.3 million in 2005.

"They’re trying to change how people think of the product, to build a brand that’s separate from the original and inappropriate use, but that’s really hard when everyone knows a product and thinks about it in a certain way," she said. "If people are telling others to use Q-tips for their ears, if that message is coming through virally through videos or some other media, or just moving from customer to customer, that’s a very powerful thing they can’t control."

"If it were up to me, they wouldn’t be on the market," he said. "When I treat people with recurring ear problems, I make them promise they’re going to throw away their Q-tips and never buy them again. The ones who keep coming back with infections are the ones who don’t listen."