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Cotton Swab – History

A cotton swab is a short spindle with one or both ends coated with an absorbent cotton padding. Such swabs have long been used for various cosmetic and personal hygiene tasks, particularly for cleaning the ear. The cotton swab was invented in the 1920s by a Polish-born American named Leo Gerstenzang. Leo had observed that his wife used a toothpick stuck into a piece of cotton to clean their baby’s ears at bath time. Leo was concerned that the wooden toothpick might splinter and cut the baby’s ear or that the cotton might come off the stick and become lodged in the ear. He decided to design a ready-made cotton swab that could be used on babies with less risk of injury. Thinking that such a product would appeal to many parents, Leo formed the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Company to market his swab and other baby related products. It took him several years to solve certain design problems, like how to secure equal amounts of cotton on each end of the swab. Eventually, he not only developed a successful product but he even created special packaging for his swabs. The package was designed to be opened with one hand so a parent holding an infant with one hand could easily open the box and extract a swab with the other. Once Leo had perfected his product, he looked for a commercially viable name. Because he designed his product to keep infants happy as their ears were safely cleaned, he chose the name Baby Gays. In 1926, he changed the name to Q-Tips Baby Gays, claiming that the “Q” stood for quality. Eventually, Baby Gays was dropped from the name and the swabs became known simply as Q-Tips. Today Q-Tips is a registered trademark of Chesebrough-Ponds, Inc.


Cotton swab design has advanced significantly since the 1920s. For most applications, wooden sticks were replaced by paper spindles, which were less likely to splinter and puncture delicate ear tissue. The thin paper rods were made by rolling a heavy gauge paper. More recently, plastic has become a popular choice for spindle material because it offers improved flexibility and imperviousness to water. However, care must be taken to design the plastic shaft so that it does not poke through the cotton mass at the end of the stick. To prevent this from occurring, swabs have been designed with a number of special features. For example, some swabs are made with a protective plastic cap on the end of the spindle, under the cotton coating. Others use a cushioning element, like a dab of soft hot melt adhesive, to protect the end of the stick should it protrude through the body of the tip during manipulation. A third way of circumventing this problem involves a process, which results in a swab with a flared tip. This flared tip can not penetrate too deeply into the ear because of its larger diameter.

While infant care is one of the most popular uses for cotton swabs, they are commonly used in other areas as well. These other applications have their own special design requirements. For example, swabs used to apply color cosmetics can be made with special flocked tips made of non-woven fibers. In addition to personal care, swabs are used for industrial purposes. For example, long handled wooden swabs are designed for sampling microbiological cultures. This is the type of swab used by a doctor to take a throat culture. Other industrial

A typical cotton swab-making machine.

swabs may be specially designed for cleaning electronic parts; these may have special lint free requirements.

Raw Materials

There are three primary components involved in swab manufacture: the spindle or stick, which forms the body of the swab; the absorbent material coated onto the spindle ends; and the package used to contain the swabs.


Spindles can be sticks made of wood, rolled paper, or extruded plastic. They can be made to different specifications depending on the intended use. Personal care products are fairly small and lightweight and are only about 3 in (75 mm) long. Swabs made for industrial use may be more than twice as long and are typically made of wood for greater rigidity.

Absorbent end material

Cotton is most often used as an end covering for swabs because of its absorbent properties, fiber strength, and low cost. Blends of cotton with other fibrous materials may also be used; rayon is sometimes used in this regard.


Packaging requirements vary depending on the application for the swab. Some personal hygiene swabs, like Q-tips, are packaged in a clear plastic shell (known as a blister pack)

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