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Now Ear This

Hudson Cooper - Columnist
Posted 2/4/21

Many of the things we use in our lives are not being handled in the way intended by the manufacturer. Some of us have used a butter knife for a screwdriver instead of digging in a toolbox. Club soda, …

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Now Ear This

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Many of the things we use in our lives are not being handled in the way intended by the manufacturer. Some of us have used a butter knife for a screwdriver instead of digging in a toolbox. Club soda, besides being a good mixer with vodka, also can take a stain out of your carpet. In college I had a roommate who once used fishing line as dental floss. Later in this column we will see that the all-time champion of misused products are Q-tips.

In 1923 many events took place. The famous “Hollywood” sign in Los Angeles was dedicated, Yankee Stadium opened its doors and a guy name Leo Gerstenzang invented the Q-tip. The Q stands for Quality. The basic concept came from his wife. Leo noticed that she wrapped a cotton ball around a toothpick and used it to clean their baby's ears. Once done, she used her fingers to pluck out pieces of the cotton ball. Realizing that a sharp toothpick should not be in Baby Gerstenzang's ear, Leo adhered a smaller cotton ball to a wooden stick. When inserted in the ear, the baby giggled with delight and wiggled its feet.

What caused the giggle and wiggle? It turns out there is a nerve that runs from your brain to your butt. The Vagus nerve can be stimulated my massaging your inner ear leading to a pleasurable sensation. The nerve was not named after Las Vegas although the latter stimulates people by massaging their ears with slot machine sounds of bells, clanging whistles and people shouting “Jackpot.”

Unlike most consumer products, Q-tips may be the only one that is primarily used in a way totally against the manufacturer's warning. Every box of Q-tips specifically warns “Do Not Insert Into the Ear Canal.” Unfortunately, that is exactly why most of us buy them. Sure, many use them for arts and crafts, applying makeup or cleaning a computer keyboard. But for the most part, we open the box, take one out and jab it into our ear to clean and get the wax out. If they were not intended to clean ears, why are their two cotton swabs attached to each stick?

Ask any ENT doctor about how Q-tips damage the inner ear. ENT is short for ear, nose and throat. If I were an ENT doctor my clinic would be called “Say Ah” or “Nasal Intelligence.” Many ENT doctors advise using caution when using a new device to extract ear wax. It resembles an auger used by winter fishermen to cut a circular hole in the ice. With its screwlike soft tip, it can gently pull out ear wax with its soft, disposable tip. It is too early to tell if it can compete with the Q-tip.

When Leo first introduced what became known as Q-tips to the public, each swab in the box had been dipped in boric acid. Boric acid has antiviral and antifungal properties that sterilized the cotton. But in 1939 the government found that the amount of boric acid was insufficient. The cotton swabs were teeming with microorganisms and the formula had to be adjusted.

As Q-tips joined toilet paper as an essential item in the bathroom, Leo expanded his line of products to include a kit called Q-Things. The box included Q-talc, Q-soap and Q-cream. That kit did not take off, but the Q-tip endured.

Chesebrough-Ponds bought the Q-tip company in 1962 and in 1970 they added the largely ignored warning about not inserting it in the ear. Now owned by Unilever, the company sells over 32 billion Q-tips a year.

A Q-tip is 6 inches long. If placed end to end the yearly sales would be enough Q-tips to reach the moon and back 3 times. Each trip would give you the opportunity to warn the Man in The Moon not to insert them in his ear canal.

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