Cotton swabs (American English) or cotton buds (British English) or ear buds (Australian and South-African English) consist of a small wad of cotton wrapped around one or both ends of a short rod, usually made of either wood, rolled paper, or plastic. They are commonly used in a variety of applications including first aid, cosmetics application, cleaning, and arts and crafts. The cotton swab was invented in the 1920s by Leo Gerstenzang after he attached wads of cotton to toothpicks. His product, which he named “Baby Gays”, went on to become the most widely sold brand name, “Q-tips”, with the Q standing for “quality”. The term “Q-tips” is often used as a genericized trademark for cotton swabs in the USA.
Although doctors have said for years that usage of the cotton swab for ear cleaning is not safe, that use remains the most common.
The traditional cotton swab has a single tip on a wooden handle, and these are still often used, especially in medical settings. They are usually relatively long, about six inches (15cm). These often are packaged sterile, one or two to a paper or plastic sleeve. The advantage of the paper sleeve and the wooden handle is that the package can be autoclaved to be sterilized
(plastic sleeves or handles would melt in the autoclave).
Cotton swabs manufactured for home use are usually shorter, about three inches (7.6cm) long, and usually double-tipped. The handles were first made of wood, then made of rolled paper,
which is still most common (although tubular is also used). They are often sold in large quantities, possibly 111 or more to a container. Swab stems exist in a wide variety of colors, such as blue, pink or green. However, the cotton itself is traditionally white.