Cotton swabs (American) or cotton buds (British) consist of a small wad of cotton wrapped around one or both ends of a short rod, most of the time 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 bud is a tool invented in the 1920s by Leo Gerstenzang[2] after he attached wads of cotton to toothpicks.[3] 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 most often used as a genericized trademark for cotton swabs in the USA and Canada.[4] The Q-tips brand is owned by Unilever and had over $200 million in sales in the US in 2014.[5] Although doctors have said for years that usage of the cotton bud for ear cleaning or scratching isn't safe, such use remains the most common.[6][7]


The traditional cotton bud has a single tip on a wooden handle, and these are still most often used, especially in medical settings. They are most of the time relatively long, about six inches (15 cm). These most 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 sterilised (plastic sleeves or handles would melt in the autoclave).

Cotton swabs manufactured for home use are most of the time shorter, about three inches (7.6 cm) long, and most of the time double-tipped. The handles were first made of wood, then made of rolled paper, which is still most common (although tubular plastic is additionally used). They are most often sold in large quantities, 100 or more to a container.

Plastic swab stems exist in a wide variety of colors, like blue, pink or green. Notwithstanding the cotton itself is traditionally white.


The most common use for cotton swabs is to clean or caress the ear canal and/or to remove earwax, notwithstanding this not being a medically recommended method for removing earwax. Cotton swabs are additionally commonly used for applying and removing makeup, as well as for household uses like cleaning and arts and crafts.

Medical-type swabs are most often used to take microbiological cultures. They are swabbed onto or into the infected area, then wiped across the culture medium, like an agar plate, where bacteria from the swab might grow. They are additionally used to take DNA samples, most commonly by scraping cells from the inner cheek in the case of humans. They can be used to apply medicines to a targeted area, to selectively remove substances from a targeted area, or to apply cleaning substances like Betadine. They are additionally used as an applicator for various cosmetics, ointments, and additional substances.

A related area is the use of swabs for microbiological environmental monitoring. Once taken, the swab can be streaked onto an agar plate, or the contents of the tip removed by agitation or dilution into the broth. The broth can either then be filtered or incubated and examined for microbial growth.[8]

Cotton swabs are additionally most often used outside of the field of personal hygiene:

  • Often used in plastic model kits construction, for various applications throughout decaling or painting. Special brands of cotton swabs exist for this purpose, characterised by sturdier cotton heads and varied shapes of those heads.
  • Can be used in the dyne test for measuring surface energy. This use is problematic, as manufacturers differ in the binders they use to fix the cotton to the stem, affecting the outcome of the test.[9]
  • They are frequently used for cleaning the laser of an optical drive in conjunction with rubbing alcohol. Similarly, they're used for cleaning larger computer parts like video cards, and fans. They were additionally used widely in the past to clean video game cartridges.
  • The stalks chucked up in a drill with a bit of plastic polish or toothpaste works great for polishing the inner wheel bores of Pinewood Derby Wheels.

Medical risks

The use of cotton swabs in the ear canal is associated with no medical benefits and poses definite medical risks.[10] Cerumen (ear wax) is a naturally occurring, normally extruded product of the external auditory canal that protects the skin inside the ear, serves beneficial lubrication and cleaning functions, and provides a few protection from bacteria, fungi, insects, and water.[11][12] A 2004 study found that the "[u]se of a cotton-tip applicator to clean the ear seems to be the leading cause of otitis externa in children and should be avoided."[14] Attempts to remove cerumen with cotton swabs might result in cerumen impaction, a buildup or blockage of cerumen in the ear canal, which can cause pain, hearing problems, ringing in the ear, or dizziness, and might require medical treatment to resolve. The use of cotton swabs in the ear canal is one of the most common causes of perforated eardrum, a condition which at times requires surgery to correct.[16] For these reasons, the American Academy of Family Physicians, amongst a large number of additional professional medical associations, recommends never placing cotton swabs in the ear canal.