5 Things You Didn’t Know About Swabs

1.     Homely Inspiration

The inventor of the modern cotton swab, Polish inventor Leo Gerstenzang, was inspired at home when he saw his wife sticking cotton balls onto the ends of toothpicks, and using this tool to clean out their child’s ears. Can you imagine doing that now? The original target audience for this new product was babies, and Q-Tips were first called “Baby Gays”.

2.     Boric Acid Baths

Original cotton Q-Tips were dipped in boric acid in the factory, as an idea to promote them as personal hygiene instruments. Boric acid has anti-viral and anti-fungal properties and sterilized the swabs.

3.     Stuck on Wood

Cotton swabs were made exclusively with wooden shafts until 1958. The company bought another company that made paper sticks for candy, and used the paper shafts in their swabs. Now, swabs are made with various shaft materials, including polypropylene shaft swabs, paper shaft swabs, aluminum shaft swabs, and others.

4.     Swabbing Sailors

A swab is a piece of absorbent material on end of a shaft/stick.

Did you know the word swab comes from the 17th mid-century “swabber”, in the sense of a sailor swabbing the deck of a ship. Why did they even swab the decks? Well, loose gun powder on gun-decks (cannons!) was a significant fire hazard. Swabbing the decks with a mop (swab) dampened the powder and reduced fire risk. Regular maintenance of the decks also slowed decomposition and gave sailors something to do. (Idle hands lead to mutiny!)

5.     All Ears (But Not Really)

Cotton swabs are widely known for being used to clean out ears. However, using swabs to clean the INSIDE of your ears can actually have an opposite and detrimental effect. Improper usage can lead to compacting wax or damaging sensitive ear organs caused by pushing the swab into the ear too far. Be cautious when using swabs to clean out ears.


Nowadays swabs are super useful across many different fields! Swabs of various kinds are used in critical environment manufacturing, diagnostics, environmental surface sampling, food safety testing, forensics, healthcare, and pharmaceutical applications.

Modern swabs are made tough to scrub hard to reach places, or soft and gentle for use in electronics or sensitive components. Hopefully you learned something new about swabs (who knew!), and whatever your application is, we have the swab for the job.