A post, first written in 2016, about not following the crowd.
In 1923, Leo Gerstenzang saw his wife pierce a cotton ball with a toothpick and use the resulting tool to delicately clean their baby. It was the aha moment that gave birth to the then named Q-Tip Baby Gay. First marketed as a sterile baby care product (they were originally dipped in boric acid), Q-Tips have been, and remain, a dominant brand in personal care, with estimated US sales of $208 million in 2014, up from $190 million in 2005. Based on an average price per Q-Tip (~0.6 cents), that equates to almost 35 billion Q-Tips used annually. That’s a big number, but what’s more shocking is how the majority of them are used. As a Washington Post Wonkblog article puts it, “Q-tips are one of the only, if not the only, major consumer products whose main purpose is precisely the one the manufacturer explicitly warns against.”
If you think that can’t be, take a look at the box in your bathroom (we know you have one), and you will see something like this: “Warning: Do not insert inside the ear canal. If used to clean ears, stroke swab gently around the outer surface of the ear only.” While original packaging did advertise Q-Tip use “For Adult Ear Care,” the warning has been around for almost 50 years, and Q-Tip sales have grown steadily the whole time.
Maybe you’ve never read the label, or maybe you have, but didn’t care. Either way, if you clean your ears with Q-Tips you are more likely to become one of the roughly 12 million Americans who go to the doctor with “impacted or excessive cerumen [earwax]” each year. As Dennis Fitzgerald, an otolaryngologist [ear, nose, and throat doctor] in D.C., puts it, “Everyone puts them inside their ears, but no one should. They’re one of most common contributors to ear problems.” In fact, according to a 2011 study by the Henry Ford Hospital, 50% of otolaryngology patients admit to using cotton swabs to clean their ears.
The manufacturer warns against it, and doctors urge you never to use them again, yet millions of American’s either can’t or won’t let go of their Q-Tips. What’s going on?
From a physiological standpoint there are two reasons it is hard to kick the Q-Tip habit. The first is something called the itch-scratch cycle. It is a self-perpetuating urge where using Q-Tips removes wax and dries out the ear, which causes the ear to itch more, thus restarting the vicious cycle. The second is that it just feels too good: “Our ears are filled with sensitive nerve endings, which send signals to various other parts of our bodies. Tickling their insides triggers all sorts of visceral pleasure.” Perhaps more important to the stickiness of Q-Tips is the powerful inertia of the social norm that has built up around their use. Earwax has developed a stigma, and its existence in the ear, while biologically helpful, can be considered gross or even dirty.
At Chenmark, we make a point to try to challenge the status quo whenever and wherever we can. We have long since stopped using Q-Tips ourselves, but reading about their history this week has been a good reminder that seemingly innocuous or mainstream practices can be entirely wrong. Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. This is a lesson we all learned in middle school from our parents when we tried to convince them to let us do something our friends were doing. Apparently, it is a lesson we are still trying to learn today.