What Is a Cotton Swab?

M.C. Huguelet

A cotton swab is a small, thin shaft which terminates at one or both ends with a tightly wound cluster of soft cotton. Introduced commercially in the 1920s, the cotton swab is a common household item in many countries. Its household uses include applying cosmetics, cleaning, and making craft projects. Cotton swabs are also widely used in medical settings.

Household cotton swabs tend to be tipped with cotton at both ends.
Household cotton swabs tend to be tipped with cotton at both ends.

The design of a cotton swab is simple, comprising just a thin rod wrapped at one or both ends with a cluster of soft cotton. This rod may be made from wood, plastic, or paper which has been tightly rolled. Swabs intended for household use usually measure around 4 inches (10 cm) in length, while those intended for medical use generally measure around 8 inches (20 cm). Another key difference between household cotton swabs and medical swabs is that household swabs tend to be tipped with cotton at both ends, while medical swabs usually have just one cotton tip.

With household uses that include applying cosmetics, cotton swabs were first introduced in the 1920s.
With household uses that include applying cosmetics, cotton swabs were first introduced in the 1920s.

Perhaps the most common household use for the cotton swab is cleaning ear wax from the outer part of the ear canal. Many physicians discourage this practice, however. This is because inserting a swab into the ear can sometimes drive wax farther into the ear canal, and also because a swab inserted too far into the ear can puncture the ear drum, potentially causing hearing loss.

Many physicians discourage the use of using cotton swabs to clean the ear canal, as it can drive wax further into the canal.
Many physicians discourage the use of using cotton swabs to clean the ear canal, as it can drive wax further into the canal.

There are many household uses for the cotton swab apart from cleaning the ears. It can be used to apply or remove cosmetics, particularly eye shadows, or to clean small or unusually shaped objects, such as oven knobs or keyboard keys, ridding them of dust or grime that may be missed by dusters or rags. Cotton swabs can also be useful to children as they create craft projects. The swab’s small cotton head makes it a good choice for detailed painting or for applying glue to small objects.

Cotton swabs are often used to disinfect and treat minor cuts and abrasions.
Cotton swabs are often used to disinfect and treat minor cuts and abrasions.

In addition to these household uses, the cotton swab also has several medical applications. For instance, it is commonly used to swab some area of a patient’s body during a culture. It can also be soaked in antibacterial solutions and used to clean wounds. Further, the cotton swab can be used to apply ointments to small cuts and scrapes as well as stitched skin. Cotton swabs found in doctors’ offices and other medical settings are often wrapped in a sleeve of paper to preserve their sterility prior to use.

Cotton swabs may be used to perform saliva tests for medical purposes.
Cotton swabs may be used to perform saliva tests for medical purposes.
Cotton swabs should not be used to remove ear wax.
Cotton swabs should not be used to remove ear wax.
A cotton swab inserted too deep into the ear could puncture the ear drum and lead to hearing loss.
A cotton swab inserted too deep into the ear could puncture the ear drum and lead to hearing loss.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discuss this Article

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register: