Cotton swabs (British English: cotton buds) are used in first aid, cosmetics application, and a variety of other uses. They consist of a small wad of cotton wrapped around the end of a small rod, made of wood, rolled paper, or plastic. The most common type of usage is to dip the cotton end in a substance, then use the swab as an applicator for the substance. Sometimes swabs are also used for removal of substances such as earwax from ear canals, though the instructions accompanying the swabs generally contain a warning that the swabs should not be inserted directly into the ear, as doing so is actually dangerous, and has proven to be fatal in at least "four or five ... cases".
The inventor of the cotton swab is supposed to have been one Leo Gerstenzang, in the 1920s. His product, which he named "Baby Gays", went on to become the most widely-sold brand name, "Q-tip".
They are sometimes referred to by the British, Indians and South Africans as "ear buds" and are also known as ear-diggers or cotton-wool buds.
Cotton swabs produced for home use are usually shorter, about three inches (7.6 cm) long, and usually double-tipped. The handles were first made of wood, then made of rolled paper, which is still most common (although tubular plastic is becoming popular). They are often sold in large quantities, possibly 300 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 white.
One recent innovation is to use a special type of double-tipped cotton swab for over-the-counter drug application. These swabs have hollow tubular plastic handles, which are filled with the medicine. Breaking one marked end of the swab breaks an air seal, allowing the medicine to saturate the cotton at the other end so that it can be directly applied with the swab.
More commonly, swabs can also be used to clean out the ear, effectively removing wax buildup.