Common Trademarked Words: Q-Tip

If you’ve ever used a cotton swab to clean your ears or apply makeup, you probably reached for a Q-Tip. Along with bandages and cotton balls, these swabs are a staple of most bathrooms in the U.S. and around the world. If you associate the name with a particular blue box, you are probably thinking about Q-Tips. These swabs have been around for almost 100 years, and they are still the number one brand. With annual sales of around $200 million, Q-Tips are top of the cotton swab heap. Many people think they’re a generic name for cotton swabs, but Q-Tips is a trademarked name owned by the Unilever Corporation.

Q-Tips in a jar

How They Were Invented

Leo Gerstenzang was a young man who immigrated from Poland to Chicago. In 1921, he moved to New York City, married and had a family. In 1923, he watched one day as his wife wrapped a wad of cotton around a toothpick. She used this contraption to clean her children’s ears.

Intrigued, Gerstenzang realized that a more convenient version of her device would be a popular item. Shortly after developing his design, he founded a company named Baby Gays to make and sell his invention. He named the product Q-Tip Baby Gays, but he changed the name to just Q-Tips in 1926. According to Gerstenzang, the “Q” stood for quality.

“Baby Gays” were a tremendous success. Made from pure cotton on wooden sticks, the tips also stood out because they were marketed as being dipped in boric acid. Boric acid is a natural antibacterial and antifungal. Early advertisements for the Q-Tips Baby Gays said they were safe “for the eyes, nostrils, ears, gums and many other uses.”

Government Seizure

This created problems in 1939, when the U.S. government reported that a sample size of the swabs had no boric acid and were, in fact, highly contaminated. The government seized hundreds of packages and destroyed them.

Despite this setback, the company continued to prosper. Baby Gays later expanded into a complete line of baby care products, including Q-Talc, Q-Soap and Q-Cream.

Continued Success

In 1958, Q-Tips were no longer made from wood. In that year, the company bought a company called Paper Sticks Limited, which was a U.K.-based maker of paper sticks for candies.

In 1962, Chesebrough-Ponds bought the Q-tips company. In 1987, Unilever purchased Chesebrough-Ponds and the Q-Tip name.

Other Meanings of Q-Tip

Q-Tip is a famous brand. It has even become a commonly used acronym in two professions unrelated to personal care products.

According to the American Military University, the acronym Q-TIP is used as a reminder for police officers, military people and others who are in stressful situations. The term stands for, “Quit taking it personally.” It is designed to get them to think before acting.

In estate planning law, a qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) is a trust that sets up a life estate. It’s one way to allow a surviving spouse to live on a property after the title owner dies. Property owners who want to set one up can use a “QTIP election” when planning their wills.

Is Q-Tip a Generic Term?

One problem Q-Tips has faced is the possibility of losing its trademarked status.

Everyone who starts a company wants it to succeed, and brand recognition is one of the best ways to achieve success. For some brands, however, that success is a two-edged sword. Some brand names become so famous that they turn into generic terms for a product or service.

That type of recognition might seem great, but it also means a company could lose its trademark. When consumers use a brand name instead of a generic term, it’s easy to argue in court that a trademark is no longer valid.

Read more on trademarking common words.


The legal term for this is genericide. It is a form of trademark abandonment that can happen if a company doesn’t pay close attention to its brand. Once the brand loses its trademark status, it becomes a general term that anyone can use, even rival companies. That’s what happened to aspirin, escalator and dry ice, which were all trademarked terms at one time.

In this blog, we’ve looked at the way some big brands have fought attempts at genericide by aggressively protecting their trademark status. They include Popsicle, ChapStick and Google. Q-Tips has also used the courts to protect its legal status.

Q-Tips Lawsuits

In a 1939 lawsuit, Q-Tips sued a company that wanted to name its product Tips for Tots. Q-Tips said the name was too much like Q-Tips, and a court agreed.

In 1953, the company sued rival health products manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. The Q-Tips lawsuit alleged that Johnson & Johnson had produced a line of cotton-tipped swabs it called Johnson’s Cotton Tips.

The court found that Johnson & Johnson claimed it was using the term “cotton tips” as a generic description of what was in the box. The court pointed out that the product had previously been named “cotton-tipped applicator.” Johnson & Johnson, the court said, clearly changed the name to Cotton Tips to sound more like Q-Tips.

Attempt To Confuse

The court found that the defendant was trying to use a name similar to Q-Tips to confuse the public, noting:

“Q-Tips has enjoyed tremendous popularity. When defendant entered the field, plaintiff was making 90% of the prepared swabs in the United States. The evidence is convincing that defendant made its choice of ‘Cotton Tips’ in order to come as close as it thought legally possible to ‘Q-Tips’ and bask in the reflected popularity of plaintiff’s name.”

In its ruling, the court affirmed a lower court ruling in favor of Q-Tips. This case is still regularly cited in trademark cases.

Still Swabbing

At almost 100 years old, the Q-Tips brand is still a market leader. It is a well-known brand that has so far managed to avoid genericide.

Xavier Morales, Esq.

About the Author:

Xavier Morales, Esq.

Mr. Morales founded this trademark law practice in January 2007 with the goal of providing intellectual property expertise to entrepreneurs and businesses around the country. Since then, he has filed more than 6,000 trademarks with the USPTO. You can learn more about Xavier here.

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