Small wonders of design: Q-Tips

Susan Spencer highlights some everyday items that are so well-designed, they're hard to improve upon:

How about a bouquet of ... Q-Tips?

It's evidence, to Suzanne Palentchar, of the genius behind this everyday product.

"I think people do take it for granted," she told Spencer. "But that's okay. I don't need them to think about it as an engineering feat."

But she certainly does. Palentchar heads up skin care marketing at the U.S. division of Unilever, the maker of Q-Tips.

So, how much design IS there is a little paper stick?

"Don't mistake simplicity for lack of mastery or engineering," Palentchar warned.

The Q-Tip hit the market in the 1920s as a tiny tool for baby care. Since then, it's gone from wooden sticks to paper sticks, but one thing has never changed: The amount of cotton on both ends of the paper stick.

q-tips-display-620.jpg
Over the years the tiny tool for baby care has gone from wooden sticks to paper, but one thing's never changed: a warning never to stick it in your ear! CBS News

According to Palentchar, "the diameter of that cotton is exactly the same for every single swab. You should look at them under a microscope -- it's that good!"

That very precision seems to drive Q-Tip fans right over the edge.

"We'll hear them say things like, when they open the box of Q-tips, they get, like, a little rush by looking at how perfectly they're all lined up," Palentchar laughed.

"Those are the OCD set?" Spencer asked.

"Well, I'll let you describe them ... "

YouTube is awash in new ways to use this old stand-by -- as a paintbrush, a firestarter, a toothbrush, a stirrer!

But among the most common uses is one even the manufacturer says is a very bad idea:

"What we say, on every pack that we sell: 'Do not put Q-Tips into your ear canal," said Palentchar.

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Some people just don't read the label. CBS News

Spencer asked, isn't that what people do with them?

"Well, they shouldn't be using them for that, especially when there are so many other amazing things they can use them for."

Whatever amazing thing YOU do with them, you're unlikely to run out. Unilever produces 32 BILLION swabs a year. "That's enough swabs that if you laid them out, you could go to the Moon and back over three times."

"If you say so!" said Spencer.

So think about that the next time you reach for a Q-Tip -- or reach for the Moon. Just don't reach for your ear...


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