Q-tips--generically known as cotton swabs--are found in just about every American home, either as a hygiene-beauty item or as a craft supply. In fact, they're so ubiquitous, it's hard not to put them right up there with the family dog in terms of American standards. But a new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics indicates these innocent-looking products aren't as safe as you might think, with thousands of injuries attributed to cotton swabs over 20 years. The study's results should raise some red flags to any business leader who has any intent of putting material innovations into consumers' hands.

Key points from the study.

  • 263,300 American children went to the emergency room between 1990 and 2010 with cotton swab-related ear injuries. That's 34 every day.
  • 77 percent of the injuries came from kids using cotton swabs on their own.
  • 73 percent of the injuries arose from efforts to clean the ear.

And here's the problem.

You know that old saying that just because everybody does something doesn't make it right? Well, that's a pretty good summary for the results of the cotton swab study. See, the idea for Q-tips came when Leo Gerstenzang watched his wife wrapping a tiny bit of cotton around a toothpick to clean their baby's ears. History isn't very clear on whether she cleaned just the outer part of the ear or the canal, too, but long story short, Gerstenzang didn't discourage putting his products in the ear. An initial advertisement from 1927 actually marketed the product, then known as Baby Gays, for the ears (as well as the eyes, nostrils, and gums). And it took until 1970--a full 47 years after the cotton swab's invention--before Q-tips had directions stating to use the swabs on the outside part of the ear only. Even after these directions appeared, cotton swabs still were marketed as a hygienic cleaning tool, sending somewhat mixed messages.

Now, despite an explicit warning not to put the swabs in your ear canal, people can't seem to resist. They misuse Q-tips not only because of confusing marketing, habit, and modeling behavior they've seen, but for other reasons, too, such as the pleasurable sensations manual ear cleaning can bring. Despite professionals emphatically explaining that the ear usually can clean itself, studies have shown that 90 percent of people think they need to clean their ears and regularly perform the task for themselves and their children, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery Foundation.

3 business takeaways.

The cotton swab study offers a few gems of wisdom to current and would-be business leaders:

  • Don't assume your customers will heed your written warnings, especially since people like to think they know what they're doing. Written warnings also can come off as impersonal (and, therefore, irrelevant or inapplicable) compared with advice from a close, trusted friend. Psychological, physical, and even cultural temptations easily can override what's on a label, as Q-tips clearly demonstrate. The real question, therefore, is not whether to put a warning on the package, but rather how to address the temptations that necessitate the warning in the first place.
  • Q-tips initially were created as a hygiene product, but people have found dozens of other ways to put them to good use. With this in mind, during testing, put your initial concept for use on the back burner and pay more careful attention to how people actually use your product. Their behaviors might reveal the need for redesigns, not only for safety, but for functionality and ease of use, as well.
  • People might not read directions or warnings, but they do absorb marketing, however subliminally. Scratch out all hints of ambiguity and go further than you think is necessary to get the science behind your product to the public. Physically demonstrate proper use at the product's initial release based on that science so people have something clear to model. Failure to do this right away leaves more room for people to accept misconceptions that lead to product abuses.

No matter what you're bringing to the market, people failing to read or follow directions is a fact of life. At the same time, you shouldn't necessarily discourage people from finding new ways to use what you've made, as those kinds of public innovations can drive further inspiration for you or others. Your responsibility as a business leader in either case is to keep safety the priority and have a sense of what your ideas might become. You might have to work harder or think more outside the box than you imagined to make that happen. The points above, however, can get you started.