Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Swabs


Contributors: Liangqi Ouyang, Meg Richardson

Over the past year and a half, you may have found yourself with a swab up your nose while getting tested for COVID-19. But did you know that the cotton swab was invented in the 1920s? Or that the microstructures of the swab tip can be optimized with algorithms? Read on to learn more about different varieties of swabs, and how innovations in swab technology can lead to improved public health.

Components of a Swab

Swabs are constructed in a number of different ways to serve a diverse array of purposes. For example, some swabs need to be flexible to reach small cavities while others need to be brittle in order to exert force when collecting samples. Fun Fact: the first modern cotton swab was invented in 1923 by a Polish-American man named Leo Gerstenzang. Reportedly, the invention was inspired by his wife who cleaned her ears with toothpicks. Swabs have come a long way since then. There are many different kinds of swabs each with their own characteristics and advantages.

Patent Application, Leo Gerstenzang (1929)

Types of Swabs

Here is an overview detailing characteristics of some of the most common varieties of swabs: