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What is Cotton Wool?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The term “cotton wool” can refer to two products: raw, minimally processed cotton and a form of cotton that has been processed to be especially absorbent. There are a variety of uses for these materials, and both forms of the product are typically readily available in stores, especially those that stock medical and cosmetic supplies.

In the first sense, cotton wool is raw cotton that has been combed to remove impurities and then cleaned to sterilize it. Tufts of raw cotton do look rather like hunks of wool, explaining the name. The texture is generally very silky and soft, and it can sometimes be a bit squeaky, depending on how it is processed. One common use for this type of cotton is as a vehicle for makeup remover, which can be poured onto it and then swabbed across the face.

More refined cotton wool is made by combing raw cotton, bleaching it, sterilizing it, and then processed in a variety of ways. One form is the cotton ball, made to resemble classic raw cotton. Refined cotton can also be used to make bandages, medical swabs, and other similar products; because it is sterilized, it can also be used to pack wounds and in other surgical tasks. Most medical offices have an many examples of this type of cotton.

Many people keep some cotton products around the house, because they can be extremely useful. For example, cotton dressings can be used to pad a wound before bandaging, if the wound is especially large, to absorb some of the blood. Cotton balls can also be used with nail polish remover and a variety of other cosmetics. They can also be stuck between the toes while painting nails, or soaked in things like milk and applied to closed eyes to reduce swelling and puffiness.

For consumers who are concerned about the use of pesticides and herbicides on crops, some companies make organic cotton wool, which may be bleached using natural processes. These products will generally be more expensive, because of the additional labor involved in growing and harvesting the cotton.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon326449 — On Mar 21, 2013

Where can you buy cotton wool in the US?

By anon167281 — On Apr 12, 2011

please help me! where can i get information regarding a microbiological test for cotton wool? i need it urgently!

By anon146527 — On Jan 26, 2011

Personally, I either put cotton wool in my ears so I don't hear much, otherwise I use it on my face. How do you all feel about this?

By galen84basc — On Sep 18, 2010

I really can't do without a cotton wool fabric mattress -- I really feel like it gives you the best combination of ventilation and warmth, much better than choosing a mattress that's either fully lined with wool or cotton.

When it comes down to the wool vs cotton debate, I am smack in the middle -- I say, why not go with both!

By FirstViolin — On Sep 18, 2010

I have recently gotten into knitting and was really surprised to see the crazy number of different types of yarn. I want to stock up, but I'm not really sure of the best kind to buy.

Should I choose cotton, silk or wool yarn for a good "first project" yarn? I've been thinking of making a cotton or wool sweater, but the silk is so pretty. And besides, a sweater may be a bit too much to start off with. What do you fellow readers think?

By rallenwriter — On Sep 18, 2010

I always keep some absorbent cotton wool pads around the house both for removing makeup and for first aid.

They really have a lot of uses, and I've heard that cleaning wounds with cotton wool prevents disease -- though I'm not sure if that's true.

I also keep the cotton wool balls for makeup and fingernail polish removal -- though they're not so useful for first aid.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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