We’ve all done it: stride confidently into the drugstore and in sight of the easiest decision we’ll make that day. An hour later, we’re still staring blankly into the oral hygiene aisle.
It was all so simple before the distant echoes of marketing research and brand analysts reminded us we need more than just “a brush.” We need a plaque-remover-enamel-whitener-stain-fighter-self-esteem-booster and a guaranteed Saturday night date.
Within minutes, any old toothbrush just won’t do—we need the latest trend in teeth cleaning technology.
Several years ago, that trend was the flexible head toothbrush, or flex-heads, as identified by Donna Warren-Morris, registered dental hygienist and associate professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry, and Holly Rice, retired registered dental hygienist and associate professor at the school.
“When the flexible head toothbrush came out, the manufacturers were claiming wonders about their particular products—they all were,” Rice says, adding that plaque-removing abilities topped the list of benefits.
She and Warren-Morris were skeptical about all the hype and decided to put the flex heads to the test.
With the help of Stewart Turner, PhD, former associate professor at the UTHealth School of Dentistry, they conducted a scientific study comparing the plaque-removing ability of one standard and two flexible-head toothbrushes.
Published in the Journal of Dental Hygiene, Warren-Morris and Rice’s study found no significant difference between the brushes tested, which placed a scientific hole in the manufacturers’ claims. Furthermore, their study showed that approximately 50 percent of plaque was removed by both types of brushes.
Apparently, the act of brushing was more important.
In their study, Warren-Morris and Rice reported that factors to be considered when removing plaque—other than brush design—are our brushing ability, length of brushing time and frequency of brushing. Because these habits play a large role in one’s oral health, dental hygienists should emphasize oral hygiene education, behavior modification and prevention of plaque build-up, as opposed to selecting the right miracle brush.
Enter… the power tools!
Unless we’re in training for “Brushing with the Stars” there is no way for the oral health industry to instill or influence better tooth cleaning behaviors. Toothbrush design is far easier to control.
“Therefore, manufacturers are constantly trying to find the toothbrush design that removes the most plaque from the most tooth surfaces, with the least amount of individual effort,” Warren-Morris and Rice reported in their study.
Eventually, the once-trendy flex heads fell out of favor. They are still on the shelves, but today’s consumers want a toothbrush that not only does the work for us, but also understands us. We want a smart brush—an “app” for our teeth. Most of all, we want power. Tooth brushes are the new power tools.
The most obvious difference between a power toothbrush and a manual toothbrush is of course the on/off switch. Most power brushes are battery-operated and some are rechargeable.
Power toothbrushes also claim to clean our teeth better than manual toothbrushes. Some are even equipped with a twin head for twice the cleaning action. Some claim to clean those hard-to-reach spaces between teeth, similar to flossing.
Yet, human beings still must know how to use our power tools correctly for maximum benefit. When we brush our teeth, manually or with electronics, it’s important to direct the bristles at the gum line, Warren-Morris says. We also should use a vibratory or small circular motion rather than a lateral scrubbing stroke, which can cause gum recession and abrasion.
A power brush “does the work for you,” Rice says, through its rotating and oscillating action.
“Power brushes make the motions that are helpful for plaque removal,” Warren-Morris adds. “People often use a horizontal scrubbing motion with manual toothbrushes that can be detrimental to gums and teeth, especially if they apply too much pressure. Power brushes provide the correct motion.”
The very shape of the power brush has advantages, too. Warren-Morris and Rice both say the large handle on the power brush makes it easier to grip, especially for children and for those with dexterity issues.
“Power brushes also are easier to use if you are brushing someone else’s teeth,” Warren-Morris adds, which is important for caregivers of the very young, the very old or those with illness or special needs.
Another surprising finding about the power toothbrush is that “patients tend to brush longer,” Rice says. Some power toothbrushes are equipped with a two-minute timer, so you know just how long to brush.
And, just like other electronic gadgets, power brushes are more affordable than ever before.
Prices for adult power toothbrushes start around $30 for a name brand down to about $7 for the store brand. However, deluxe name brands top the charts at more than $100. But, other brands of power brushes are much more affordable and still qualify as deluxe.
Children’s power toothbrushes come equipped with stickers to personalize or with their favorite superhero and cartoon characters. Prices range from $5-7.
Don’t stress, just brush
Still overwhelmed about which toothbrush to buy? Don’t stress. Warren-Morris and Rice offer more helpful advice.
“People choose toothbrushes for different reasons,” Warren-Morris says. “Women normally like the smaller heads because they fit in their mouths better. Some people choose toothbrushes based on whether the size of the handle can fit in their holder. It just depends.
“But what we tell people is to just use a clean, soft bristle brush. As long as it has soft bristles, it’s fine. Harder bristle brushes damage the gums and enamel (protective coating) on your teeth. Natural bristle toothbrushes are not recommended as they are extremely abrasive and harm teeth and gums.”
Rice and Warren-Morris also recommend brushing each quadrant of your mouth (upper right, lower left, etc.) for at least 30 seconds two times a day or more frequently if you are experiencing decay or gum disease.
Warren-Morris says regardless which “power source” you use to clean your teeth, it’s a good idea to replace toothbrushes when the bristles lose their original shape or every three months, which is the replacement time recommended by the American Dental Association.
“Toothbrushes can be disinfected in the dishwasher or soaking in mouth rinse,” she adds. “Use more than one, so they can completely dry out between uses.” Bottom line, if you want your dream date, career boost or child to become president, forget which toothbrush to buy.
Focus on the brushing. Or the toothpaste, perhaps… (Another tooth fairy tale…)
This article, which has been updated, originally appeared on HealthLEADER, an online wellness magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Visit HealthLEADERfor more articles on a broad array of health and wellness topics.