There was a time when your biggest decision in choosing a toothbrush was soft or firm bristles … and maybe the handle color. These days, consumers face seemingly endless options in the oral-care aisle, with dozens of electric-powered models, each boasting an array of features. They promise to whiten, remove plaque and combat gum disease — all while talking to your smartphone. Dental professionals agree that the stroke efficiency of an electric toothbrush — which essentially does the work for you — beats a manual model, hands down, but a decent one can cost anywhere from $40 to $300 or more.
Do you really need to break the bank to keep your teeth healthy? For some answers, I went to three oral-care specialists: Adrienne Hedrick, a general practice dentist with 16 years of experience in Longmont, Colo.; Chicago-based dental hygienist Whitney DiFoggio, who founded the YouTube channel Teeth Talk Girl; and Michael Israel, assistant clinical practice leader at Touro College of Dental Medicine in Hawthorne, N.Y. Here are their tips on what to consider when choosing an electric toothbrush.
Do brand and cost matter? “A lot of electric toothbrushes look appealing but don’t have a lot of backing,” Hedrick says. “I like the major brands, such as Oral-B and Sonicare, because they have proven reliable, and you get a guarantee if something does go wrong.” But don’t get caught up in the hype of a top-of-the-line model. The technology is similar across a brand’s various options, from basic to high end. “Paying $250 for a toothbrush is insane,” she says. “The brush and how it works is the same. You just get more bells and whistles with more expensive versions.”
Look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance. The American Dental Association awards this seal to oral-care products that are safe and effective. There are a number of low-cost, “faux” battery-powered electric toothbrushes on the market that are more aesthetically pleasing than they are clinically effective. The handle vibrates more than the head, but dupes you into thinking the brush head is doing the work. So before you buy that toothbrush in your favorite color, check the packaging for the ADA seal. “With so many products out there and so many promises in advertisements, finding that ADA seal on the packaging can reassure a consumer,” DiFoggio says. You can search all products with the Seal of Acceptance on the ADA’s website, ada.org.
Avoid user error. Technique is more important than the tool. “People assume they know how to use a toothbrush, but you need to read the directions on how to effectively use the specific model you choose,” Hedrick says. One may advise you to slowly pass the brush over your teeth, while another may instruct you to pause over each individual tooth. Following the instructions allows the brush to do the work for you.
Must-have feature No. 1: a timer. The ADA and the experts we spoke with all recommend that people brush their teeth for two minutes (30 seconds per quadrant) twice a day. Although almost all electric brushes come equipped with a two-minute timer, look for those that signal you — usually by a change in vibration — each 30 seconds, so you know to move to another part of your mouth. Some more expensive models use Bluetooth to connect to a phone app that shows how much time you spend brushing your teeth.
Must-have feature No. 2: a pressure sensor. “People think the harder they brush, the better. That’s a mistake,” says Israel, who says his first toothbrush with a pressure sensor kept stopping every few seconds because he was overbrushing. The brush should skim tooth surfaces to get rid of debris; excessive pressure can harm both your teeth and gums. Look for a toothbrush that reduces the motor power, has a warning light or stops altogether if you apply too much pressure.
How to choose. Israel says the best way to narrow down your choices is to look for a model that has both of those “must-have” features. (Many of the less effective toothbrushes won’t have both.) Round vs. oval brush heads are a matter of personal preference, and it’s OK to try a variety of heads to determine which best fits your needs. “All electric toothbrushes come with a standard head and will offer a complete and thorough cleaning,” he says.
As for whether to go with a spinning head or one that vibrates, it also comes down to personal preference, Israel says. You can get a satisfying cleaning with either. An oscillating toothbrush spins as the circular head cups each tooth it passes over. Sonic brushes resemble a manual oval toothbrush and use sonic waves (vibrations) to break off food or plaque at the gumline up to about 4 millimeters away from where the bristles touch your tooth.
Consider handle size. Hedrick says if you are older or have grip issues, certain electric toothbrushes may be challenging to hold, because the handle is thicker to accommodate internal batteries. It may pay to check out a display at your local retailer to find one that feels comfortable in your hand.
A water flosser is not a toothbrush. To supplement your oral-care routine, consider adding a water flosser, such as the popular Waterpik. These spray high-pressure water to remove food and debris between your teeth and around your gums. The technology is akin to using dental floss, and these are best for patients with bridges or braces that make traditional flossing challenging, Israel says. And although some combination brush/flossers have made their way to stores, flossing by hand remains the gold standard. Whichever method you choose for flossing, do so before brushing. “This allows your toothbrush to be more efficient, and the toothpaste to penetrate the surface you are cleaning,” Hedrick says.
Seek advice from an expert. Instead of plowing through online reviews or standing helplessly in front of an expansive toothbrush display, talk to your dentist or hygienist. They stay up to date on what’s out there, they know you and your issues, and they’re happy to make recommendations. Don’t wait until your next appointment; just call or send an email. “The better you do, the easier our job is,” Hedrick says.
Daily is a freelance writer who specializes in consumer advocacy. This article appeared in The Washington Post.