I was so mired in orthodontia during middle school that I've since tried to avoid thinking much about my teeth. I've needed only my manual toothbrush—until December, when I spotted a power toothbrush on a store shelf for about $7. I'd always put electric toothbrushes in the why-would-I-pay-that-much category, since the ones I'd seen previously cost $100 to $150. But I couldn't resist the $7 price tag.
Power toothbrush manufacturers often claim their products do a better job of removing plaque and reducing gingivitis than manual brushes. But, I wondered, does medical research back that up?
That may depend on the type of brushing action. A 2005 review by the Cochrane Collaboration Oral Health Group, part of an international, not-for-profit organization that provides information about the effects of healthcare, found that so-called rotation oscillation toothbrushes (in which the brush head rotates in one direction and then reverses) are more effective at removing plaque and reducing gingivitis than no-tech brushes, assuming normal use. An earlier review, published in 2003, yielded similar results. The Oral-B Triumph with SmartGuide, available from Walgreens.com for $149.99, features that design. But manufacturers often don't include this level of detail on the packaging, so it's not always easy to figure out how the brush operates without turning it on.
Several other types of power brushes failed to outperform the manual kind, Cochrane found, including those whose heads move side to side or vibrate at ultrasonic frequencies; ones that claim to use an electrical charge to defeat plaque; and other rotating-style brushes whose heads move in only one direction (circular brushes) or that feature adjacent packs of bristles rotating in opposite directions (counteroscillating).
Despite the mixed evidence, many dentists are convinced that power brushes lead to cleaner teeth. "It's kind of like working out at home versus at the gym—the electric toothbrush makes it easier to do a good job," says Anne Murray, a California dentist and spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry. And basic models are now so cheap that you might want to experiment. The Colgate Motion toothbrush, for example, goes for just $7. You don't get any of the bells and whistles that drive prices up: the tongue cleaners, multiple brush speeds, built-in sensors that shut the device off when you're brushing too hard, or timers that beep to inform you how long you've been brushing. But the brush's spinning action supposedly reaches deep between teeth and around the gums and "sweeps away plaque and polishes tooth surfaces." The Crest SpinBrush Pro—which was deemed "effective" in a Consumer Reports test—also won't break the budget at $7.99 on CVS.com. One head rotates; a second one moves side to side.
One reason these brushes might lead to cleaner teeth is that they inspire people to keep at it longer. Murray advises considering a power toothbrush with a timer, to make sure you brush for the recommended 2.5 to 3 minutes. Think of the inside of your mouth as four separate quadrants and spend about 30 seconds brushing each section, she says. Then make a final sweep. It is advice that holds true whether you opt for power or not.