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Mechanical Toothbrushes

Mechanical toothbrushes — also called electrical, power or automated — feature brush heads made of nylon bristles or tufts that move in a powerful way to effectively remove plaque and food debris from teeth and gums. Helping to power people’s dental hygiene and dental health, these advanced toothbrushes can be classified into two main power types: battery and rechargeable electric power.

Battery Powered Toothbrushes

Battery (disposable or rechargeable) power toothbrushes offer the same design features as manual toothbrushes, which range in price from between $.99 to approximately $4, for only a few dollars more. These features include the following:

  • Crisscrossed, extra-long or multi-level bristles
  • Polished/rounded bristle tips
  • Cupped-bristle design for whitening benefits
  • Ergonomic handles with special grips
  • Tapered/angled brush head
  • Gum stimulators and tongue cleaner pads

Batteries are stored in the bottom of the brush, which is typically thicker than that of manual toothbrushes. Electronic compartments in most battery powered toothbrushes are sealed against water damage, but leaks have been known to occur after the batteries have been changed.

In addition to vibrating to provide extra cleaning action, other special features of battery powered toothbrushes include a built-in AA battery that is replaceable in some models; an On/Off button on the handle; and bristles or split brush heads designed to pulsate along with the vibrations. Less costly than electric rechargeable toothbrushes — which are the most expensive — battery powered toothbrushes are good choices for people who prefer just a little power or first want to “test out” a mechanical toothbrush before investing in a more sophisticated, costly model.

Rechargeable Electric Toothbrush

Rechargeable electric toothbrushes range in cost from $22 up to $200. Electric brushes are plugged into the wall to recharge. You keep the handle and replace the brush head.

Electric toothbrushes typically provide the following benefits:

  • Various brushing modes specialized for sensitive teeth, whitening or gum-massaging action
  • Pressure sensors that indicate when you’re brushing too hard
  • Timers to help you brush for the recommended two minutes
  • Digital reminders to replace your brush head
  • Multiple brush heads so you can select your preferred bristle design
  • Extras, such as a brush head or toothbrush holder, bathroom-counter storage units and travel toothbrush chargers
  • Oscillating-rotating or sonic/ultrasonic technology

Differences in Mechanical Brushing Action

Mechanical toothbrushes vary by brush head configuration, size, speed, design, cost and convenience features (such as timers). It is important to note that each device has its own unique mechanism of action, and research findings for one product may not apply to another.

There are primarily four different brushing actions for mechanical toothbrushes. The following details the various actions and provides examples of each with approximate costs.

  • Oscillating-rotating action incorporates bristles that move back and forth and revolve to sweep away plaque. Examples of mechanical toothbrushes that use this type of technology are Braun’s Oral-B Triumph with SmartGuide ($150) and Oral-B Advance Power 900 ($25).
  • Oscillating-rotating-pulsating action moves bristles in an additional in-and-out direction to lift away plaque from hard-to-reach areas of the mouth. Examples of these brushes include Oral-B ProfessionalCare® Smart Series 5000 with SmartGuide ($155) and Oral-B Professional Care 3000 ($100).
  • Sonic/ultrasonic technology uses sound wave energy to operate bristle movement at high velocity — more than 27,000 vibrations to generate around 30,000 strokes per minute — to remove plaque. Examples of brushes with this technology include Oral-B Sonic Complete S-320 Deluxe ($120), Philips Sonicare HealthyWhite Rechargeable Sonic Toothbrush ($120), Cybersonic 3® ($70) and Waterpik® SenSonic® Professional Toothbrush ($70).
  • Vibrating action pivots bristles back and forth to reach between teeth, lift away plaque and gently stimulate gums. An example of this type of toothbrush is the Oral-B Pulsar Pro-Health Vibrating MicroPulse Toothbrush ($6) which uses a non-replaceable battery and is fully disposable.

Advantages of Mechanical Toothbrushes

Mechanical toothbrushes provide multiple benefits to different people. They are ideal for the elderly, people with arthritis and patients with special needs, such as those who are disabled. Additionally, mechanical toothbrushes are recommended for people with braces, people with poor oral hygiene habits and caregivers who brush other people’s teeth.

Mechanical toothbrushes also have shown the following beneficial capabilities and attributes:

  • Motivating people — particularly children and those who like gadgets — to brush longer and more frequently
  • Covering a larger area of the mouth quicker
  • Providing greater plaque removal with less pressure/abrasion to hard and soft oral tissues
  • More pleasing feel, sound and reduced effort during brushing
  • Typically larger ergonomic handles, making it easier and more comfortable to use; especially for people with poor grip/control
  • Built-in toothpaste dispensers or tooth whitening and floss and tongue cleaning systems

Disadvantages of Mechanical Toothbrushes

Although mechanical toothbrushes provide several benefits to many people, they are not for everyone. Consider these disadvantages of mechanical toothbrushes before making your purchasing decision.

  • More time and effort is needed to maintain them, since batteries, replacement brush heads and/or chargers are involved.
  • Most must be rinsed and cleaned after every use. Some manufacturers offer separate sanitizers for electric toothbrush cleaning convenience, such as the Philips Sonicare HX7990/02 UV Electric Toothbrush Sanitizer (approximate cost: $40).
  • Some people find powered toothbrushes too noisy and high-tech.
  • The battery compartments of some — especially the lower-end models — are hard to open, and water tends to leak into them after you replace the batteries. As with any electrical appliance, there is some risk of electric shock. For maximum safety, refrain from using if water leakage takes place.

Battle of the Brushes: Mechanical Versus Manual

Many manual toothbrushes have the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Approval, which assures you that manufacturer claims have been reviewed and accepted by independent dental experts so that the products “must say what they do and do what they say.” At the time of this writing, none of the manufacturers of mechanical toothbrushes had applied for the ADA seal, which is a voluntary process. However, there are numerous independent studies that conclude that powered toothbrushes are as safe and gentle as manual toothbrushes for soft and hard oral tissues, as well as dental restorations such as veneers for teeth and implants.

The available research also indicates that the way you brush is more important than what you brush with. Experts emphasize that what is most influential is that you regularly brush your teeth for the proper amount of time and using the proper technique. To effectively reach all areas, including hard-to-reach places, and scrub off cavity-causing bacteria, dental experts advise brushing for at least two minutes twice a day, particularly after meals. You can accomplish this with either a manual or a powered toothbrush, and there are numerous types within each category that can adequately meet your oral health needs and personal preferences.

For example, people with esthetic and ease-of-use concerns may find it interesting to note that when it comes to stain removal and tooth whitening, power toothbrushes — such as Arm & Hammer Spinbrush Pro Whitening (approximate cost: $9), Oral-B Pulsonic (approximate cost: $70) and Sonicare Healthy White Rechargeable Sonic Toothbrush (approximate cost: $130) — have been shown to deliver better natural stain removal and tooth whitening results than manual brushes, and with less effort.

Also, it is important to consult your dentist before purchasing a mechanical brush. Certain oral conditions are best treated by a specific type of mechanical action or brand of brush. Some unhealthy oral conditions can be exacerbated, or become worse, if the wrong type of brush is used.

Mechanical Toothbrushes Features and Considerations

Whether manual, battery powered or electric, there are many toothbrushes within each category to meet your oral health needs and personal preferences. Manual toothbrushes, ranging in cost from $.99 to $4, are the least expensive brushing option. Battery powered toothbrushes are usually only a few dollars more than manual toothbrushes, while rechargeable electric toothbrushes are the most expensive.

It is important to discuss your choice of toothbrush with your dentist. For the most benefit, the choice of brush will depend on your current oral health condition and how effective you are at maintaining your oral hygiene with your ultimate toothbrush choice.

Special Features

Many current electric toothbrushes have a timer designed to encourage brushing for two minutes that alerts users via buzzing, noise or a brief power interruption. Higher-end models may have an incremental timer that buzzes every 30 seconds, up to two minutes, that prompts the user to brush each quarter of the mouth in order to achieve a consistent clean in all areas. Some electric toothbrushes use liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. In addition to showing how many minutes you have brushed, these screens display smiley faces or other images to encourage further brushing. Some toothbrushes turn themselves off after two minutes.

Oral-B toothbrushes feature a built-in pressure sensor that stops the bristle movement when it detects that you are brushing too hard, something not found in many competitors’ models. This feature — found in Oral B electric toothbrushes for adults and children — is helpful for individuals who are unsure of proper brushing techniques and how much pressure to apply, suffer from gum sensitivity, and/or experience pain or numbness. Over-brushing can have a detrimental effect on oral health, leading to structural damage and gum recession.

The Braun Oral-B ProfessionalCare SmartSeries 5000 (approximate cost: $135) includes three brush heads (FlossAction, ProWhite, Sensitive), a massage mode and a separate wireless display monitor that tracks brushing time, signals when you are brushing too hard and when it’s time to change your brush heads.

The Sonicare FlexCare with Sanitizer (approximate cost: $170) includes a built-in ultraviolet sanitizer that helps keep the toothbrush heads clean. In addition to a standard two-minute timer and a 30-second quadrant timer, the FlexCare has a one-minute quick mode and a three-minute MaxCare mode with a massage feature. The Cybersonic Classic (approximate cost: $50) and the Cybersonic (approximate cost: $70), both feature tooth whitening and floss and tongue cleaning systems.

Other Considerations

Battery power toothbrushes like the Arm & Hammer Spinbrush Pro Clean, Oral-B CrossAction Power and Colgate Motion, are each under $10.

While the Spinbrush received slightly higher clinical/consumer reviews, most budget-priced, battery-powered toothbrushes are similar; all feature replaceable brush heads and use AA disposable or nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries. The Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush only requires one battery. Most others — including the Spinbrush and Motion — require two. However, users report changing the batteries every month or two. Considering the cost of batteries over a year’s time, a rechargeable electric toothbrush with an internal battery may make more long-term financial sense.

Replacement Frequency. The head on mechanical toothbrushes should be replaced every three months or so, before the bristles become worn and frayed. This replacement frequency is similar to that of manual toothbrushes. Beyond ineffective, old brush heads may harbor harmful, infection-causing bacteria. Children’s toothbrush heads typically need to be replaced more often than those of adults. People who are sick should change their toothbrush head at the start and end of an illness.

Low-Cost Electric. An electric toothbrush, such as the Oral-B Vitality (approximate cost: $18), is basically the same as a battery-powered toothbrush, only with a rechargeable battery and stand. It’s ideal for people who are interested in trying a powered toothbrush but want an economical sample. For its modest price, the Oral-B Vitality —which spins instead of pulsating or oscillating — is rated very effective, receiving positive reviews for cleaning and ease of use. On the negative side, it received low battery life ratings, providing only two weeks of brushing before having to re-charge, which takes approximately 16 hours.

For Children. The rechargeable Sonicare for Kids (approximate cost: $70) uses the sonic technology on a gentler scale, suitable for children ages four to 10. It has two brushes and two power modes — each geared for various stages of oral development — as well as interchangeable front panels so kids can customize their brushes.

Ease of Use. Children and others who may be too impatient (or unable) to brush for the recommended two minutes due to lack of hand strength or dexterity problems may benefit from the HydraBrush Express (approximate cost: $80). Its patented multi-micro brush technology automatically positions angled bristles to surround teeth and massage gums. It has two brush heads (one for top teeth and one for bottom). Both brushes are split to clean the front and back of the teeth simultaneously with a back-and-forth motion. According to manufacturer claims, this “bite and guide” action can effectively clean teeth and gums in 40 seconds or less. Additionally, the HydraBrush Express is the first and only toothbrush (manual or powered) to receive the Arthritis Foundation Ease-of-Use Commendation. However, users complained about the short life of the charging unit (approximately 10 days), as well as the rigid brush stem, which makes it difficult to move with the curve of the jaw.