Are electric toothbrushes just a clever marketing ploy?

Recently I made the impromptu purchase of a highly sophisticated electric toothbrush. Although initially delighted, I started to develop a sneaking suspicion that I had been conned by the clever marketing people at Philips and even, perhaps, by the entire dental industry. Is an electric toothbrush really necessary? Is it, like so many other things in our sad capitalist world, simply a money-spinning conspiracy?

First, let’s discuss the jargon. There is an extensive hierarchy of electric toothbrushes in a wide price bracket, ranging from the cheapest rotating or oscillating varieties to the sonic and ultrasonic. The sonic toothbrush vibrates at a very high speed and frequency (20 Hz to 20,000 Hz) and typically offers 24,000 – 62,000 movements per minute. This is opposed to the more humble 2,500 – 7,500 of the cheaper varieties, and the frankly uninspiring 300 of the manual. The winning formula of the sonic toothbrush is that it vibrates so vigorously, it is able to break up dental plaque beyond where the bristles actually touch.

One step further is the ultrasonic toothbrush. Megasonex – which seems to be cornering the market – is available on Amazon, for the princely sum of £150. Operating at a frequency of 1.6 million Hz, with 192,000,000 movements per minute, Megasonex claims to use technology that is so far advanced it had to be cleared by the US military. It’s like a sonic toothbrush on steroids.

However impressive this sounds, the question still stands: is this really necessary? Electric toothbrushes are unanimously recommended by the experts, but there is not a lot of scientific evidence to prove their superiority. In 2015, Consumer Reports investigated the matter and stated, somewhat ambiguously, that electric toothbrushes “might provide better dental hygiene than a manual one”. The report analysed 56 studies conducted by the research organisation Cochrane and concluded that, after three months of use, electric toothbrushes reduced 21 per cent more of dental plaque and 11 per cent more of gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) than manual toothbrushes. The numbers aren’t exactly earth-shattering.

In terms of practicality, it’s true that in many cases electric toothbrushes have an edge. Electric toothbrushes make it easier to reach difficult areas of the mouth than the manual variety, making them ideal for those with impaired motor skills. Many have timer features and emit a warning to indicate if the user is brushing too hard, helping to improve brushing technique.

Lazy tooth-brushers (such as myself) are often more inclined to keep up the dental hygiene with an electric toothbrush; the toothbrush does most of the work and all I have to do is concentrate on not dribbling. However, the more sophisticated end of the market can cost up to £100 and, although electric toothbrushes seem to be permanently on sale, it’s often still a considerable investment.

At the end of the day, the consensus seems to be that an electric toothbrush doesn’t actually make much more of a difference in terms of dental hygiene (although effectiveness will vary from user to user, depending on how well they brush their teeth normally).

There are undeniable practical advantages, but whether or not this makes the expense worthwhile is up to the consumer.

Image: Pau.artigas

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