WebMD Health - Dental

Jul 9, 2010 11:05 PM

Electric Toothbrushes: Are They for You?

Elizabeth Turkenkopf has been using an electric toothbrush for more than seven years, and has been impressed with the results -- cleaner teeth and minimal plaque build-up, which translates into less scraping at her regular dental check-ups.

She hasn't had a cavity since she made the switch from a hand-powered toothbrush, and her gums are in good shape. Although she can't say for sure her pristine oral health is the result of her electric toothbrush, she's not messing with success.

"Power toothbrushes have come a long way," says Terrence Griffin, DMD, an associate professor and chair of the department of periodontology at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston. "While the average patient can do well with either a manual toothbrush or a power toothbrush, there are some advantages to the powered that might give it an edge."

Here, dental experts explain how the new technology in electric and sonic toothbrushes can help keep your teeth clean.

Power Toothbrushes: Electric and Sonic

Electric toothbrushes were first introduced in the U.S. in 1960 by a company called Squibb, and marketed under the name Broxodent. Today, there are dozens of different brands available, with a myriad of features, including re-chargeable batteries, compact designs, and bristles built for optimal cleaning.

The two main types of power toothbrushes are electric and sonic -- the difference between the two really comes down to numbers.

Electric Toothbrushes: With 3,000 to 7,500 rotating motions a minute, electric toothbrushes are powered to replicate the motion of your hand -- doing the muscle work for you. The bristles on these toothbrushes either rotate or move back and forth to help remove plaque and reduce gingivitis.

SonicToothbrushes: Offering 30,000 to 40,000 strokes per minute, sonic toothbrushes rotate in a back and forth vibrating motion. The rapid motion is the sonic toothbrushes claim to fame, but ultimately, it also aims to remove plaque and keep teeth and gums healthy and clean.

For a little bit of perspective, the old-fashioned way of brushing your teeth rings in about 300 strokes per minute -- if you brush properly. So over the two-minute recommended brushing time, your teeth are hit with 600 strokes ... a far cry form the thousands you might get with the high-tech variety.

Benefits of Power Toothbrushes

"With new technology, power toothbrushes have several advantages over the hand-powered kind," Griffin says.

  • Several studies have indicated that sonic and electric toothbrushes have an edge on the kinds you hold in your hand in that they are better at reducing plaque and gingivitis, both in the short and long-term.

For example, a 2003 Cochrane Oral Health Group study concluded that, compared to hand-powered toothbrushing, electric toothbrushes with rotational-oscillation action result in less plaque and fewer bouts of gingivitis. But the study also found that when used properly, manual and powered brushes can be equally effective.

  • "Electric or sonic toothbrushes may be easier for people with dexterity problems, like arthritis, to handle and control, resulting in cleaner teeth and gums," says Gary D. Hack, DDS, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Dental School in Baltimore.
  • Sonic and electric toothbrushes could also help ensure people brush regularly by eliminating the "work" of hand-held brushing.

The one drawback to power toothbrushing may be cost, Hack says. Most models range from about $15 to more than $100; old-fashioned toothbrushes cost just a few dollars.

Practice the Best Toothbrushing Techniques

No matter your toothbrush preference, good oral health is a must.

"You need to brush a minimum of twice a day, for about two minutes each time, every morning and at night before you go to bed to avoid food sitting on your teeth and gums for long periods of time," says Griffin.

Quality is as important as quantity when it comes to brushing. Hack offers these tips for good toothbrushing technique:

  • Angle the brush at about a 45 degree angle up onto the tooth and into gum line.
  • Use a soft-bristled brush, and use a gentle brushing motion.
  • Don't over scrub or use too much pressure.
  • Make sure you brush every tooth and cranny.

"The most important thing is to brush effectively -- whether it's with a hand or power toothbrush," Hack says. "This will help you avoid periodontal disease, minimize gum and bone loss, and keep your mouth healthy and clean."

Floss Your Teeth and Do It Right

"Most people floss by just snapping the thread through the gaps in between their teeth," says Griffin. "While it might seem like it's helping, really what you are doing is causing friction on your gums and teeth."

Talk to your dentist about how to floss properly, such as using only a small amount of floss between your fingers, using a controlled motion, and going slowly.

Another suggestion from Griffin is to use a rubber tip to clean around the gums and in between teeth instead of flossing. If used with a proper technique, in combination with a power toothbrush, his experience is that this one-two punch will keep your mouth high on sparkle and low on plaque.

Finally, both experts recommend that you see your dentist every six months for regular check-ups and cleanings. Your dentist can help you maintain good oral health techniques at home, and keep your mouth healthy.

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