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Electric Toothbrush

It’s now been 90 years since the first electric toothbrushes were sold by the Electro Massage Tooth Brush Company. There was a passion in that age for electrifying everything, as today we seem to want to laser everything. The Electro Massage, believe it or not, took it’s power directly from a wall outlet. Through a cord. Water and 120 volts – what could possibly go wrong?

Trouble was, battery technology was even worse then than it is now. American inventor Tom Oseley was granted a patent for his electric toothbrush design in 1940. It, too, had a cord that plugged into a wall outlet. The 1954 Broxodent design, by the Swiss Dr. Woog, had still not solved the obvious safety problem of sticking house current into a user’s mouth.


General Electric was the pioneer in cordless design, introducing its Automatic Toothbrush in 1961. It was, significantly, a modern design, not unlike those of today. The trouble was the battery. Although it was rechargeable, customers couldn’t change it when it died.  And it had a short useful life. The stuff inside the battery was so toxic GE had to seal it in the brush handle. When its short lifespan ended, customers had to replace the entire brush. Imagine having to replace your smartphone when the battery goes south.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, under pressure from American and Canadian government regulators, that manufacturers solved the battery problem. The modern electric toothbrush was born. They were a smash hit with the public. Today, about one in three Americans uses an electric toothbrush. Long past the “gimmick” stage, these devices are a mainstream oral hygiene tool. Dentists and hygienists routinely advise patients to use them.

Consumers have a lot of choices in electric toothbrushes. Today’s electric toothbrushes are of two basic types. All of them use battery power to impart motion to the brush itself.  Nearly all are rechargeable. The differences are in the type of brush motion.


One type of electric toothbrush relies on high-frequency vibrations of the brush head to dislodge food residue and plaque. These don’t have conventional motors inside the handle. Rather, there are high-tech elements with Star Trek-like names such as the piezoelectric crystal transducer. In brief, the circuitry converts electric current from a battery to extremely fast vibration, which it transmits to the brush head. The actual movement of the brush head is tiny. But fast.

The basic principle is that the high-frequency vibration of the brush head creates micro-turbulence in the toothpaste slush. Very,  very tiny micro-bubbles form in the froth.  This turbulence, or cavitation, in turn, breaks up and shakes loose food residue and plaque. Vibrating toothbrushes oscillate somewhere in the range of 20 to more than 1,600,000 or cycles per second (Hz). That’s a pretty wide range. The FDA established the 1.6 megahertz marker as the boundary between so-called “sonic” ( below that speed) and “ultrasonic” brushes.  Even so, quite a few ads imply sonic brushes are ultrasonic, even though they don’t meet this FDA minimum frequency standard.


The lower-speed sonic toothbrush emits a signature humming sound while it’s working. At the present time, most of the makes and models on the market are sonic. The lower a sonic brush’s frequency, the less vigorous the turbulence.  Less turbulence means more reliance on the physical scrubbing of the brush bristles.

The higher-frequency, ultrasonic toothbrushes crank up much faster vibrations to boost the cleaning effect. The turbulence they create is a lot more forceful than that of a sonic brush. The oscillations are still tiny, though. About 2mm, according to one study. A consumer simply passes the brush head over all tooth surfaces. No pressure needs to be applied. The vibrations do the work. Nonetheless, some ultrasonic models include a feature which allows the user to choose a slow frequency mode. This is for scrubbing with traditional toothbrushing technique. It’s unclear that this accomplishes anything the high-speed mode cannot. Apparently, some consumers just don’t find brushing satisfying without doing some “real brushing”.  True ultrasonic toothbrushes are very difficult to find in the USA. In fact, Amazon currently has only one brand available, with prices starting at over $200.00.


These designs usually have round brush heads, perhaps the diameter of a pinky finger.  An electric motor supplies the motion through a mechanical system with gears and cams. Some models rotate in full circles. Others do half-circles, back-and-forth. The heads rotate at relatively low speeds, in the range of 1,300 – 8,000 rotations per minute.  Only the brush head moves, the motor and mechanism are internal.

Rotating electric toothbrushes rely entirely on scrubbing to remove food residues and plaque.  Thus, consumers use them with the same technique they’re accustomed to with regular brushes. In addition, some models enhance the scrubbing with high-frequency pulsation. This emulates the cavitation effect. However, since the brush heads are smaller than a regular toothbrush’s, manufacturers do advise cleaning one tooth at a time.


The short answer is “yes”. Even the skeptical Consumers Union has conceded this, based on a review of 54 studies.  The trend in the research is clearly giving electric toothbrushes the nod. It makes more sense, however, to put the question on an individual level. That is, will an electric toothbrush work better for you? Here, unquestionably, the devil is in the details. We can say with confidence that other things being equal, electric toothbrushes are better for dental health than are manual. However, in life, other things are never equal.

For one thing, behavior is a factor.  If using an electric toothbrush incents a person to brush more regularly, that’s good for better hygiene. By the same token, if adapting to a new electric brush leads the user to bone up on technique, that’s a plus, too. People who lack the physical ability to use a manual brush properly can benefit greatly by switching to electric.

Some people, however, do the opposite. This is called “offsetting behavior”. Treating their new electric toothbrush as a time-saving device, they skip brushings. They don’t brush the full recommended 2 minutes. What’s more, some stop flossing! They think that an electric toothbrush cleans between the teeth. On the contrary, it doesn’t. You still have to floss!


All in all, it’s unlikely you’ll go wrong by opting for an electric toothbrush. Whereas earlier research sometimes failed to detect any benefit, none found harm. If you keep up the proper frequency and duration of brushing, use good technique, and floss? As has been noted, the research says you’ll likely benefit in terms of dental health.

There’s an overwhelming array of product choices, true. Moreover, manufacturers are constantly upgrading them. There are, for example already Bluetooth-enabled models! These give you feedback on your technique! And keep records, to keep you on track and hold you accountable. It is, indeed, a bit daunting.   You, however, have a resource in your Anderson Dental Lake Worth office. Ask the dentist or hygienist about electric toothbrushes. After all, it’s familiar territory to them. Once you start using yours, your next checkup will let you know how it’s working for you.