Monday, July 15, 2002

So many Toothbrushes

Experts say it's not which one you use, but how often you use it

By Peggy O'Farrell,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dr. Michael Palmer, a Northern Kentucky dentist, stands in the toothbrush aisle of the Erlanger CVS and surveys the hundreds of models of toothbrushes available.

        “Look at all these,” he says, and shakes his head. Some have rubber tips designed to stimulate gum tissue. One model has chlorahexadine, an antibacterial agent, imbedded in the bristles.

    The toothbrush market is huge because everyone who has teeth has a toothbrush — at least we hope so. But in most cases, consumers' technique is more important than fancy toothbrushes.
    Here's the right way to brush your teeth, according to the American Academy of General Dentistry:
    • Choose a soft-bristled brush. The tips of the bristles should be rounded.
    • Hold the brush at a 45-degree angle and sweep from the gum to the end of the tooth.
    • Brushing your whole mouth should take two minutes. Use an egg-timer or count seconds to be sure.
    • Replace your toothbrush (or the brush head if you use a power model) often. Most experts suggest every three months, or as soon as the bristles no longer stand up straight.
    • Don't scrub: Brushing too hard is bad for your teeth and gums. If the bristles are flared, you're brushing too hard.
    • Pick age-appropriate brushes for children.
        “It's amazing how long we've managed without that,” Dr. Palmer says.

        He picks out a model with a wide, curved handle. “This is easy to grip,” he says, which makes it easier to use. Another features graduated bristles to help clear off extra plaque for people who don't floss.

        A rechargeable model uses sonic waves to knock goop off teeth and gums and beeps when it's time to stop brushing. Some models sport Harry Potter decals. One toothbrush looks like a camouflage walkie-talkie with bristles.

        So much for the good old days when the only decision consumers had to make was picking the red one or the blue one.

        Toothbrush prices at CVS range from 99 cents for a basic model to upwards of $100 for the high-tech sonic-powered machine.

        Dr. Palmer and other dentists have an answer for consumers overwhelmed by choices as they try to pick the best toothbrush: Get one with soft bristles and use it at least twice a day. And floss.

        Fancy handles and bristles are fun, but there's no indication that they do anything to decrease tooth decay or gum disease, experts say.

        If you don't floss — and you should — think about using an electric or battery-powered model for a little extra oomph.

We like variety

        Americans like variety in their toothbrushes. In 2001, 237 new models were brought onto the market, says Tom Vierhile, executive director of ProductScan Online, a marketing intelligence firm.

        Licensing — using popular children's characters, such as Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter or Scooy-Doo — drove much of that increase, he says.

        “There are a lot of new products out there,” Mr. Vierhile says. “What's happened in that area, just over the past couple of years, is you're seeing a lot of these battery-operated toothbrushes, and they've got them to the point where they're only slightly more expensive than the manual toothbrushes.”

        The Crest SpinBrush, a Procter & Gamble product, is gaining converts to inexpensive battery-operated toothbrushes, says Bryan McCleary, a Crest spokesman. The suggested retail price: $5.99.

        In the current fiscal year, SpinBrush sales will exceed $200 million, Mr. McCleary says. The model is the best-selling power toothbrush, accounting for half of all units sold.

        “What we're trying to do is make manual brushes obsolete and really come out with what we like to call affordable power brushes,” Mr. McCleary says.

        SpinBrush includes models geared toward children, teens and adults. The children's SpinBrush models sport mermaid, race car, rocket ship, cell phone and camouflage walkie-talkie motifs.

        The SpinBrush is one of several power brushes on the market, including some brands sold primarily through dentists' offices.

New and fancier

        Mr. Vierhile calls toothbrushes “a gadget-type of category.” There's a model to suit just about every consumer's quirk, whether it's for an easy-to-grip handle, an angled brush head, flexible brush tips or a fun design a child will enjoy using.

        And there's always a new model on the shelves. At a recent trade show, he saw a brush with an angled handle so that however the user holds the brush, it's always at a 45-degree angle to the teeth — just as dentists recommend.

        “For a fairly mature category, manufacturers keep coming up with new derivations of toothbrushes that are pretty remarkable,” he says.

        Some toothbrushes feature handles that are angled so consumers don't brush too hard. Some have “indicator” bristles that tell when it's time to buy a new toothbrush.

        But does all that gadgetry make for cleaner teeth and gums?

        The short answer: Not really.

        Most of the fancy features on new toothbrushes are designed to make up for consumers' bad dental habits, experts say.

        “A lot of these things have bells and whistles and the bristles that stick up, but basically if people aren't flossing, it's the lazy way out. Brushing won't get everything out,” says Dr. Susan J. Sup, a Chicago dentist and spokeswoman for the American Academy of General Dentistry. “The only way to completely clean out the plaque is to floss.”

        Dr. Palmer won't recommend one brand of manual toothbrush over another.

        “But one thing I will tell you is that not one of them does a better job than the other,” he says.

        Some patients with particular needs might need fancier toothbrushes, Dr. Palmer says.

        Older people or people who have problems gripping smaller handles might benefit from using toothbrushes with larger, curved handles or power toothbrushes with larger handles.

        People who have to help other adults brush their teeth — someone disabled by a stroke, for example — might find the task easier with a powered toothbrush.

        And people who have a lot of plaque or dental work or people with gum disease would probably benefit from a powered toothbrush. He likes the sonic-powered models, which clean teeth well without damaging either the tooth surface or gum tissue.

        Dr. Jim Steiner, director of the division of pediatric dentistry at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, likes any toothbrush that encourages a child to brush.

        “If they'll use it, it's a good brush,” he says.

        Children especially like powered toothbrushes, such as the SpinBrush, he says.

        “And if you've got a really young child, you want a handle that's fairly big in diameter so they can grip it fairly easily,” Dr. Steiner says.



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