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Are electric toothbrushes better for my dental health?

Closeup on the bristles of an electric toothbrush with droplets of water flying off.

Electric toothbrush in action. (Photo: Flickr/pau.artigas)

Are electric toothbrushes better for my dental health?

September 23, 2013

Q: Is it really better to brush your teeth with an electric toothbrush? Or does a normal toothbrush work just fine? Are there scientifically documented studies that prove electric toothbrushes keep your teeth cleaner and prevent cavities better?

A: Although there are some available studies documenting superiority of some brands of electric toothbrushes, most of those I've seen were sponsored by the toothbrush manufacturers, and are therefore of questionable credibility.

Empirically, most dentists have observed some degree of improvement in the general level of oral hygiene when their patients switch to an electric toothbrush. This makes intuitive sense: the amount of plaque that is removed from tooth surfaces would naturally be related to the number of brush strokes between the brush and the tooth, and an electric toothbrush just moves more quickly than a human hand.

Most of the better electric toothbrushes also come equipped with a quadrant timer, which imposes a more consistent two-minute brushing duration. The trade-off that comes with greater cleaning efficacy is an increased rate of tooth wear and gum recession. This is particularly a danger when electric toothbrushes are used with too much pressure.

In theory, a manual toothbrush can do everything that an electric toothbrush can do. However, for a manual toothbrush to achieve that level of effectiveness, it needs to be used properly and for the correct length of time.

I do not as a matter of general policy recommend that patients switch to an electric toothbrush unless repeated attempts to improve oral hygiene with more conventional brushing and flossing falls short of expectations. For patients with fixed bridgework, fixed orthodontic appliances, or those with impaired manual dexterity, electric toothbrushes can be particularly helpful.

-- Answer from Mark Bornfeld, DDS, a dentist on JustAnswer.

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