Bristling with design

Toothbrushes of today pack some serious engineering innovations -- but you still have to brush.


January 16, 2000|By Carol Polsky | Carol Polsky,newsday

Forget the Eames chair, the Le Corbusier sofa. This just might be the golden age of toothbrush design.

Today's toothbrushes have curves, arches, waves and squiggles. They have rubber grips, thumb stops and ergonomic shapes. The nylon bristles are micro-textured, multicolored, multileveled and multiangled. They can be flexible or squishy, ridged or rippled, full or compact.

Manufacturers are coming out with new models and variations at a rate more familiar to the car industry. The $650 million-a-year business is big and getting bigger. New designs are helping fuel consumer interest. And the once-lowly toothbrush is now winning design awards.

Market leader Oral-B's new CrossAction brush won an award in a juried competition sponsored by the design publication I.D. Magazine, along with Colgate-Palmolive's Grip'Ems children's brushes, which were praised for interestingly amorphic handles that didn't resort to licensed characters.

"There are plenty of other toothbrushes that are just a pretty styling job," says Chee Pearlman, editor of I.D. Magazine. The CrossAction toothbrush "is moving in the category of high-end car. They've put some serious engineering into it."

The toothbrush, with a plump ergonomic handle and multileveled bristles that are set at different angles to better penetrate around and between teeth, was introduced last year at the previously unheard-of (for the mass market) price of $4.99.

Why has all this attention to toothbrush design emerged over the last five years?

Attention to dental health, consumer preferences and new production technologies and materials all play a role, but the real fuel seems to be coming from the marketplace itself.

Max Yoshimoto, vice president of Lunar Design in California, which helped create the CrossAction, says: "As products reach a certain level of maturity in any category, design plays an even more important role. That's what a manufacturer can use to differentiate his product and create something innovative," he says, "especially when pricing has leveled out and products are on a par."

The Lunar designers and a team from Oral-B looked at prototypes and studies of how people grip their brushes. They were told to create an ergonomic handle that would communicate through its styling, that this was a product worth paying double the cost of the average toothbrush.

Aquafresh's Flex toothbrush first entered the U.S. fray in 1991. The handle features a tight S-shaped squiggle at the neck to signify its flexibility.

"Dentists find that people brush too hard, and it's been proven that our design protects the gum by relieving excess pressures," says Tom Baxter, brand manager for the Flex.

The American Dental Association says all the brushes given its seal of approval clean effectively and help reduce gingivitis, although it is not clear from short-term studies whether any one brush is significantly better than any other, or even whether better attention to brushing by study participants accounts for the good results.

"I don't think there's a product that is heads and shoulders above the others," says Dr. Wayne Wozniak, director of evaluation criteria for the American Dental Association, based in Chicago. The patient, much more than the brush, "will have a large effect on how the product will perform," he says.

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