Getting The Old Brush Off

Toothbrushes: Lower prices and dentists' acceptance are helping power a shift in use from manual to electric.

August 12, 2004|By Michelle Betton | Michelle Betton,SUN STAFF

More Americans are buying electric toothbrushes than ever before thanks to less-expensive technology, increased marketing and growing approval from dentists.

Sales grew 23 percent between 2002 and last year, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based retail-tracking group.

"If you buy the nice quality ones, it's great," said Savvy Palmer of Baltimore, an electric toothbrush user who believes the technology cleans better.

Consumers also bought fewer manual toothbrushes, with sales falling 6 percent between 2002 and last year, Information Resources reported.

Even so, about 180 million manual toothbrushes were sold last year -- nearly six times as many as their electric cousins. Marketing experts consider cost a major reason.

"[Manual] toothbrushes are fine," said Ruth Louie of Baltimore, who said electric brushes are too expensive for her taste. "I replace them every few months and move on."

The total value of both markets is almost $800 million a year, but the growth in sales clearly is on the technological end of the spectrum, according to Information Resources.

A study last year showed little difference between results achieved with the two brushing methods. But as costs for electric toothbrushes have become more affordable, consumers seem more willing to embrace them. And dentists are increasingly recommending them to patients.

Dr. Khin Phillips, a Baltimore dentist, has been recommending that her patients use electric toothbrushes for about three years. She uses a Braun Oral-B power toothbrush herself.

Phillips said electric toothbrushes are better at plaque removal and help patients get in the habit of brushing one tooth at a time. Consumers also are more willing to spend between $70 and $140 on the technology if their dentist recommends it, marketing experts and dentists said.

The advent of battery-powered toothbrushes, which cost between $6 and $20, has also fueled the growth in sales, letting consumers in on the power toothbrush trend at a fraction of the price of high-end models.

Electric toothbrushes have been around since the 1940s, starting with a device called the Toothmaster, said Dr. Scott Swank, curator for the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore. The first successfully marketed electric toothbrushes were unveiled in 1961. The Squibb Broxodent was a brush that needed to be plugged in, while General Electric produced a cordless rechargeable model.

By 1995, up to a quarter of all toothbrush sales were electric, Swank said. Sonic and ultrasonic technology emerged during the early 1990s and between 2000 and 2001, battery-operated toothbrushes emerged.

Toothbrush companies have worked to promote the new technology during the past several years through advertising campaigns. Marketing efforts also target young children with themed battery-operated brushes, sporting characters such as Spider-Man and Hello Kitty.

Area dentists said two of the most popular power toothbrushes are the Philips Sonicare line and the Braun Oral-B series.

The Sonicare brush ($119 to $139) uses sonic technology and side-to-side motion to move its bristles at high speeds. The Oral-B Professional Care 8000 ($120) uses a rotating oscillating head with high-speed pulsation to clean teeth.

The makers say that their cutting-edge brushes reduce plaque and gingivitis more than any manual brush. But results of a January 2003 study by the American Dental Association casts some doubt on such claims.

The ADA study, conducted to learn whether power toothbrushes clean more effectively than their manual counterparts, tested various brushing techniques as well as products. The study found that only the brush with the rotating oscillating head -- the Braun Oral-B -- showed significant benefits over manual brushes in reducing plaque and gingivitis. But the study found that those benefits were modest.

But Dr. Clifford Whall, director of the ADA's Seal of Acceptance Program, said that parts of the study were not "robust" enough. He added that a more definitive study is needed because it is not clear how much better one brush is than another.

Some dentists say they recommend electric toothbrushes because their motion is gentler than manual brushing and lessens irritation of gums. Some also said those with timers help people who don't brush for the full two minutes the ADA recommends.

Whall said that people may like power brushes better because they are easier to use. Manual brushes should be held at a 45-degree angle to clean teeth properly, he said, but a power brush does not have similar requirements.

And it's good oral care that's the bottom line, no matter what kind of brush it is, said Leslee Williams, ADA manager of media services.

"The key is that the user has to use the brush properly," Williams said.

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