We have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, and now smart technology has trickled into our bathroom with smart toothbrushes.
These electric toothbrushes go beyond the typical two-minute timer. They are fitted with AI technology that connects to an app by Bluetooth, detects the brush head’s position, maps out a person’s teeth and gives real-time guidance on pressure, motion and coverage, with alerts for when to move another part of the mouth and when technique is subpar.
Absurd as it may seem to some, they’re growing in popularity, with Philips and Oral-B both now selling premium models designed to last several years, but with eye-watering prices. The latest, from Philips, costs $499, with a bathroom “shelfie”-friendly design and a vegan leather charging case.
One friend affectionately refers to hers as “the Ferrari of toothbrushes”, and while the word affectionate seems bizarre in this context, people who use one swear by it.
But do we actually need them? And are they worth forking out for?
Dr James Fernando, a University of Melbourne dentist and researcher, explains first up that both manual and electric brushes are effective at removing plaque, bacteria and food particles, thereby preventing gum disease and tooth decay, as long as a person has good technique.
Fernando says that powered brushes are less involved, so may carry less room for human error because when we are distracted, they keep working away.
“Most people can concentrate less on what they’re doing, and perhaps it can be a little bit easier for them to actually come up with a good result,” he says. “People who start using them tend to really enjoy them.”
Fernando says that over-vigorous manual brushing is a common problem, carrying a risk of dental abrasion from wearing away tooth enamel or permanent gum recession, which exposes tooth roots.
It’s why he’s all for the smart toothbrush feature that automatically adjusts the pressure and informs people if they’re brushing too hard. “Particularly as we age that becomes more of a concern because we sometimes have less enamel,” he says.
It’s also common for people to unconsciously favour and neglect certain parts of their mouth. For example, Fernando says there is often a “blind spot” where people have to flick their wrist to reach a particular side. A smart toothbrush could detect this.
“Having that technology to make sure you’re getting all the areas in your mouth could be helpful,” Fernando says. “Because we’re brushing our teeth all the time, we tend not to really think about it. If you have the app in front of you and it’s saying you haven’t brushed these teeth – even if your dentist has told you that a few months ago at your checkup – you’re probably more likely to respond.”
Fernando notes that people who use a high-end brush often report getting the clean feeling they’re used to getting in the dentist chair. The squeaky-clean mouthfeel mainly comes from blasting away the furriness of plaque, but it’s also from removing the salivary pellicle, which is a layer of proteins that protects the tooth surface, and usually returns within about an hour, Fernando explains.
“You can get it off with the manual toothbrush, but the electric ones are really good at polishing so it feels cleaner for a lot of people,” he says.
Dentist Dr Mikaela Chinotti is the oral health promoter for the Australian Dental Association – which has just released a new oral health website for consumers – and she says that electric toothbrushes can better access hard-to-reach corners and she personally finds a pressure indicator and timer alerts useful. However she stresses you still need to learn correct use, and manual brushing can result in perfectly clean teeth.
“It’s not what you have, it’s how you use it. The old adage applies to tooth-brushing,” she says. “A smart toothbrush can be valuable but … if someone is going great guns with a manual brush there’s no need to spend more money. But if it’s really going to improve outcomes, it’s a good investment.”
Fernando says industry-funded research suggests that smart toothbrushes are beneficial for adolescents, which he believes comes down to new generations being more tech-minded.
The Oral-B and Philips’ brushes work slightly differently – one has round oscillating, spinning heads, while sonic brushes use rapid side-to-side vibrations – but both use rapid movement to shake off plaque and scrub away stains. Fernando says that it’s a matter of personal preference. “Both of them have got plenty of evidence, so I believe both types are quite effective.”
To patients who have never used an electric toothbrush, Chinotti generally suggests trying a basic model first, while people who are keen to spend more should determine what features they want.
“An entry-level electric toothbrush will be completely fine, and as you go up in models, you get extra features that are fantastic to have but not a must for everybody,” she says.
Fernando agrees, saying he usually recommends a base model for his patients because it can be hard to justify the expense of the luxe versions.
“I’m not going to say ‘you need to get this one’. But if they choose it, I think it’s going to benefit.”