In this report
March 2010 Ratings

Toothbrushes to make you smile

Last reviewed: March 2010

Electric toothbrushes don't just sit there; they do everything but shake, rattle, and roll. Brush heads tend to be either sonic (they vibrate side to side) or spinning (they rotate very fast in one direction, then the other, and bristles may pulsate in and out).

We tested 10 toothbrushes that cost from $15 to $140. Nine have rechargeable bases; the Spinbrush Pro Clean Sonic uses AA batteries. Most have built-in 2-minute timers that either signal or shut the toothbrush off after 2 minutes, plus "quadpacers" that signal every 30 seconds so that you spend an equal time on each quadrant of your mouth. (The Spinbrush and Interplak lack timers; those two and the Oral-B Vitality and Walgreens lack quadpacers.) A higher price is likely to get you settings such as sensitive (gentler cleaning) or massage (gum stimulation), a charge-level display, or a travel case.

How we tested

Fifteen staffers used each brush for one week and evaluated its comfort, convenience, and ease of use. We hid brand names and asked panelists to follow any manufacturers' instructions for brushing technique and time (usually two minutes). At the end of each week, each panelist didn't brush for at least 24 hours; then a dentist used a dye to reveal plaque before and after they'd brushed once more for 2 minutes. Plaque removal is important in gum health.

What we found

The two priciest brushes removed 75 percent or more of plaque in our tests, on average. The top-rated Oral-B rotates in both directions and pulses, and a sensor stops pulsations when you brush too hard; the runner-up Philips Sonicare is the vibrating type. Despite its effectiveness, most users said it vibrated too much. (Sonicare brushes might take getting used to, but they have an Easy Start feature that can help.)

Some brushes are more comfortable to hold and manipulate than others. The Spinbrush and Interplak got relatively low ease-of-use scores because some panelists said their brush heads were too big.

Bottom line

Scan the Ratings (available to subscribers) for a type and price you like. And check for a return policy: Some brushes offer a money-back guarantee. Most makers suggest replacing brush heads every three months, which boosts the cost. Whatever you buy, brush thoroughly: With all brushes, panelists removed more plaque from the cheek side of their teeth than from the tongue side, and more from front teeth than back

Manual vs. electric

Studies have shown that the types can be equally effective if used right. With an electric brush, be sure to cover all surfaces. To brush manually: Put the brush at a 45-degree angle against gums; move it back and forth gently in toothwide strokes over all teeth; move the "toe" of the brush up and down to clean inside front teeth; and brush your tongue gently to remove bacteria and freshen breath.