Manual toothbrushes and electric toothbrushes may produce essentially the same results, but less-expensive technology, increased marketing and dentists' approval are pushing more Americans to take the high-tech route to cleaner teeth.
Sales of electric toothbrushes in 2003 grew 23% over sales in 2002, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based retail-tracking group. Consumers also bought fewer manual toothbrushes in 2003, with sales falling 6% compared to 2002.
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.
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 were better at plaque removal and helped patients get in the habit of brushing one tooth at a time. Consumers also are more willing to spend $70 to $140 on the technology if their dentist recommends it, marketing experts and dentists said.
The advent of battery-powered toothbrushes, which cost $6 to $20, also has 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. General Electric produced a cordless rechargeable model.
By 1995, as many as 25% of all toothbrush sales were electric, Swank said. Sonic and ultrasonic technology emerged during the early 1990s, and in 2000 and 2001, battery-operated toothbrushes emerged.
Toothbrush companies have worked to promote the new technology during the last 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.
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 gingivitis more than any manual brush. But results of a January 2003 study by the American Dental Assn. 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.
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.