Which toothbrush to buy? I asked a scientist from the American Dental Association and a practicing dentist, and both advised me to buy any brush—as long as it's soft-bristled. A soft brush works great on plaque (which has the consistency of mayonnaise), while the firmer bristles gain you nothing. In fact, they say, you risk "toothbrush abrasion" if you combine hard scrubbing with firmer bristles: You slowly scrub a groove into your gumline and corrode your tooth's insides. Bad news, that.
Beyond this, there's little clinical difference between any two brushes, electric or non. Choosing comes down to comfort, motivation ("the gimmick factor") and, above all, maneuverability. For these you'll have to trust my teeth as testing grounds. On to the research.
I tried more than 30 manual brushes. The following stood out, for good or for bad. (Whenever possible, tests were performed using Colgate Total toothpaste, winner of the previous "Paste Test.")
Mentadent Surround: The Surround, with its standard head, is completely unexceptional save for its magnificent handle—a two-tone art deco masterpiece of molded plastic. Buy this one as your "show brush" to put in the guest bathroom and never use.
In seriousness, a good grip can be important if it helps you manipulate the brush. The goal in brushing is to cover every tooth surface, so if fancy grips or angled heads do the trick for you, stick with 'em. The Surround grip, while pretty, didn't help me reach more teeth.
Reach Plaque Sweeperand Reach Interdental: I tried the "Full Head" sizes of these brushes, which tainted them for me. I'm not a fan of the "huge head" school of brush design, and both these heads span four or five teeth at once. This trend is understandable in brushes from toothpaste manufacturers (the huge-headed Aquafresh Flex Direct, for instance): Bigger heads mean more room for paste. But Reach is from Johnson & Johnson, which, as best I can tell, makes no toothpastes. Go figure.
The Plaque Sweeper, like many recent brushes, has a single, taller tuft of bristles at the tip of its head to clean "hard-to-reach back teeth." This tuft did not help me reach my back teeth—at least not accurately. Instead, it got in my way, bumping my gums, too bulky for fine cleaning. Ditch these SUVs and get something with better handling.
Crest Extender:"Gentle Extender Fibers extend beyond the rippled bristles," says the packaging. Think of your regular toothbrush, then add a few sparsely placed bristles jabbing up a quarter-inch higher than the rest. Unsettling, yes? These "Gentle Extender Fibers" poke right into your gums. I would have called it the Crest Intruder. Maybe the Crest Violator. Just looking at it's terrifying. This was the worst brush I tried.
Colgate Navigator: The top half of this brush head flexes independently of the bottom half, much like a segmented vehicle. Ask yourself: Do I want to brush with a segmented vehicle? When you flex out the top, it's a completely different angle from the bottom and brushing a separate tooth entirely. Maybe it saves time by brushing two surfaces at once, but this technique affords little control over bristles—you have to guess where they are. Also, I predict the rubber flexpoint will lose elasticity long before the bristles are dead. A poor entry.
Oral-B CrossAction: A fine brush. While it does employ the big end-tuft, in this case the angle was such that it didn't get in my way. And the CrissCross bristles, pointing this way and that, did seem to cover surfaces more thoroughly. Each brush stroke sent bristles scampering willy-nilly all over my enamel. Like other Oral-Bs, the CrossAction has indicators to tell you when to replace it. (The ADA says to change brushes every three to four months, because worn brushes don't clean well and can hurt your gums.)
Faults: The handle on this one is big (too big to fit in a toothbrush holder), and the color scheme looks like an iMac. But these are forgivable sins. Indeed, if not for one flaw, this would be my favorite manual brush. Sadly, all those bristles and tufts pointing every which way made the head knock around in my mouth, creating unacceptable inaccuracy. Thus, the CrossAction loses to ...
Colgate Sensitive: A graceful wand. The "silky soft bristles" glide across gums, and the tiny head lets you maneuver like a champ. My teeth were an ancient fresco to be carefully restored. The handle is ultralight, almost a conductor's baton, but gently swooping, with a rubberized grip for your thumb. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. Among manuals, that is. On to ...
Before talking to dental experts, I figured these fancy electric brushes did a better job. Not so. It's all about the brusher—electrics are no better in clinical tests. If the "gimmick factor" of using an electric motivates you to brush more, mazel tov. If the gum stimulation of electrics feels cleaner and fresher, fantastic, but it does nothing for your oral health. To me, electrics did hold some real advantages: They helped thoroughly brush some hard-to-reach spots; a few of them had timers, which reminded me that I rarely brush for long enough; and there's a regal, being-serviced kind of feel to using them. Of course, you shell out for it: Manuals range from 99 cents to four bucks; electrics do not. Plus, replacement heads cost you, too.
Reach Powerbrush: OK, this one's affordable, at $7.99. But you get what you pay for. One AA battery fits inside this brush, vibrating it 7,000 times a minute. How does it feel? Think of your regular brush, then strap a model airplane motor to the handle. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Unpleasant. This was the second-worst brush I tried.
Waterpik Plus Plaque Control System: This massive console features a cordless, rechargeable toothbrush; a small tub for mixing solutions of water and mouthwash; and an oral irrigator that shoots those solutions into your mouth at high speeds. At $79.99, it doesn't come cheap. Performance? So-so. The brush is fine—the standard-shaped head oscillates back and forth, creating a lot of brush strokes while you hold it in place. But it didn't seem much different from the Powerbrush, save that it damped the vibrations.
As for the oral irrigator—stay away. The instructions say to irrigate with mouth open, over the sink, and let the water run out on its own. Eighty bucks to drool on myself? Seems you could re-create the effect by rinsing with mouthwash, then dribbling it slowly down your chin—all for the price of the mouthwash.
Sonicare Advance Model: The priciest dental care I could find—$89.99. For a while, this looked like a winner. It sells you on science, boasting of sonic waves and fluid dynamics and "31,000 gentle brush strokes per minute." And man do your teeth feel clean when you finish.
But soon, cracks appear in the sonic wall. Most of that clean feeling stems from gum stimulation. And the timer on the Sonicare, while theoretically a nice addition, turns out to be annoying. It automatically shuts the motor off after two minutes, even when you're in midbrush. Finally, the whole contraption is a mite scary. You don't gin up 31,000 strokes per minute without some serious vibrations going on. It's totally damped as long as you brush carefully, but the second you touch the plastic back of the brush to a tooth or gum, look out: clackety-clackety-clackety, 31,000 times a minute. It's frightening and can hurt a little. On occasions when I came to the bathroom late and sleepy, or perhaps just a bit in my cups, I couldn't even look at the Sonicare. Dealing with this gremlin was too much to take, and I reached for a trusty manual.
Braun Oral-B Plaque Remover 3D: This $69.99 entry was the class of the bunch. Its tiny round head lets you brush one tooth at a time. The backs of my two front teeth have never been cleaner than after using this. Also, its timer signals when two minutes are up, but doesn't shut off the motor (actually brushing for two full minutes was a revelation to me—it forced me to clean all my surfaces just to fill up the time). Vibrations are minimal, with no clackety-clackety. And the design seems simple and efficient. A big flaw of electrics is that the handles get dirty quickly, but the Braun was easy to clean. I give you your champion.
Still, even if you go for the Braun, keep a manual around. I found that sometimes an electric toothbrush was just too much noise and activity in the quiet of the evening. A Braun/Colgate Sensitive combo lets you cover all your bases.