If you use an electric or battery-powered toothbrush that vibrates, rotates or moves back and forth as you polish your pearly whites, your money is well-spent. Most dentists think that they’re more effective than manual toothbrushes at preventing plaque, decay and gum disease. No manual toothbrush can compete with an electric brush, which can have up to 31,000 motions a minute.
But the FDA’s recent recall of the popular Arm & Hammer Spinbrush (previously marketed as the Crest Spinbrush) had me worried. Some consumers reported that the head of the Spinbrush was breaking into pieces, releasing parts into the mouth at high speeds, potentially chipping teeth and posing choking hazards.
Are other electric or battery-powered toothbrushes equally dangerous? I did some investigating to find out.
FEND OFF TOOTH TROUBLES
To clear up the confusion, I called Susan Runner, DDS, chief of the dental devices branch in the office of device evaluation at the FDA in Silver Spring, Maryland. She said that these types of toothbrushes can be helpful tools, but they can malfunction, and even when they are working correctly, they need to be used properly. “They’re quite powerful—and the tissues of the gums, cheek and tongue are very delicate, so the tissues can be easily traumatized,” said Dr. Runner.
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PAYING THE PRICE
It’s hard not to notice that the brush that was recalled was on the cheap side (priced between $6 and $18, depending on the retailer), while some electric toothbrushes can cost well over $100. I wondered, are expensive brushes of a higher quality than, say, mid-priced brushes in the $50 range, and, if so, are they less likely to malfunction? Dr. Runner said that the FDA hasn’t evaluated that, so I posed the same question to Sheldon Nadler, DMD, a dentist in New York City with more than 30 years of experience.
“I don’t know of any study that has answered that question,” said Dr. Nadler. “Rather than cost, I would advise patients to pay most attention to the brand. Arm & Hammer hasn’t been in the toothbrush business for long. I recommend brushes by Philips and Braun to my patients because those companies have been in the toothbrush business for a while and they consistently upgrade their products. I trust those brands, and I’ve never heard a patient complain about them.”
When using an electric or battery-operated toothbrush, Dr. Runner suggests, it’s important to follow these guidelines…
- Replace the brush head every three to four months. Heads do wear out, and when they’re splayed or frayed, they can tear the tissues in your mouth more easily.
- Inspect the brush head. If the brush head chips, breaks or does not fit securely onto the base, replace it before using it again (even if three to four months haven’t passed).
- Don’t press too hard. It’s unsafe to press the head of an electric toothbrush onto the teeth and gums as hard as you might press a manual brush. You’re pressing too hard if your gums feel sore or start bleeding.
- Monitor children closely. Before letting a child use an electric toothbrush, make sure that you walk through the instructions with him or her and keep an eye on the brushing until you are confident that it will be used safely. And be sure to choose a brush head that is the appropriate size for the child—probably one that is smaller than yours.
BE A CONSUMER WATCHDOG
If you think an electric toothbrush is malfunctioning, report your concerns to the manufacturer and to the FDA Safety Information and Adverse Events Reporting Program by phone, (1-800-FDA-1088) or online (MedWatch).