Are electric toothbrushes better than manual brushes?

Electric toothbrushes can make your teeth brighter and whiter with a lot less effort. Is it time to buy a better brush?

Electric toothbrushes are brilliant things – some of them seem smarter than we are. With programmes to clean, deep clean and whiten your teeth, timers to ensure you brush for the right amount of time and pressure sensors so you don’t brush too hard, they can transform your teeth.

But they’re also a lot more expensive than a simple manual toothbrush, so are they worth it?

An older dentist holding up an electric and a manual toothbrushCredit: Shutterstock / Krakenimages.com

Dr Ben Atkins of the Oral Health Foundation, a charity campaigning for good oral health, says they are.

“Multiple studies and clinical research shows us that electric toothbrushes, especially those with heads that rotate in both directions or ‘oscillating’ heads, are more effective at removing plaque than a manual brush,” he told us. “This helps keep tooth decay and gum disease at bay.”  

There are plenty of good reasons to buy an electric toothbrush – but there are plenty of reasons why you might want to stick with a manual one, too. Let’s discover which one is the better tool for your teeth. 

Pros and cons of manual brushes

+ They’re cheap to buy
+ They’re cheap to replace
+ They never need charging
You might not brush long enough
You can brush too hard 

Pros and cons of electric brushes

+ They can guide your brushing
+ They clean more effectively
+ They’re great if you have mobility problems
They can be expensive
They’re useless when the charge runs out 

Manual vs electric toothbrushes

Electric brushes are more expensive, but last longer

Manual toothbrushes haven’t changed much since William Addis started mass producing them in 1780, but they’re even older than that: the Egyptians and Babylonians were making toothbrushes from the ends of twigs around 3500-3000 BC.  

Today’s brushes may be based on the same idea, but they use different materials: where Addis’s first brushes used pig bristles on a specially carved cow bone handle, today’s brushes feature nylon bristles with a plastic or wooden handle.  

Electric toothbrushes are more complicated, but not much: inside an electric toothbrush there’s a motor that vibrates the bristles as you brush. That design has been around since the first modern electric toothbrush, the Broxodent, which appeared in 1954 and plugged into a wall socket.

Electric and manual toothbrushes side by sideCredit: Shutterstock / Dmitry Morgan

Cordless electric toothbrushes have been around longer than you might think – the first ones went on sale in the 1960s – but today’s vastly improved battery technology means they’re more convenient, with weeks of cleaning between charges. Today’s batteries are smaller too, so electric toothbrushes have become lighter.  

While the basic design hasn’t changed much, today’s models are smarter – some of them include microchips and digital displays, and sonic toothbrushes vibrate incredibly quickly to clean even more efficiently. 

Manual toothbrushes are a lot cheaper (even more advanced ones such as Colgate Max White are only around £3 for a twin pack) but they need replacing every few months – and plastic toothbrushes in particular contribute to landfill.  

Electric toothbrushes last for years, and instead of replacing the whole thing you simply pop off the relatively small brush head and put a new one in its place.  

Those heads can be expensive – a pack of four replacement heads for a Philips Sonicare brush can cost around £40, or £10 per head. They do offer much more effective cleaning, though, because electric toothbrushes can clean a larger area in less time than a manual brush.  

And because most electric toothbrushes have timers and pressure sensors, they can guide you so that you clean for the right amount of time without using too much or too little pressure.  

There’s another big plus with electric toothbrushes: if you have problems such as arthritis in your hands, cleaning with an electric toothbrush is easier and more comfortable than doing it manually. 

Electric and manual toothbrushes held in a handCredit: Shutterstock / New Africa

What the experts say

With an electric toothbrush you don’t have to worry about technique

“It is possible to get a good clean with a manual toothbrush if you have a good brushing technique,” Dr Atkins says. “However, most people don’t brush correctly or don’t brush for long enough.

“With an electric toothbrush you don’t have to worry about technique as much, as when you guide the toothbrush along the tooth surface the brush head is spinning at a rate which can easily disrupt the plaque on the surface.” 

He adds: “If you’re looking at getting an electric toothbrush, look for one with an oscillating head, a pressure sensor, and a two-minute timer.” 

No matter what kind of toothbrush you buy, it’s important to have a good cleaning routine too. We recently interviewed Dr Manrina Rhode, the 2022 Dentist of the Year, to get her teeth cleaning advice. Her tips included setting a daily routine, ensuring you don’t apply too much pressure when you brush and being aware of the effects hormonal changes may have on your teeth and gums. 

Dr Atkins echoes her advice. “Regardless of which type of toothbrush you’re using, sticking to a good oral health routine is essential if you want a healthy mouth. That means brushing for two minutes, twice a day, with fluoride toothpaste. Brushing should be done last thing at night and at least one other time during the day.” 

As Dr Atkins points out, your toothbrush can’t do everything – even if it’s a clever one. “You also need to clean between your teeth,” he says. “Around 40% of the tooth’s surface is hidden between teeth and so you need to be using interdental brushes or floss to get into those gaps that a toothbrush is too big to get into.” 

Electric and manual toothbrushes side by side with floss and a chargerCredit: Shutterstock / Nadiia Nasaduik

What now?

Time to decide

If you think an electric toothbrush is right for you, the next step is to choose one – and that’s not always easy, because there’s a huge range of models that includes cheap, cheerful and effective ones as well as all-singing, all-dancing models that seem to have more tech than an electric car.  

Do you really need to spend £220 on a toothbrush that connects to your phone and tells you how well you’ve been brushing? The answer for most of us is probably no, but there are some features we’d consider a must-have: a timer, so you don’t brush for too little or too long; a pressure sensor, so you’re not pressing too hard; and affordable replacement heads.  

We’d recommend checking out independent electric toothbrush reviews, which is why we publish lots of them.

Our toothbrush reviews include the simple and affordable Philips Sonicare 3100, the affordable Spotlight Oral Care, the odd-looking but efficient Foreo Issa 3, the state-of-the-art Oral-B iO 10 and the budget Ordo Sonic.  

It’s worth picking your time as well as your toothbrush. Electric toothbrushes are discounted during big sales events such as Amazon’s Prime Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and the savings can be significant. If you’re not in a rush for your brush, you can get even high-end models for a lot less cash by waiting for the sales. 

Carrie Marshall

Written by Carrie Marshall she/her

Updated:

Writer, broadcaster and musician Carrie Marshall has been a technology journalist for 24 years. Her CV is a who’s-who of magazines, websites and newspapers ranging from T3, Techradar and Woman & Home to the Sunday Post and People’s Friend, and she has been providing no-nonsense technology help and buying advice to BBC Radio Scotland listeners since the early 2000s.

Carrie has written and co-written nearly twenty books as well as a BBC radio documentary series, and her memoir Carrie Kills A Man is on sale now.

Carrie is particularly interested in how technology can make our lives easier, especially if that gives her an excuse to buy yet another kitchen gadget.

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