Toothbrush Nation

Feb. 4, 2003
From Basic Necessity to Trendy Accessory, the Lowly Toothbrush Comes of Age.

Over the past two decades, toothbrush manufacturers have poured millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours into building a better toothbrush. Along the way, they have built the U.S. oral care market into a $3.4 billion industry, changed the brushing habits of millions and turned the lowly toothbrush into a trendy lifestyle accessory, according to an article in the February issue of AGD Impact, the newsmagazine of the Academy of General Dentistry.

Leading the charge are children's brushes that target specific age groups and encourage proper technique for parents and tots; and adult brushes that cater to specific brushing styles and esthetic sense. And thanks to the launch of inexpensive battery operated toothbrushes, the power market has soared, gaining impressive ground in an arena once dominated by manual brushes. While esthetic changes have played a large role in toothbrush redesign, manufacturers say the focus has been on helping people brush better.

"The best brush is the one someone uses," said Bob Roesch, DDS, MAGD, spokesperson for the Academy. "A lot of people might say that a lot of toothbrush advances are gimmicks, but if they get people to brush longer that's fantastic."

In the past 20 years, most toothbrush companies have made numerous functional and aesthetic changes to the heads and bodies of their products. Handles were thickened for a more comfortable grip and extended to increase the reach of the bristles. Shaft materials changed, incorporating translucent and more flexible plastics in the handle and rubber components fashioned into thumb ridges to help prevent slippage. In every case, the goal was ensure consumers used it-and used it properly.

While manual brushes control 90 percent of the market, their electric and battery operated counterparts are one of the driving forces of the industry. Power brushes used to run up to $130 a unit. Today, they can be had for less than $10. Much of this price drop is the result of the creation of battery-powered brushes in late 2000 and early 2001.

Childrens' toothbrushes have probably changed more than any other toothbrush on the market. What used to be a neglected market is now flourishing as more designers-and parents-are recognizing that children's mouths are not simply smaller versions of adult mouths, but unique oral topographies that are constantly changing and thus have unique needs. Many companies have designed lines of manual and power toothbrushes specifically for children ranging in ages from 4 months to 8 years and older.

Like cars, telephones and other essentials of our society, the toothbrush has changed to fit the times. Today, consumers are better educated about oral health care needs, and the market is full of dental products to ensure optimal dental health. More than just a utilitarian necessity, toothbrushes, like clothes or perfume, say something about who we are. For more information, visit the Academy's Web site at, and find out what role dentists play in toothbrush development.