The Toothbrush Showdown: Manual versus Electric

It’s one of the oldest conflicts in human history: Are manual or electric toothbrushes the better option?

Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. The war between manual and electric is hardly the stuff of nighttime news. But it is a common refrain among dental patients.

While manual toothbrushes aren’t without their benefits, electric toothbrushes are generally the way to go when it comes to optimizing your oral hygiene. Here’s how manual options stack up—and why choosing an electric toothbrush may be the best decision for your oral health.

How Manual Toothbrushes Stack Up

The classic manual toothbrush with which we’re all familiar offers several benefits:

  • They’re low-cost. Manual toothbrushes can be purchased for as little as a few dollars.
  • They’re accessible. You can find manual toothbrushes in virtually any drug or grocery store, and they even make an appearance at many gas stations.
  • They’re portable. Because they’re lightweight and virtually unbreakable, manual toothbrushes are especially easy to travel with.
  • They’re customizable. You can choose from a wide array of colors, sizes, shapes, and levels of bristle firmness, among other options.
  • They’re low-upkeep. Manual brushes don’t require charging, batteries, or any other accoutrement.

While these benefits are laudable, the reality is they don’t necessarily relate to your oral health. When it comes to maintaining healthy teeth and gums, research suggests electric toothbrushes take the cake.

The Added Benefits of Electric Toothbrushes

As described above, manual toothbrushes do offer some benefits over electric toothbrushes, especially when it comes to cost, availability, and portability. And it’s certainly true that any toothbrush is better than none (so long as you actually use it!).

Even so, research consistently finds that electric toothbrushes offer several advantages over their manual counterparts when it comes to effectively cleaning one’s teeth. Here are just a few of the added benefits of going electric.

They’re more effective at removing plaque.

Thanks to their rotating action, electric toothbrushes are significantly more effective at removing plaque from the teeth than manual brushes. Multiple studies—including  of 29 studies—have found that rotating, oscillating electric toothbrushes are the toothbrush powerhouse when it comes to plaque removal. This matters because effectively removing plaque is critical for reducing the risk of cavities and gum disease.

They reduce the risk of harming your gums.

When it comes to proper tooth brushing technique, it’s important not to brush too hard, because doing so can contribute to a receding gum line. Because their pressure is automatically controlled, electric toothbrushes help ensure you aren’t brushing too vigorously. Some models even boast sensors that will flash red or turn off the brush if you start pressing too hard.

They may be better at reducing gingivitis risk.

The same meta-analysis mentioned above found that rotating, oscillating electric toothbrushes may reduce gingivitis at a rate that’s 17 percent higher than manual toothbrushes. Another study put that number at 6 percent after one month of use and 11 percent after three months of use. In both cases, the researchers concluded that electric toothbrushes are better than manual brushes at reducing gingivitis in both the short and long term.

They help ensure you brush long enough.

Nearly all electric toothbrushes on the market today feature a timer that helps ensure you’re brushing for the full two minutes recommended for effective tooth brushing. Some electric brushes even break up this time into 30-second increments to notify you when you should switch to a different quadrant of the mouth. This helps ensure you’re achieving full coverage and aren’t missing any areas each time you brush.

They’re especially helpful for populations with limited dexterity.

Children, seniors, and anyone with limited mobility in their hands, arms, and shoulders (such as those with arthritis) may benefit from using an electric toothbrush for two reasons. For starters, the larger handle size makes it easier to grip. And because the brush does most of the work for you, very little dexterity is required to ensure a proper clean. Children may also get a kick out of the vibrating action, which can make them more inclined to actually brush their teeth.

There are a few downsides to using electric toothbrushes, although none of them relate to the quality of the brushing. Instead, the cons of electric brushes are all about convenience: They are more expensive and less portable than manual toothbrushes, they require access to an electrical outlet in order to be charged, and they break easily if dropped. While these concerns shouldn’t turn you off of electric toothbrushes completely, it is helpful to be aware of them prior to investing in an electric brush.

Bottom line? Electric toothbrushes have the edge over manual ones when it comes to keeping your teeth and gums healthy. That being said, the most effective toothbrush is the one you actually use every day.