Toothbrushes Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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Two toothbrushes in a glass.

The modern toothbrush plays an important role in oral hygiene. It is primarily used to remove debris (usually food) from the surface of an individual's teeth, though it is also the instrument of choice for applying modern toothpaste and all of the additional benefits that implies.


The largest part of a toothbrush is the handle. The handle is commonly around 10cm long and 1cm thick (1 inch equals 2.5cm). Most toothbrush handles are formed of plastic, and many are inlaid with rubbery material for additional grip. The purpose of the handle is to allow the toothbrush to be easily and intuitively manipulated by the operator's hand.

Extending from the handle, with a common length of 3 - 5cm, is the stem. It is similar in construction to the handle, except that it is usually thinner and is not designed to be gripped. The stem serves to ensure that the handle does not need to enter the user's mouth, thereby keeping the handle and the user's hand clean and dry, and preventing the user from having to taste hand or handle.

On top of the stem sits the head. Most toothbrush heads are about 2.5cm long, 1cm wide, and less than 0.5 cm deep. A large number of bristles (usually white) extend away from the head, parallel with each other. In most designs these are about 1 - 1.5cm in length. They are made of pliable nylon filaments, and are usually categorized as 'soft', 'medium', or 'hard'. It may seem to be more macho to pick 'hard' bristles, but most dentists recommend the 'soft' variety, because the tips of the bristles should actually penetrate the gums slightly during brushing.


Toothpaste is applied to the bristles and the toothbrush's head is inserted, more or less horizontally, into the mouth. One (or several) of the following brushing actions are performed:

  • Horizontal Brush - This is the easiest technique, and the one most people resort to by default. The bristles are moved across the teeth repeatedly, in a lateral fashion. This approach has been frowned upon by some dentists, who claim that it has the potential to inflict damage upon the teeth.

  • Vertical Brush - The vertical brush is similar to the horizontal brush, with the obvious exception that the brush is moved up and down, rather than from side to side. This approach does not seem to carry the same risks to the teeth as the horizontal method.

  • Rotary Brush - This method is a hybrid of the previous two. Essentially, the head is moved in a circle, while still remaining the same way up. It is more intuitive than the vertical method, but as a hybrid it may still carry the risks associated with the horizontal brush stroke.

  • Angular Brush - The angular brush is a much more aggressive method of brushing, as it also involves rotating the toothbrush. The brush is pushed into the upper and lower gums at different angles, while still maintaining contact with the tooth surfaces.

  • Unorthodox Brush - Many people have devised their own brushing methods. Obviously, some are more effective than others. Ask someone with a nice smile about their technique1.

The brushing process may be repeated as many times as the user wishes, with or without extra toothpaste. The toothbrush should be cleaned and put away after use. Many dentists recommend the use of mouthwash and dental floss.

Special Features

Due to market competition and advancing dental technology, many of today's toothbrushes offer unusual special features, such as:

  • Indicator Bristles - Some of the toothbrush's bristles are coated in a coloured substance. For reasons known only to marketing specialists, indicator bristles are usually blue. As the toothbrush is used, more of the substance wears away. When it is no longer visible, this signifies that a new toothbrush is needed.

  • Removable Heads - In another effort to prompt users to change toothbrushes more often, a method has been devised that no longer requires an entirely new unit to be purchased when the old one wears out. Instead, the head simply slides off, and a replacement is slid into place. Not as many of these have been swallowed as may be imagined.

  • Electric Toothbrushes - There are a number of electric toothbrushes available. They all use a small electric motor, either to produce vibrations or to rotate the bristles in some manner. These are popular because they require much less arm and wrist movement than ordinary toothbrushes to produce the same results. Dentists often recommend electric toothbrushes, because experience has taught them that most tooth owners do not invest anywhere near enough time and energy to properly clean their teeth without some sort of mechanical aid.

Many toothbrush manufacturers now offer a subscription service via the Internet which automatically delivers new brushes or brush heads at regular intervals, thereby relieving the subscriber of the burden of having to remember when it is time to buy a new one.

1The American Dental Hygienists Association offer their own recommendation for proper brushing technique.

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