An electric toothbrush manufactured by a subsidiary of Royal Philips Electronics.

This is not your father's toothbrush![1]

When I was growing up in the 1960s, an electric toothbrush was a device that rotated a toothbrush (often your own regular toothbrush inserted into it) so that you didn't have to, causing the bristles to brush the teeth in an up-and-down manner[2]. Off the top of my head, I would guess that the speed was approximately five to ten strokes per second. But that has all changed now.

The Sonicare toothbrush strokes thirty-one thousand times per minute (that's over five hundred per second), so fast that you can't even see the brush moving; anecdotal evidence that it is comes from the constant humming sound that the mechanism emits. While that sounds pretty violent, the bristles are so soft (only Sonicare brush heads can be used) that you really don't feel the brushing at all. UNTIL you accidentally start brushing the roof of your mouth instead of your teeth. That tickles! You'll also get a sense of the forces involved inside the machine if you happen to touch the arm of the unit to your teeth or jaw -- the phrase bone chilling will probably come to mind, but there's no harm done.

This very high speed operation causes what the company calls dynamic fluid action, which causes the cleaning effectiveness to extend between the teeth where the bristles do not actually reach. According to their clinical studies, this is so good at removing plaque that gingivitis is reversed. In fact, they guarantee that a dental checkup after three months of use will show noticeably healthier teeth and gums than before.

Of course, these days, no self-respecting appliance would be caught dead without an embedded microprocessor. The busy little brain in the Sonicare turns the brush off after two minutes of operation (during which time some models alert you every thirty seconds to move to the next quadrant of your mouth), and even increases the brushing action over the first twelve uses, starting (relatively) slowly and working up to its full operating strength. The two minute duration is a dentist-recommended practice; according to a survey mentioned on the company's website (http://sonicare.com), most people brush for less than this time. (If asked, I would not have been able to say how long I brush my teeth, but thanks to the two-minute timer, I now know that I go for longer than that using my previous electric (an Oral-B), though much less if using a manual toothbrush.)

Interestingly, another part of that survey indicates that proportionally four times more dentists use an electric toothbrush (not necessarily a Sonicare) than the general populace.

Development on the idea started in 1987 in a partnership between an electrical engineer and two dentists. After several false starts, they came up with the working design and introduced the Sonicare toothbrush at a dental tradeshow in 1992, and began selling it through dental professionals. In 1995, the device had earned a sterling reputation and was widely recommended by dentists to their patients. The company, known as GEMTech until then, changed its name to Optiva Corporation, and in 2000 was acquired by Philips Domestic Appliances and Personal Care.


[1] "This is not your father's X" is a saying patterned after an Oldsmobile commercial in the 1990s, and indicates that X has been considerably improved or totally re-invented, and should not be judged on experiences with the previous generation.

[2] Part of the appeal may have been the myth that brushing teeth up and down is far superior to other motions. In fact, the Sonicare brushes side-to-side.

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