What the best electric toothbrush has

  • Simple operation. Electric toothbrushes should be comfortable to hold and easy to use, with simple controls that don't require an engineering degree to decipher. The brush heads' movement and size should make it easy to manipulate in the mouth.
  • Helpful features. A two-minute timer with 30-second intervals is almost a must-have in electric toothbrushes, since prompting you to brush for two minutes is their main purpose. Other features like travel cases and charging stands may not be necessary, but might be handy depending upon your available space and your lifestyle.
  • Good performance. An electric toothbrush should run smoothly and consistently, without any hitches or surges when warning you to change quadrants. A water flosser should not leak or spray from the nozzle, handle or connector.
  • Long-term durability. Durability is extremely important when it comes to electric toothbrushes and flossers, which already have ongoing costs for replacement brush heads and jet picks. For best performance, brush heads should be replaced every three months; jet picks for water flossers should be replaced every six months.

Know before you go

What kind of power source do you want? Electric toothbrushes are usually rechargeable, but some operate on standard AA batteries. Battery-operated models are usually less expensive and more portable, but rechargeable models are typically better reviewed. Among rechargeable models, some just use a cord to plug the toothbrush directly into the wall; others have a charging stand. Flossers can also run from the AC current or be battery operated. The former are bulkier but more powerful, while the latter are gentler for sensitive teeth and gums, and can be taken with you while traveling.

How often do you travel? If you travel a lot, a travel case may be necessary. Uncovered toothbrushes can be a target for germs and may be inadvertently turned on in transit. Battery longevity and the portability of a brush's chargers are also important considerations for jet-setters. Some smaller electric toothbrushes and water flossers may be easier to transport overall.

Do you need a compact electric toothbrush? Children, in particular, require small brush heads, but some adults also have trouble maneuvering large brushes inside their mouths. If this is the case, look for an electric toothbrush that has an option for a more compact brush. Some have "massage" brushes, which are smaller than traditional daily clean brushes.

Which brush settings are a must-have? Many electric toothbrushes have several brushing modes. While experts say you only need one mode -- general cleaning -- plenty of people love their massage modes, sensitive modes or a setting that allows them a quick brushing when they're short on time. Some upgraded brushes also add additional brushing modes that offer whitening and/or specialized gum care settings.

Does design matter? If your toothbrush's charging stand will be sitting out on your bathroom counter, looks might be important to you. As we noted above, charging modes vary; and charging stands can be very plain or quite fancy.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

The least expensive electric toothbrushes (up-front, at least) are battery-operated brushes. However, these can have hidden costs, including replacement batteries. Most run for about two weeks with normal brushing.

Another issue is brush heads. As with a manual toothbrush, experts say you should replace your brush head every three months, sooner if it shows noticeable signs of wear. Some battery-powered brushes have replaceable heads, others do not. For brushes that don't, you need to replace the entire brush every three months, which can add up -- both in your wallet (though see below about the cost of brush heads alone for some models) and in the landfill.

When you upgrade to a rechargeable brush, you still have to replace the brush heads every three months and replacement brush heads can be expensive -- $10 or more for some models, which can be more than the cost of some battery-operated electric toothbrushes. In some cases there are generic brush heads compatible with brand name brushes, but not always -- and we found they get poorer reviews than the originals. However, with a rechargeable electric toothbrush, you typically get added quality and durability in addition to eliminating battery replacement costs, making them the best value for many.

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