Should You Switch to an Electric Toothbrush? Here’s All You Need to Know

A man puts tootpaste on an electric toothbrush.
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Dental professionals have a certain way of making you feel like a child, even after your last baby tooth has long vanished into the Tooth Fairy’s stash.

“There’s almost no plaque on these teeth,” your hygienist might remark. “Great job!”

Or maybe you’re gently scolded for an apparent coffee habit, unable to defend yourself in the open wide position.

Either way, when we’re in that well-feared chair, we know we’re being evaluated, that our dentist can tell a lot about how well we’ve been abiding by the rules of oral hygiene. And despite the recent controversy around the ostensible claim that you don’t actually need to floss, those rules haven’t changed too much in decades.

Most of us have a handle on the basics of dental care — as in, a literal toothbrush handle. Which we know we’re supposed to operate at least twice daily. (And by the way, you should probably keep flossing.)

And some of those handles are part of electric toothbrushes. Which begs the question: Do you really need to spend upwards of $50 on one?

Why Are Electric Toothbrushes So Darn Expensive?

You can find rechargeable, brand-name electric toothbrushes starting at about $30 at Walmart—- and sometimes they’ll go on sale for as little as $20.

But you can just as easily spend more than $250 on a top-of-the-line, fancy-pants setup that includes a traveling case and five different “modes,” whatever that means.

Even with an entry-level brush, the expense continues. Along with your one-time handle purchase, you’ll also need a regular supply of replacement brush heads.

Brand-name brush heads tend to cost $6 to $8 a piece, and that’s if you buy the bulk package. If you opt for upgraded versions with extras like “plaque control,” you might spend more than $10 on each.

There are cheap generics, of course, though you run the risk that they won’t fit your base toothbrush.

And considering you can get a manual brush for less than a buck, even the cheapest electric option is a serious upcharge.

So is it worth it?

According to dental professionals, the answer is: Kind of. It all comes down to your behavior.

Published studies suggest that “powered” toothbrushes have an edge on their manual counterparts. But those results may have less to do with the brush itself than how you use it.

Even armed with only a plain-Jane manual brush, it’s totally possible to keep your teeth healthy. “Proper brushing technique achieves everything that even the most expensive electric toothbrush would,” notes Dr. Ron Blaise of 92 Dental. (His prescription for “proper”: soft, circular rotations across every tooth surface up to the gum line for a total of three minutes.)

That said, the built-in features of electric toothbrushes can help develop and reinforce good oral care habits.

For instance, many electric toothbrushes come with automatic timers, which can keep you honest about how long you really spend on dental hygiene.

And according to Dr. Oksana Boyechko of Shingle Springs Dental, those fancy “modes” and programs translate to a simple benefit: extending the total amount of time you brush.

I Tried the Quip Electric Toothbrush. Here’s What Happened

I’ve been an electric toothbrush user for years, having switched to a mid-range Sonicare at my dentist’s suggestion. (What can I say? I’m especially responsive to parental-brand authority.)

Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

Jamie Cattanach for The Penny Hoarder

And although I now know I could get all the same benefits with a cheapo manual brush and a side dish of self-discipline, I’ve grown attached to the feeling. Something about those vibrations leaves my teeth feeling fresher, slick and smooth like I’ve just had a professional cleaning.

But I do get annoyed at buying the replacement brush heads. To get the best per-unit price, I’m forced to plonk down $30 or so on the big package, an extra expense I often put off as long as possible.

I already automate some of my personal care purchases by subscribing to Dollar Shave Club, so when a Quip ad interrupted my latest podcast binge, I was intrigued. The company offers slim, streamlined, travel-ready electric toothbrush handles starting at a competitive $25, with refill heads delivered to your door on a three-month schedule — just like the dentist ordered. 

Each refill costs just $5 including shipping, which is less than I was paying in the store. Plus, I wouldn’t find myself scrubbing my teeth with bent, burned-out bristles in an effort to stretch my budget — which is important. Every dentist I talked to said using a soft brush and replacing it regularly far outweighs whether or not it’s electric.

When my Quip arrived, I was duly charmed. It has all the cute packaging and aggressively conversational marketing copy we’ve come to expect from these kinds of direct-to-door services. The helpful welcome guide even taught me a few things about proper tooth brushing. (Did you know you’re not supposed to rinse your mouth?!)

The handle is waterproof and comes with a convenient caddy that sticks to your mirror. And it is, indeed, less bulky than my electrically charged Sonicare. Quip keeps the timer feature but ditches all the extra modes that can push up the price on those astronomically expensive, brand-name versions. And the brush is covered for life as long as you stay on Quip’s refill plan.

You can even add your dentist to your online Quip profile to help them automate your six-month reminders. Which is cool in theory, but also, like, do we really want our toothbrushes to be part of the Internet of Things?

In the end, I found myself reaching for my Sonicare, bulky or no. Quip’s vibrations weren’t quite as vigorous, and I actually kind of like the bigger brush handle.

But if you’re looking for an affordable, high-quality electric toothbrush and regular, no-planning-necessary brush head replacements, Quip is a great option.

And, hey — if having an online portal for your oral-hygiene reminders gets you excited about brushing, all the more power to you.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a writer whose work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, Ms. Magazine, the Establishment, Roads & Kingdoms and other outlets.