In a few decades, two warring toothbrush giants have carved out a market worth billions, with the help of a little science and some clever marketing. But where does it go next?
Not so long ago a toothbrush was a humble thing. A stick, in essence, with some bristles on the end. But with the rise of the electric toothbrush, they’ve become high-tech accessories. You can buy toothbrushes with associated apps, toothbrushes that automatically access the internet and order you new accessories when they divine that you need them and, for some reason, toothbrushes that are artificially intelligent. They can cost as much as a flatscreen TV or an engagement ring.
An estimated 23 million people in Britain now use electric toothbrushes. Their rise is partly driven by our – somewhat belated – national realisation that oral health is important, and by the fact that we have more disposable income than we did a generation ago.
But it is also a story about the rise of an industry; about a struggle between market pressures and medical requirements; about the blurry line between research and public relations. And, in the end, about whether spending the cost of a weekend away on an ergonomically designed, ultrasonic, matte-black thing which looks like a defunct lightsaber will actually do more good than a £1.50 manual toothbrush from the supermarket. Is the electric toothbrush just a marvel of modern marketing or does it deserve plaudits for achieving what frustrated dentists (and parents) have struggled to do: getting us to spend a little more time brushing our teeth?
he early ones looked like a toilet brush,” says Rachel Bairsto, laughing. She’s the head of the British Dental Association’s in-house museum. Like so many things, electric toothbrushes are probably older than you think. Fridus van der Weijden, a professor of periodontology at the University of Amsterdam, says that early ones existed in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that affordable versions were readily available. One of the early British ones, the Halex Dental, does indeed look like a toilet brush. Its bristles moved in a strange spiral motion. “I don’t think it was very effective,” Bairsto says, laughing again.
Toothbrushes are centuries old – bone-handled, badger- or pig-bristled things were first made in 1780. “They were beautiful things, a fashion accessory,” says Bairsto. The manufacturer, Addis, still exists today. But it wasn’t until the start of the 20th century that they started to become more mainstream. The thing that really kicked them off was war.
In 1899, the British Army was recruiting troops to fight in the Boer War and recruiters were appalled at the health of the men who were turning up. They were stunted, malnourished and had appalling teeth. “It became a national scandal,” Bairsto says. “No one was cleaning their teeth. Many couldn’t chew their food.” The shocking dental health of the nation’s fighting men catalysed a national campaign: dentists were sent to schools to teach brushing technique, setting up “toothbrush clubs” so poorer children could buy brushes. Then came the First World War; returning soldiers, with a toothbrush in their knapsack, spread the habit. The arrival of plastics – the first celluloid-handled brushes were in Woolworth’s in 1908 while nylon bristles replaced animal-derived ones during the Second World War – made them cheaper too.
Then, in 1954, a Swiss inventor, Dr Philippe-Guy Woog, patented the first practical electric toothbrush, the Broxodent. The American Dental Association rapidly endorsed its use and electric toothbrushes quickly took off in the States. (A rival had one of the most well-known slogans of early TV advertising: “You brush with an ordinary toothbrush; but you BRRRRRRUSHHH with a Brossette.”) The British were slower off the mark, but, by the end of the 1960s, there were several on the market. A 1969 copy of Which? Magazine compared various versions of the early electric toothbrushes available to Britons, and found a total of 15, from eight different companies.
The first electric toothbrushes left a lot of room for improvement. They were large and clunky; battery-powered, only two of them rechargeable; and they were expensive. A standard manual toothbrush at the time cost about two shillings and sixpence, or about £2 in today’s money; the electrics went from a bit shy of £2 (about £30 today) to £12 (about £180). But, slowly, they improved. The ropey batteries were replaced by lithium-ion rechargeable ones which lasted for days; the clunky bakelite grips became moulded and stylish. Although there was still no evidence that these things were actually any better for your teeth than a bog-standard toothbrush, an ever more oral-health-conscious population was increasingly willing to pay for them.
One key turning point came in 1987, when David Giuliani, an American electrical engineer, met two professors of dentistry at the University of Washington. Five years of experiments later they released the Sonicare toothbrush; it had a piezoelectric motor which allowed its head to vibrate far faster than older models and used a contactless inductive-coil charging system.
That triggered the start of the Toothbrush Wars. Sonicare was bought up by the Dutch multinational Phillips in 2000; by 2001 it was the top-selling electric toothbrush in the US. In 2005, the pharmaceutical giant Procter & Gamble bought Gillette, which included Oral-B, Sonicare’s main rival. Those two behemoths poured millions into research and development for their products. Suddenly, a toothbrush was no longer simply a means of cleaning your teeth, but a high-tech, precision-engineered accessory. Like the Gillette razors with six blades, ergonomically designed handle and soothing balm strip, each model brought with it new innovations – raising the high water mark for oral hygiene each time.