The Toothbrush: From Horsehair to Heroes

Even our ancient ancestors – primitive though they were – recognized the need for good dental hygiene. At least that’s what archeologists believe the chewed frayed ends of aromatic twigs from early times indicate.1

The first bristled toothbrushes didn’t appear until around the year 1,000 in China, when people fashioned together a crude tool using an ivory handle with tufts of horsehair. Five hundred years later, the Chinese introduced a bone or bamboo-handle with bristles from the back of a boar’s neck. 2 The “modern” toothbrush debuted in 1938, when a Frenchman named Dupont de Nemours introduced a nylon bristle called Doctor West’s Miracle Toothbrush. 2 The National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore has amassed quite a collection of such old-school devices and other dental memorabilia.

Of course, dental hygiene’s main tool has come a long way since the Ming Dynasty. These days, toothbrushes have smooth, polished, soft-ended and flexible nylon bristles in various configurations designed to get under the gums and between the teeth. Some offer streamlined plastic handles with rubberized gripping surfaces, action character handles for kids, timers to help you brush an appropriate length of time, LCD screens with smiley faces to encourage optimal brushing, and even tiny speakers to play music. Battery-powered toothbrushes have also evolved and may offer ultrasonic and ionic abilities, as well as oscillating and rotating brushes to mimic the best brushing technique.

Replace your toothbrush every three to six months or even earlier if the bristles start to look bent and splayed apart. Children or adults who scrub too aggressively or chew on the bristles will need to replace their brush more often. The more expensive powered models usually have replacement heads for purchase whereas the cheaper models may not.  Clean your toothbrush thoroughly under running tap water after each use, and store upright and away from other brushes so it dries out between uses.

Golfers often say “it is more the golfer than the club” that determines how good the score is. It’s the same in toothbrushing – it’s more the brusher than the brush itself that determines how well the job is done and if disease is prevented. Even the most basic manual toothbrush will work well if it is picked up and used properly.

Whether you are using a manual or battery-powered toothbrush, the most important thing is that people brush their teeth twice daily (morning and night), taking proper time (about two minutes) to cover the entire surface of every tooth. Brush gently but thoroughly and make sure to reach below the gumline and between the teeth. Take your time. Brushing harder or more aggressively for a shorter period of time doesn’t help and may actually damage the gums or tooth surface.1  Finally, always remember that for most people brushing alone isn’t adequate to prevent tooth decay caused by the sticky, bacteria-laden, acid-producing plaque that is constantly forming on the teeth. Fluoride is currently our best tool for preventing tooth decay, so always use a fluoride containing toothpaste.

Whether manual or battery-powered, the toothbrush is the best vehicle to both remove plaque and deliver fluoride to the teeth at least twice a day. So pick up that toothbrush! One of the keys to good oral health is in your hands.

1 Dental Health for Adults: A Guide to Protecting Your Teeth and Gums. Copyright © by Harvard University. All rights reserved.

2 Mandel ID The Plaque Fighters: Choosing a Weapon. Journal of the American Dental Association 1993; April 124(4); pages 71-74

3 Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/tooth.html. Accessed Feb. 2012.

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