You can’t really beat the simplicity of a manual toothbrush. You don’t need power, just a bit of toothpaste and some drinking water, meaning you can brush your teeth pretty much anywhere.
Buying a manual toothbrush is much harder than using one. There are so many different types to choose from the choice is bewildering! To help you navigate the shelves, we have guides for specific toothbrushes, and we’ll give you an overview of the features you should be looking for below.
Anatomy of a toothbrush
All manual toothbrushes consist of the same main parts:
- handle or grip
The head of the toothbrush is the part that you place in your mouth and is where the bristles are mounted. They are usually formed in one piece with the shaft and handle, however there are models which allow the head to be replaced on its own to reduce waste.
Toothbrush heads come in a variety of sizes to suit different mouths. Baby toothbrushes may be barely any larger than the teeth they are designed to clean, while adult toothbrushes may be as big as 25 – 29mm.
Adults that prefer a smaller head may wish to choose a head labelled “compact”. Children with smaller mouths may prefer a brush that is intended for younger children. Women and smaller men logically have smaller mouths than their larger counterparts, so it’s common sense that for smaller mouths you should choose a compact toothbrush head.
Additionally, heads come in a variety of shapes. Traditional cheap toothbrushes come with a rectangular end, but more common is the diamond or rounded end head which is designed to make it easier to brush the inside of the tooth and to reach to the back teeth.
Sometimes toothbrush heads are fitted with soft gum protection bumpers and ridged tooth cleaners.
All-round heads are preferred by some, especially those with coordination issues. Three small heads are mounted in a cluster, so all sides of the tooth are cleaned at once.
The bristles are the part of the toothbrush that you use to clean your teeth. They are usually made from nylon, although bamboo fibres and animal hair can also be used. Some brushes also include silicone or rubber fins, bristles or cups to aid in polishing the tooth enamel.
Cheap toothbrushes have a simple block pattern for the bristles. All the bristles are the same length and are uniformly placed across the head.
A wave, v-shape or multi-level bristle pattern is intended to allow better interdental cleaning and to aid in keeping the brush in contact with uneven tooth surfaces. The bristles are cut so that some are slightly higher than the neighbouring tufts.
Angled and criss-cross bristles are seen on toothbrushes where the bristles are set at an angle to the head. On some toothbrushes, neighbouring tufts are angled in the opposite direction (giving the criss-cross pattern). They are often used only on the external bristles with the middle consisting of straight bristles or polishing bristles.
Silicone cups, fins or bristles are sometimes included to assist in polishing the tooth surface.
Bristles may be categorised from “very soft” to “very hard” depending on the bristle thickness, with soft being around 0.15mm and hard measuring around 0.23mm. To avoid tooth and gum damage, dentists recommend that a brush be no harder than “medium”, although “hard” brushes are available for extremely stained teeth or denture cleaning. For more information take a look at our guides to soft and hard bristled brushes.
The handle, or grip, is the part you hold. It is sometimes ergonomically shaped and may be ridged or covered in rubber to aid grip. Some toothbrush models include a sucker on the end of the handle to allow the brush to stand upright to dry more effectively after use. If you have difficulty gripping a toothbrush, a handle adapter can be fitted to enlarge the diameter of the grip.
The shaft is the part of the toothbrush between the head and the handle. It is usually narrower to aid positioning the toothbrush in the mouth. In many designs, especially cheap toothbrushes, it is simply a slimming down of the handle, but some toothbrushes have joints or specially designed hinges to protect against brushing too firmly.
Angled shafts are claimed to make it easier to reach your back teeth and to clean the inside surfaces, but it may be a matter of preference which you prefer.
Flexible shafts have a joint, between either the head and shaft, or the handle and shaft – occasionally both. This allows the brush to flex, allowing the bristles to keep contact with less force applied and therefore less chance of damage.
Folding travel toothbrushes have different sections normally which means the handle and the shaft either separate or hinge / articulate.
The first mass-produced toothbrush is considered to have been introduced in 1780 and was based on a bone and bristle prototype. By 1840 pig bristles were used for cheap toothbrushes and badger bristles for more expensive models. As plastics were invented and became more affordable, they were gradually used for toothbrushes. Today the vast majority of toothbrushes are made with fibre bristles made from nylon and a plastic handle.
With increasing concern about the use of plastic, especially in items such as toothbrushes which are designed to be discarded, there are toothbrushes that use other materials. Our guide to eco toothbrushes covers this in more detail. Bamboo is the most common alternative material, with bamboo fibres making it totally biodegradable.
Is a manual toothbrush as good as an electric one?
An electric toothbrush moves much faster than a manual toothbrush and thus take less time to remove the same amount of plaque. Additionally, features such as built-in timers and Smart technology can ensure that you spend the correct amount of time brushing and that no parts of your mouth are missed. See our guides to electric toothbrushes and Smart toothbrushes.
A manual toothbrush, especially if backed up with flossing, can clean your teeth effectively. However, care needs to be taken that no tooth surface is missed, and that the brushing session takes a minimum of two minutes.
Ultimately, the best toothbrush is the one you are going to use for the recommended two minutes twice a day, so our other guides may help you find which toothbrush is right for you.