Bristles come in different stiffnesses. A soft bristle toothbrush will have extremely flexible and narrow bristles (perhaps 0.15mm), while a hard bristle toothbrush will have thicker, and therefore less flexible, bristles (perhaps as thick as 0.23mm). It can be hard to tell the difference by sight, but you can test them by feeling how much resistance there is in the brush when you run your finger across the bristles.
Most toothbrushes are made using nylon for brush bristles (nylon-6 if you like to get technical about these things), although there are eco bamboo toothbrushes that use other forms of nylon (nylon-4) or nylon which has been combined with castor bean oil or bamboo to reduce the percentage of plastic in the brush. It is even possible to buy brushes that utilise traditional hog or badger bristles to give your teeth a really biodegradable treat.
Why should you opt for a soft toothbrush?
If you have weakened enamel then excessively brushing with a stiff toothbrush can further erode the surface. However, the main reason that a soft toothbrush is preferred is because of the damage a hard brush can do to your gums.
If you are brushing your teeth correctly, you should be brushing from the gum line to the end of the tooth. This avoids pushing bacteria and plaque down into the soft gum tissues where it can damage the roots of the teeth and cause gum problems. This means that every stroke your brush is brushing your gum as well as your tooth.
Think about sweeping a polished floor. If you were to take your yard broom, designed to sweep up grit, gravel, mud and leaves and fitted with very stiff bristles, you would soon scratch the surface and damage the floor. Instead, you use a softer, indoor broom which effectively removes dust and debris without affecting the finish of the flooring.
Your teeth, and especially your gums, are very similar. A hard brush has the potential to scratch and damage whereas a soft brush will simply remove the bacteria it is supposed to without removing anything it shouldn’t!
Technique matters too!
One reason many people prefer harder bristles is because their soft toothbrush quickly becomes flattened and splayed. At this point, the brush is not effective and needs to be replaced. However, the usual cause of splaying is not that the brush is too soft – rather it is being used ineffectively.
Brushing your teeth is like sweeping – a gentle rhythmical motion is sufficient, and its amount of strokes, not firmness that matters (this is one reason that electric toothbrushes can be better – you can read more in our guide). Although you can’t see the bacteria you are brushing away lots of damaging bacteria with every stroke, Harder brushing simply damages the bristles without improving the quality of clean that your teeth receive.
Can a brush be too soft?
Brushes are available in extra-soft, soft, medium, medium-hard and hard varieties. For most people, a soft toothbrush is the ideal choice as it balances resistance to wear against protecting that important gum line.
If you already have evidence that your teeth or gums are damaged, you should consider swapping to an extra-soft brush, such as the Oral-B SensiClean Pro Gum Care brush. The superthin 0.01mm bristles are gentle on your teeth and gums, while still cleaning your teeth thoroughly.
Babies and toddlers should also use a brush with extra soft bristles, again to protect their gums, which may already be tender due to emerging teeth. Older children who have begun to lose their deciduous teeth (milk teeth) may prefer a gentler brush where their gums are newly exposed, and the gum is raw from the lost tooth.
Soft vs Hard bristles
Below, we’ve drawn up a quick table to help you compare soft toothbrushes against hard toothbrushes. Hopefully you should be able to see the differences between the two types and make a decision about which is the right toothbrush for you (remember however that most dentists would recommend a soft brush).
|Can be used right down to the gum line to remove plaque and plaque forming bacteria||Users often avoid the gum line which can become too sensitive with hard bristles|
|May splay faster indicating a rough brushing technique||Resistant to splaying, but can be used too roughl|
|Ideal for babies as the soft bristles won’t damage gums||Avoid to protect delicate gums. Babies that chew the brush can use a silicone bristle brush instead.|
|Perfect for those with sensitive or damaged gums to aid in the healing process by keeping the area clean||Too painful for users with gum inflammation (gingivitis) or receding gums|
|May include polishing cups to whiten teeth||May offer a better polishing effect. Some are impregnated with polishing compounds.|
|Maximum diameter around 0.15mm||Maximum diameter around 0.23mm|
Other features to look for
Soft toothbrushes are available with the full range of different toothbrush features. For an in-depth discussion of manual toothbrush options, have a look at our guides to manual toothbrushes and toothbrush types.
Angled necks/shafts can make the brush easier to move around the mouth and easier to reach the rear teeth. Better brush control can help with gentle cleaning of sensitive areas. A flexible handle, either with a joint between the handle and shaft or shaft and head, prevents you pushing too hard on the tooth and gum while still keeping the brush in contact with the area being brushed.
Rubber or silicone polishing cups help wipe away staining from coffee, tea, nicotine etc. without the need to use a stiffer bristle. Gentle toothbrushes often have soft edges to the head to help avoid bumping other parts of your mouth while cleaning.
Where to buy
A wide selection of soft bristle toothbrushes can be found anywhere that sells toothbrushes. You are better off going to a pharmacists / healthcare shop for extremely soft toothbrushes such as Boots or Superdrug to source. Amazon also carries a good range of standard soft bristle toothbrushes.