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Toothbrush Technology

The fast rate at which technology changes the world around us can be astonishing. New inventions and improvements to products we already use occur constantly. Even simple objects like the humble toothbrush are affected by these rapid changes. In fact, there were almost 140 patents with the word “toothbrush” in the title issued in 2012, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website.

Seem completely crazy? After all, a toothbrush is a fairly simple device, right?

Well…yes and no. The device may tend towards simplicity at its core, but the device’s intended targets are extremely complex. In other words, teeth are far from simple, and their care is of the utmost importance. And technology has dramatically changed the face of brushing (no pun intended).

NPR spoke with several toothbrush patent holders to find out why they invented their brushes, and the answer was generally the same: each felt something was missing in the world of toothbrushes.

“Cleaning the teeth is actually a pretty complex problem, and I think that’s probably why there’s been so much invention around it,” says Tom Mintel, vice president of research and development in Colgate’s global toothbrush division.

In other words, there are multiple issues to consider when it comes to brushing. For instance, in relation to one another, teeth are hard, and gums are soft. Mouths all have different shapes, angles and characteristics. No two are the same. You have to design a very personal product for use by millions, if not billions, of people.

Michael Davidson, a suburban Houston hygienist, says most new toothbrushes focus more on form over function, with fancy handles or different-colored bristles being highlighted, rather than a marked improvement in usability or efficacy.

“I haven’t really seen one that addresses how the user is using a brush in regards to the more effective brushing techniques,” he says. “So I just kind of sat down one day and said, ‘If I were going to design a really, really good toothbrush, how would I do it?’ ”

The result was his first patent which he received in 2012, titled “Toothbrush And Method Of Using The Same.” The design requires the user to hold the toothbrush at the optimum brushing angle of 45 degrees in order to use it.

Joshua Atkin, a dentist in Dayton, Ohio, was a jazz saxophone player before starting his career in dental health. Atkin traveled a lot, and found that he often forgot his toothbrush. So he invented a disposable all-in-one brush for road warriors like himself. It has a hollow handle that dispenses dried toothpaste pellets. “You put them on the brush head, run them underwater, and then you have a flavored toothpaste.”

Who knew the simple toothbrush could be so very complex?

–Dr. Shannon Norman-Kotre, Ann Arbor Dentist


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