Deep, active penetration

How researchers at one toothbrush maker figure out ways to make dental hygiene a pleasurable experience.


Deep, active penetration

You’re probably not getting deep, active penetration. Seventy percent of American adults aren’t. But I am. I’m getting deep, active penetration because I spent an afternoon at Oral-B Laboratories, where deep, active between-teeth penetration is a multimillion-dollar pursuit and where they hand out samples of their new deeply, actively penetrating $5 CrossAction toothbrush.

Apparently the CrossAction isn’t just any toothbrush. It isn’t, in the same way the Mach 3 wasn’t just any razor. Both were developed by Gillette (Gillette owns Oral-B), a company with a flair for extravagant, costly research into everyday toiletry items.

I asked CrossAction development team member Dave Weber why a company would spend three years and $72 million reinventing the humble toothbrush. He said, “We believe that being leaders in daily oral hygiene care and physical plaque removal really takes understanding the science and going beyond what’s been traditionally thought of in terms of toothbrush design.” This is what a man who spends 11 months in a room working on a toothbrush sounds like. It sounds to me like the company should have let him out to go to the movies every now and then, but who am I to argue with a leader in daily oral hygiene care and physical plaque removal.

The notable feature of the CrossAction toothbrush — aside from its costing a dollar or two more than its competitors — is that it has angled bristles. “Vertical bristles just sweep across the teeth,” said Dave, who is 40 and has a mustache with bristles of about the same length as the CrossAction toothbrush’s. “If you angle the bristles in the direction of travel,” continued Dave, “they are pushed between the teeth as they sweep across. So you get better penetration.”

Does better penetration matter? Apparently so. Dave told me about a study from this month’s American Journal of Dentistry. On the off chance that you don’t subscribe to the American Journal of Dentistry, I’ll tell you what it says. It says CrossAction blew 14 leading toothbrush brands out of the sink. It removed 9 percent to 64 percent more plaque.

The tests were done in Oral-B’s product evaluation laboratory in Belmont, Calif., home of the “brushing robot arm” and the glass prism tooth. These were gizmos invented by the toothbrush engineers to let the toothbrush R&D people film actual between-teeth close-ups of angled bristles penetrating at different depths. I would bet you the cost of a CrossAction toothbrush that at some point in the robot arm tooth brushing proceedings, one of the lab techs leaned over and opened his mouth and had the robot brush his teeth, the way people who spend too much time in the copy room eventually photocopy their faces, or other parts. At least I hope so.

The other CrossAction feature that Oral-B crows about is the handle. “We wanted to help provide a more fulfilling grip in terms of the hand,” Dave told me. Sometimes Dave sounded so serious about toothbrushes that I worried about his grip of reality. To find out how most Americans grip their toothbrush, Oral-B paid people to let them come into their bathrooms and videotape them brushing their teeth. I wondered whether it might have been simpler to just send around a questionnaire and ask. Dave’s colleague Maisie Wong-Paredes said no. “Brushing is something people can’t really tell you about,” she said. To prove it, she asked me to describe how I gripped my toothbrush. I couldn’t really tell her.

But we were going to find out. Dave and Maisie led me into a room with a row of bathroom sinks with one-way mirrors that allow toothbrush researchers to spy on people while they perform oral care on themselves. They gave me a CrossAction toothbrush and disappeared around the wall into the viewing room. At home that night when I brushed my teeth, I had to fight an impulse to open the medicine cabinet to be sure Dave and Maisie weren’t in there.

As it turned out, I am power gripper, with periodic forays into oblique and distal oblique gripping. Oral-B identified the five major grip styles of American tooth brushers, and then designed their toothbrush to fit them. Should you care to know what these grip styles are, you can log onto the CrossAction online news bureau. Here you will also learn that Neil Armstrong brushed his teeth with an Oral-B toothbrush minutes before stepping onto the moon, and that the average person brushes his or her teeth for 46 seconds, despite constant nagging from dentists to spend a full two minutes at it. Maisie said that out of 160 people that Oral-B observed tooth brushing, only one brushed for two minutes. We shook our heads. If they can send an Oral-B toothbrush to the moon, why can’t they build a man who knows how to brush his teeth?

Dave and Maisie asked me how I felt about my brushing experience with the CrossAction. I told them that my mouth felt really clean now. They looked disappointed, even a little hurt. At Oral-B, there’s more to brushing than just cleaning and deeply penetrating. “The other thing we want to do is to deliver a pleasurable brushing experience,” said Dave.

Maisie said that Oral-B’s focus-group brushers were in fact delighted. As support for this, she directed me to a press release that quoted people saying they felt “movement inside their mouths similar to the multiple cleaning actions of an automatic car wash.” I wouldn’t have guessed this to be the sort of brushing experience that provides delight. I would have guessed it to be the sort of brushing experience that provides abrasions and tire tracks along the gum line.

I have been using my complimentary CrossAction toothbrush, but I’m a few bristles short of delighted. It feels too big to me. But maybe I’m weird. Maybe I need to spend some time with an automatic carwash in my mouth.

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>