Tested: The world's first self-flossing sonic toothbrush

Tech Critic
Yahoo Finance

The odds are excellent that you’re not a good flosser. Just 16% of Americans say they always floss once a day, according to an October 2017 survey of 1,005 adults from the American Dental Association.

The odds are also excellent that you would floss if it were easier and faster — if, for example, there were a toothbrush that could brush and floss simultaneously.

That’s the idea behind the Waterpik Sonic-Fusion ($200), billed as “the world’s first and only flossing toothbrush.” There it is, in big red letters right on the box: “Brush and floss at the same time.” Yes, that’s right: “a complete clean in one step!”

The “one step” business seems pretty clear.
The “one step” business seems pretty clear.

It also says, “Up to 2X As Effective For Removing Plaque Vs. Regular Brushing And Flossing.”

Whoa, baby! Twice the clean in half the time? This must truly be, as the company says, “the biggest breakthrough in oral hygiene!” Sign me up!

Meet the Sonic-Fusion

The Waterpik machine has been around since the 1960s. Its tip, at the end of a skinny hose, blasts water pulses at your teeth, to remove plaque and food gunk from between your teeth and below your gum line.

The Waterpik Sonic-Fusion, though, adds a sonically vibrating electric toothbrush; the water jet is embedded in the center of the head. You fill up the 14-ounce water tank (it holds enough for a minute of jetting), press either the FLOSS or BRUSH button on the handle (or both), and go to town.

Waterpik calls this the world’s only flossing toothbrush.
Waterpik calls this the world’s only flossing toothbrush.

In principle, the brush should clean your teeth surfaces, and the water jet should do the flossing part, between teeth.

Unfortunately, there’s some fine print. According to the manual, the words on the box are, in effect, lying.

“This unit is designed to allow you to brush and water floss at the same time. After completing a brush cycle, simply press the FLOSS button and follow the recommended technique from the Water Flossing section.”

Uh…what happened to the “one step” business?
Uh…what happened to the “one step” business?

So wait: If you have to do a complete “brush cycle” before you turn on the flosser, isn’t that two steps, not one? When I asked the company about this discrepancy, this was the answer I got:

“The device will allow you to do it separately but the focus is to brush and floss at the same time. The instructions were written to explain that carefully.”

Wait, what?

Well, never mind. If it’s really twice as effective as manual brush/flossing —

But wait a second. If the company was misleading about the “one step” thing, how can we trust it on the “twice as effective” thing?

I decided to put the Sonic-Fusion to the ultimate test: My dentist’s.

The Freeman Test

Dr. Adam Freeman, of Westport Dental Associates in Connecticut, has been my dentist since 2004. He’s a great guy, and his office always boasts the latest dental technology. I knew he’d be just the guy to ask.

Dr. Freeman proposes a test.
Dr. Freeman proposes a test.

He proposed a test: I’d brush and floss one side of my mouth normally, and use the Waterpik on the other. As directed: brush first, then water-floss.

Then he’d use a disclosing agent (that bright red stuff they put on your teeth to show the spots you missed) to see which side is cleaner.

In practice, the Sonic-Fusion is a pleasure to use. The handle is comfortable, the controls are idiot-proof, and the water-jet part of it feels really good and tingly. You can detach the hose while you’re brushing, if you prefer, so that the toothbrush is cordless; then you can snap the hose back on for the water-jetting part. As with most electric toothbrushes, there’s a little pause after every 30 seconds — your cue to move along to the next quadrant of your mouth, for two minutes total.

The buttons aren’t hard to figure out.
The buttons aren’t hard to figure out.

A knob on the side of the tank controls the power of the water jet — from zero (light drizzle) to 10 (capable of cutting concrete).

When you “water floss,” you’re supposed to lean over a sink. Good idea, because the water from the jet continuously slobbers back out of your mouth.

It’s a somewhat messy business.
It’s a somewhat messy business.

When I was finished, Dr. Freeman put four drops of the disclosing liquid under my tongue and told me to swish it around and then rinse.

I didn’t tell him which side of my mouth I’d used for which brushing protocol.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to. There was disgusting, hot-pink-stained plaque still on the Waterpik side. There was only a tiny bit still on the regular-floss side.

When used as directed, regular floss does a better job. Sorry about the gross closeup.
When used as directed, regular floss does a better job. Sorry about the gross closeup.

Dr. Freeman explains the result. ”Teeth contact each other. They butt up against each other,” he says. “A Waterpik shooting water may be effective at the gumline, but you’re still going to have plaque between your teeth. But where the teeth actually contact each other — when you floss, it drags through that contact point” and scrapes off the gunk.

The Waterpik test

So wait — if the Waterpik did such a lousy job, how can the company call it “twice as effective” as brushing+flossing?

Most dentists, including mine, firmly recommend regular floss. “[Waterpiks] DO NOT remove plaque (bacterial colonies) like floss does, because effective flossing literally wipes the sticky plaque off teeth, and Waterpiks can only rinse these areas,” says one dentist after another.

The Mayo Clinic puts it like this: “It doesn’t generally remove visible film and plaque on your teeth, but can aid in reduction of bacteria even below the gumline.”

So what about the clinical study that Waterpik says establishes its “twice as effective” credentials?

Well, I did a little poking around there, too. The publication of that study is identified as “Compend Contin Edu Dent 2018; 39(Suppl 1).” Which turns out to be the Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry. Which is published by a company called Aegis. Whose managing editor got right back to me when I emailed.

He told me that “Supplement 1” was a paid supplement — bought by Waterpik — and that the study in question was also commissioned by Waterpik. The Compendium journal itself, he says, is “industry supported, though independent.” (Is it possible to be editorially independent while writing about the companies that pay you? You decide.)

The two-step solution

There is some value to the Sonic-Fusion. Studies and dentists agree that Waterpik:

  • is better than no flossing at all

  • is a fantastic additionto flossing

  • is great for people with gum disease, because it’s gentler than string floss

  • is useful for people who have physical difficulty with string floss

  • may be a great solution for cleaning around braces

So why can’t the company just point out thoseadvantages, rather than misleading consumers with that “one-step” solution and “twice as effective” stuff?

$earch me. The an$wer to that que$tion will have to remain a my$tery.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.  

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