the intelligent consumer
BRUSHING one's teeth has never been so confusing. The toothbrush, surely the simplest of appliances, a plastic handle with nylon bristles at one end, is doing its best to become hi-tech. The latest variation is the Alert, which lights up a red warning sign when you scrub too hard, available by mail order for pounds 6.95. It has a battery that will supply a year's power built into the handle, explains a spokesman for Davis Healthcare Services, the Alert manufacturer.

But hold on just a minute. Surely the conscientious brusher changes their instrument at least every three months, as per official dental guidelines? "Well, because you don't press so hard with it, it lasts longer. It lasts nine months. Anyway, that three-month change is only a sales ploy by the big manufacturers to make you buy more toothbrushes."

Flashing lights aside, it's easy to believe that the whole toothbrush industry has succumbed to a bout of unrestrained gimmickry. Those who prefer to stick to official brush longevity guidelines but are, for some reason, unable to cope with a calendar could consider the Mentadent P brush which has a special plastic nodule in the handle that points to the renewal month. Other weird hybrids include the Dent O Care Superbrush, which looks like an ordinary toothbrush head fixed to the handle lengthways and bent round. It claims to clean a whole mouthful of teeth in a single minute because "most people find it hard to brush their teeth for the full three minutes dentists recommend".

And there are dozens with special handles and special multi-length bristles to probe all those awkward nooks and crannies. The Aquafresh Flex has a flexible neck, plus a "unique non-slip grip" for anyone who finds a normal handle hard to keep under control; the new Johnson & Johnson Reach Control has an "advanced design non-slip handle for superior grip" that looks like the sole of a sports shoe; while the Wisdom Plaque Control Ultra has "unique ripple pattern" filaments.

Designers have also been tinkering with the toothbrush; French designer Philippe Starck's brosse a dents costs around pounds 9, while chic Japanese store Muji's haburashis start at a minimalist 95p (Muji's natural pig hair bristle ones are pounds 1.25, and a multi-pack of six of either kind is pounds 3.95). Most brushes, whatever their cunning additions, cost between pounds 1.50 and pounds 3. So how to choose between bog-standard nylon Medium and, say, Colgate Wild Ones decorated with cunning little fluorescent green lizards?

"The thing that really makes the difference is how you use your brush, and how often," explains Richard Elderton, professor of Preventive and Restorative Dentistry at Bristol University. "You want to remove bacterial plaque from the surface of the teeth - that white stuff you can scrape off with your fingernail if you haven't used your toothbrush."

So what brush would the connoisseur choose? "Something small and simple will reach most areas. Go for a good quality brush with rounded bristle ends, that isn't abrasive on the enamel," is Professor Elderton's down- to-earth advice - much the same as the party line from the British Dental Association. "And don't brush too often," he adds. "It makes teeth hypersensitive, and takes up too much time. There is no evidence of any plaque damage after 24 hours, so one good brushing every day is adequate."

And what about the unusual necks, rubber grips and all the rest? "Art is an important facet of life and culture. Why not have an artistic toothbrush, as long as it's good quality?" says Professor Elderton, who possesses "hundreds". Most of the population, he says gloomily, are in fact not very good at oral hygiene. "If aesthetic appeal encourages someone to buy a toothbrush, that's good," he says. "Whether they use it is another matter."