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It's the tooth! The cost of dental care

Does looking through the dental aisle of your local drugstore leave you dazed and confused? That's not surprising. Last year, 112 new toothpastes landed on shelves, and Americans spent nearly $4 billion on oral-care products.

The dental industry itself is a $50 billion business -- and it can only be speculated how much of it is fueled by consumers not making good choices. The stakes will get higher as baby boomers age. If their childhood was the "wonder years," many are now entering the "root-canal years."

Since there really is not a one-size-fits-all toothpaste or toothbrush -- becoming an educated consumer is your best bet. Deciding which services and products you use is a personal decision that should be made in consultation with your dentist and related specialists.

"Always check with your dental professionals," says Dr. Richard Saland, a New York-based dentist, who says there are many considerations to take into account, making each case individual.

To guide your dental choices, here's a look at the items to consider, including costs and the latest advances of each.

The mighty toothbrush
There are brushes that whir and twirl, brushes backed with a "unique tongue cleaner," brushes with ergonomic configurations and soon -- brushes that whistle "Dixie." Or, that at least play tunes from famous recording artists, thanks to a tiny microchip transmitting sound waves from the bristles into the tooth and jawbone directly into the ear. Word is this will be an offering from Hasbro in the coming year.

Toothbrush types run the gamut from basic -- the familiar manual brush, courtesy of your dentist -- to the elaborate, such as the Dental Air Force. This "toothbrush" -- actually, a home dental cleaning system -- uses air and a cleaner with water to blast through the plaque barrier. It retails for $239 (and is not affiliated in any way with the U.S. military).

The real standoff is between manual toothbrushes and the battery-operated and plug-in "power" brushes. These models include the Oral-B Pulsar, a disposable little battery-operator number for about $6; the same make's microchip-designed rotating-oscillating Triumph model, retailing for about $139; and the technologically impressive Sonicare IntelliClean System, comparably priced.

Either system will remove plaque. Researchers who reviewed both manual and electric models found, in most cases, that the manual toothbrushes removed as much plaque as their powered-up counterparts, according to a study by the British-registered nonprofit organization Cochrane Collaboration.

Dr. Peter Blumenthal, a dentist based in Long Island City, N.Y., says if there's an advantage power brushes have over manuals it's the timer. Power brushes have a timer that keeps you brushing for two minutes at a time.

Indeed, that's key, according to most dentists who recommend brushing your teeth for a full two minutes with fluoride toothpaste twice a day.

You do that, you say? Well, maybe you do, but statistically, that's dubious. "The average person brushes roughly 20 seconds," says Dr. Michael Pollowitz, a dentist in Washington, D.C. He estimates that children spend about 12 seconds on average.

Surprised? Time yourself.

Next: Only 24 percent of U.S. households use dental floss.
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