There’s really no way to start this story without a confession: I am a terrible tooth brusher. I’m often so busy in the mornings that I miss my post-breakfast brushing. I’ve never been someone who makes that trip to the sink after lunch. And even with a timed electric toothbrush, I’m too impatient to scrub the pearlies for a full two minutes before bed.
I am accustomed to being chided by dental hygienists about having lots of room for improvement.
But I never really improved.
Then, over the summer, a Lowell startup sent me a new product to test called the Truthbrush.
Could affixing a motion sensor to my toothbrush — and that of my 12-year old, Max — help either of us improve our oral hygiene? Might I one day earn a compliment, rather than constructive criticism, from someone at the dentist’s office?
The Truthbrush set I got has three components: a rubber ring (they call it a “tracker”) that goes around the handle of your toothbrush, a wireless “hub” that plugs into an outlet in your bathroom, and a mobile app that displays data about your brushing habits, and those of others in your house who are using the tracking ring.
The set I tested, which included two tracking rings,sells for $40 on the website Indiegogo. (The startup has chalked up more than $10,000 worth of preorders for the product this year and started shipping them just before Labor Day.)
It was pretty simple to set up: I plugged the wireless hub, about the size of a power adapter, into a spare outlet in Max’s bathroom, downloaded the Truthbrush mobile app, and used the app to link the hub to my home’s Wi-Fi network. The hub started communicating with the two tracking rings, and I used the app to identify one of them as Max’s brush, and one as mine. Even though mine was in a separate bathroom about 20 feet away, it didn’t have a problem sending data to the hub, which relayed it to the Truthbrush servers for analysis, and then into the mobile app.
There’s also a way to share data from the app with your dentist, though I wasn’t ready for that level of surveillance. (And Max wasn’t wild about the idea of being monitored by me.) The Truthbrush can gauge not only how long you brush, but how well you get to your entire mouth. You can set the app to deliver an alert when any user misses a brushing, and see a bar graph of how long you brushed each day of the week. The app uses green bars for the morning and pink for nighttime. I was definitely collecting more pink bars than green, and averaging less than 100 seconds of brushing.
The app’s verdict after a few weeks of use: Max and I were both in the bottom 50 percent of all brushers.
It didn’t help that we went on two trips and didn’t take the Truthbrush hub along — so those brushings didn’t get counted.
And every once in a while, it seemed like the Truthbrush tracker didn’t accurately report in to the hub when I did brush. (Had my hub fallen off the home Wi-Fi network here and there?)
But still, it was hard to argue with bottom 50 percent. I was determined to get into at least the top 50 percent. I wanted Max to improve, too. Data from a 2019 Centers for Disease Control report indicate that more than half of kids ages 12 to 19 have cavities. And I suspected Max wouldn’t love the experience of getting a filling.
I rang up Eric Huang, the chief executive and cofounder of Candibell, the Lowell company that designed and markets the Truthbrush.
“Right now, I’m in the top 8 percent,” Huang told me, “but I brush three times a day.” Huang came to Massachusetts from Australia to earn a doctorate in engineering at MIT and later worked for a startup that was acquired by Samsung Electronics. He cofounded Candibell with a Samsung colleague in late 2018.
Huang said his daughters, ages 4 and 8, use the Truthbrush. Huang uses the app to set brushing goals for them — you can establish benchmarks for average brushing time, as well as number of times per week — and then rewards them with ice cream if they achieve the goal.
“They’re in the top 25 percent,” he said/ I asked if there has ever been an occasion when one earns ice cream and the other doesn’t. Not yet, Huang said: They’re pretty competitive, and “if one underperforms, she might brush another time to improve her score.”
Max is an only child and didn’t seem that interested in competing with me to improve our abysmal scores. Huang suggested I encourage one of Max’s friends to get a Truthbrush, so the two of them could compete. “That might work,” he hypothesized. Pretty sharp sales tactic.
Huang said his company plans to enlist dentists in marketing the Truthbrush, as a way to generate revenue by spurring an additional office visit. After two or three weeks of using the product, you’d come back in (or bring your child in) to look at the data and set goals for improvement. (The company hasn’t yet started talking to insurance companies about whether that visit might be covered.)
Joel Alper, a periodontist with a practice in Melrose, received a few Truthbrush systems earlier this year to test. He acknowledged his high school and college age kids weren’t eager to use it — “I don’t think they wanted to be micromanaged” — but Alper said that he and one of his office staffers have been using it. (Alper is in the top 15 percent of brushers, but he asserts that his score gets dinged by regular trips to Maine, where his brushing doesn’t count.)
Alper acknowledged that patients might not like the Big Brother aspect of having their oral hygiene habits shared with a dentist. But “the better a patient is able to clean their teeth, the better their prognosis and outcome,” he said. With the Truthbrush, “I can dive in and break down and see what the patient is doing.” He said he doesn’t see the product as a profit generator but rather as a “tool to educate patients.”
Seeing data about my bad habits helped me improve just a bit: I’m now in the top 47 percent (whew!) Max is still in the bottom 50, but I’ve used the app to set a concrete goal for each week. And there’s an incentive attached: Hit it and you get a bubble tea. Miss it and you’re drinking tap water.