Updated April 2022
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Buying guide for best oral irrigators

To clean areas a toothbrush misses or can't reach, you need an oral irrigator. Also known as a "water flosser," an oral irrigator can reach in between teeth. Unlike regular floss, irrigators come in a few different types and sizes, meaning you have some options to consider when searching for the best one.

The most important decision is the choice between portable irrigators that are handy for travel/space and countertop irrigators that offer more water and pressure control. In addition to the types, there are important features and differences like the ideal reservoir size, adjustable pressure and flow controls, and different types of tips and nozzles you can use.

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Water flossing has been shown to be highly effective at reducing gingivitis, gum bleeding, and gum irritation.

What is an oral irrigator?

An oral irrigator, or water flosser, is a device that directs a forceful stream of water through a specialized tip and into the mouth.

The force of the water dislodges and washes away plaque, bits of food, and bacteria from the gums and teeth.

All water flossers have a reservoir to hold the water, and an electric motor to power the pump.

Different types of oral irrigators

There are two basic types of water flosser: countertop and portable.

Countertop oral irrigators

As the name suggests, these sit on your bathroom counter and plug into an electrical outlet. They have a fairly large reservoir, typically holding enough water for 60 seconds of use or more. Most countertop units have a range of pressure settings, and some have flow control for the stream of water. Countertop models are the best choice if two or more people will be using the flosser.

Portable water flossers

These are powered by batteries. Some have rechargeable batteries and come with a small base for recharging between cleaning sessions, while others operate with disposable batteries and are entirely self-contained. These devices are handy for travel, or in a very small bathroom, but don’t have as much power – or as many pressure settings – as countertop models. Their reservoir is much smaller, generally holding enough water for 30 to 45 seconds of use. Although you can switch tips to share a portable water flosser with other family members, these are generally best for just one or two people.

Portable flossers can be found for as little as $15, ranging up to $40 for those with more features and higher water capacity. Countertop irrigators tend to cost $35 to $40.

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Did you know?
Water flossing requires less hand strength and manual dexterity than string flossing, so it’s a good choice for anyone with arthritis, reduced strength, loss of hand coordination, or similar conditions.

What features should you look for?

For the most part, an oral irrigator is a simple device, but there are a few features that could be useful:

  • Reservoir Size: The larger the reservoir, the longer the cleaning time before running out of water. For a thorough job, you generally need at least 45 seconds of waterpower, although one minute is the recommended flossing time and should be your daily goal.

  • Adjustable Pressure: While portable water flossers tend to have only two or three pressure settings, some countertop models offer up to ten.

  • Flow Control: This allows you to slow or stop the flow of water while adjusting the oral irrigator’s tip in your mouth.

  • Color-Coded Tips: If you share your water flosser with other household members, each person needs his or her own tip. Color-coding makes it easy to tell which tip belongs to which user.

  • Rotating Tip: This feature allows you to rotate the tip as you work, making it much easier to reach the back of your mouth or the backs of your teeth.

  • Water Pulse/Gum Massage: This mode pulses the water flow, which stimulates the gum tissue and promotes gum health.

  • Timer: A sound, pause, or vibration prompts you to move to the next section of your mouth, and signals when the recommended one minute of flossing time is up.

  • Tip Variety: Many oral irrigators come with a few different types of tips.

  • Waterproof: These water flossers are portable devices made for use in the shower.

  • Sound Level: Most countertop water flossers are rather noisy, but some units claim to be quieter than others.

"Oral irrigator tips should be replaced every three to six months, or sooner if the tip is bent, bitten, or cracked."

Types of tips

All water flossers come with a standard tip, and some include a few specialized tips as well. While you can swap out your device’s tips with others from the same brand, you generally cannot fit a tip from a different brand onto a water flosser.

There are quite a few different types of water flosser tips, each suited for a slightly different purpose. Some of the most common are:

  • Standard: The basic tip that comes with just about every water flosser.

  • Orthodontic: Designed to clean around braces and other orthodontic work. Typically, there is a very small brush at the end of the tip to help dislodge food and other particles.

  • Plaque Tip: A small brush on the end of the tip reaches into otherwise hard-to-reach areas to remove plaque and food particles.

  • Deep Pocket: These tips have a slightly pointed end and are used to flush out gum pockets to help relieve periodontal disease.

  • Toothbrush Tip: Lets you brush and water floss at the same time.

  • Tongue Cleaner: Buildup of bacteria on the tongue is a common cause of bad breath. A tongue cleaner tip helps remove that buildup for fresher breath.

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Braces and other orthodontic appliances tend to harbor food particles, plaque, and bacteria. Daily use of a water flosser blasts these decay-causing substances from under and behind wires and orthodontic bands and posts.

Tips for using a water flosser

While using your oral irrigator isn’t difficult, it does have a bit of a learning curve and can be somewhat messy in the beginning.

  1. Fill the reservoir with lukewarm water. If you’d like, you can add a small amount of mouthwash as well, but don’t go beyond a 1:1 mixture.

  2. Don’t turn on your water flosser until the tip is inside your mouth.

  3. Start with the pressure on the lowest setting. You can slowly increase the pressure, but test carefully to ensure you don’t irritate your gums.

  4. If using your oral irrigator over the sink, lean forward slightly, so water from your mouth hits the drain, not your pants.

  5. Close your lips around the flosser’s tip, leaving them just parted enough for the water to drain out of your mouth. This will prevent water from spraying onto your bathroom counters or mirror. You might need to practice a bit to get the hang of it, but this is key to not making a mess while you floss.

  6. Start with your back teeth and work your way forward, doing first the bottom and then the upper teeth.

  7. Aim the water flow between your teeth, focusing on the gum line.

  8. Total flossing time should be one minute: half spent on the bottom teeth, and half on top.

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