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7 steps to selecting the perfect headlight system

Nov. 7, 2022
The quality and performance of today’s lighting systems vary widely. Anne Guignon, MPH, RDH, discusses seven factors to consider when choosing the optimal product for your practice.

The popularity of headlights has grown steadily since their introduction more than 25 years ago. Early adopters were thrilled to have additional lighting, but like all technology, the first headlights were primitive compared to today’s options. Headlights were weighty, the light was dim and blurry, and all headlights were attached to a long, heavy cord that plugged into a light source. The only thing more cumbersome in those days were the early cell phones.

The quality and performance of today’s lighting systems vary widely. Consider these seven factors when choosing the optimal product for clinical practice.

No. 1: Wired or wireless

There are two basic styles. Wired units are designed with a cable that runs from the light bezel to a battery pack, while wireless headlights are designed with a battery pack that attaches directly to the headlight. Each platform has its benefits. Some clinicians find the power cord annoying, while others like the variable lighting intensity and longer charge time that wired units offer.

No. 2: Ease of use

To narrow the choice, consider the following features. Can the headlight be attached to any frame? Will it fit under a face shield? How is the light activated: a switch, capacitive touch, or a light tap? Can the light be disinfected easily? Does the headlight lamp come with a curing filter?

No. 3: Batteries and charging systems

Most headlight systems are designed to use rechargeable batteries that are specific to a particular light. Wireless systems use lightweight, powerful lithium-ion batteries that attach directly to the headlight system. Battery packs for wired systems typically contain one battery, but there are systems that contain two batteries. A dual battery pack is a trade-off. The run time is longer, but there is added weight.

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Lighting the world

All rechargeable systems have a finite amount of charging chemistry, so rechargeable does not mean forever. The number of actual charges correlates with the total run times and light intensity. Typically, high-quality batteries perform well for an average of four years. Eventually the battery will not perform for a long period of time, so it’s wise to order a replacement battery as the unit ages. Replacement batteries restore the system to its original performance level.

Most headlights use a product-specific charging cable that connects the battery pack to a standard electrical outlet. One newer cordless system uses a universal mini-USB cable for charging batteries. Many systems have a status light that shows the charge level from low to fully powered. The amount of time it takes to charge and recharge a battery pack depends on the actual system.

No. 4: The illumination spot

The most sophisticated part of the system is the light bezel. Years ago, portable headlight spots were dim and fuzzy, and had a bluish white hue. Even though clinicians were thrilled with additional illumination, the color was not that accurate, making it more difficult to see bleeding points, subtle changes in soft-tissue colors, and color variations in natural teeth and restorations.

Color rendering index (CRI) quantifies how well lighting replicates natural sunlight. Most dental headlights are rated at a 78 CRI; however, there are products that are rated at a 93 CRI. Higher CRI ratings create a more accurate and richer visual experience.

Light spots that create an even edge-to-edge uniform color prevent the annoying halo effect, which can lead to eye fatigue. Brightness also matters. Brighter is not necessarily better. Some clinicians are very sensitive to the overly bright lighting and prefer to use a system with intensity controls that illuminate the field without creating unnecessary visual fatigue.

No. 5: Comfort

Every clinician is different. Some prefer cordless headlights that mount directly to their frame. Even though cordless headlights weigh slightly more than corded models, the weight differential is not bothersome to many. Cordless headlights keep us from having to fight the cord during the day. Two tricks will balance the cordless headlight weight: adjust the frame nose pads to ensure a proper fit on the nose bridge, and use a head strap to counterbalance the overall weight.

For those who prefer a corded model, secure the battery pack to the scrub pants waistline, store in a pants or lab coat pocket, or attach it to the shoulder. Many clinicians thread the power cord under their jacket or gown to prevent unnecessary damage.

No. 6: Safety

High-quality headlights comply with the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) seal. The UL designation indicates the electrical components are designed and manufactured with high safety standards, reducing a fire hazard risk. Inexpensive headlights sold online may be poorly made with cheap components and come from companies that do not adhere to high manufacturing standards. In addition to producing poor-quality light that leads to eye fatigue, these devices often overheat, putting users at risk for burns.

The discussion of blue light compliance comes up periodically. Sometimes this is used as a scare tactic, but major manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that their products do not emit light that could fall into a dangerous range.

No. 7: The cost

As with any major purchase, it is wise to know the warranty terms and conditions. The real value in today’s headlight is the actual light itself. Batteries have a limited life span, so it is reasonable to expect a new battery will be required at some point. Is it smart to replace the battery in a 10-year-old headlight? Probably not. Technology advances over a decade can be significant. It is reasonable to replace a battery if the headlight is less than five years old.

Good headlight systems are designed to last for years. Just like a new car, the major expense is the initial purchase, so the actual dollar value is calculated over the years of use.

Lighting has become a critical clinical component, and many clinicians feel their light is even more important than their loupes. A great light maximizes the benefit of a well-designed magnification system. The two are built to work together in harmony.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the November 2022 print edition of RDH magazine. Dental hygienists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.