The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers: Why They Are a Lifelong Commitment

Why a retainer is important to maintain your orthodontic work

While many of us associate retainers with teenagers who just got their braces off, retainers are actually indicated for everyone who has undergone any type of orthodontics work – this includes traditional braces and also Invisalign. This is because once the orthodontic appliances like braces are removed, our teeth are very likely to shift, especially over time. Further, it is very difficult to predict if or how much your teeth will shift following orthodontic treatment if a retainer is not used consistently. In some cases, these shifts can be significant and ultimately undo that beautiful, straight smile you worked so hard to achieve!

Keep reading to learn more about retainers and how they can help you keep that perfect smile for life.

Why Are Retainers So Important?

Believe it or not, your gums, tongue, lips, and cheeks will apply forces on the teeth which will naturally try to shift your teeth back to the original position they were in before orthodontic treatment. Our bodies are constantly undergoing change, and teeth are no exception. While you are unlikely to notice any significant shift in your teeth on a day-to-day basis, if you forgo using a retainer, over time, the shift can be so drastic that one day you might wake up with crooked teeth and realize that you need braces all over again!

There is an interesting study conducted by the University of Washington where orthodontic patients were tracked long-term following their treatment. The study showed that regardless of the type of orthodontic treatment these patients received, some degree of orthodontic relapse (shifting) was almost inevitable. There was, however, one thing shown to minimize and avoid relapse – you guessed it, consistent retainer use!

Though it is always hard to form new habits, it is easy enough to weigh the huge benefits of wearing your retainer nightly versus the serious drawbacks of not doing so. Nobody wants to spend significant time, money, and discomfort getting their smile straightened only to see the teeth start to get misaligned again in merely a few weeks or months after treatment ended. This is why wearing your retainer every night is not just about making your orthodontist happy, but also about protecting your investment in that beautiful smile!

How Does a Retainer Work to Preserve Your Smile?

A retainer is a simple orthodontic appliance that prevents your teeth from relapsing, or shifting back out of alignment, following orthodontic treatment. For this reason, it is highly recommended that anyone who has undergone orthodontic treatment wear a retainer as a long-term if not lifelong, commitment.

The unfortunate reality is that without retention measures, teeth have a very high chance of relapse and shifting back. This is particularly true in the months immediately after orthodontic appliances like braces are removed. That is because our bones, ligaments, and other tissues surrounding our teeth need to adjust themselves to the new alignment of our teeth. Pressure imbalances between the tongue, lips, and cheeks can also encourage teeth to shift, not to mention regular shifts in tooth alignment that are a natural part of the aging process. Following orthodontic treatment, only retainer compliance can prevent these shifts from occurring!

Do I Need to Wear My Retainer All Day, Every Day?

Thankfully, no! While orthodontists do sometimes recommend wearing a retainer full time for the first few months after getting braces removed, overnight daily use is sufficient for most patients following this initial period. Since, as noted, your teeth continue to shift throughout your life, it is recommended to wear your retainer as part of your nightly routine before bed. Aside from keeping your teeth in alignment, a retainer offers the additional benefit of preventing premature wear from nocturnal teeth grinding, which many of us do without even knowing it! In sum, don’t worry about wearing your retainer all day or 24 hours a day – instead, simply wear it each night!

Are All Retainers the Same?

No. Generally speaking, there are three categories of retainers: clear plastic retainers (Essix retainers), plastic and wire Hawley retainers, and bonded permanent retainers. Clear plastic retainers are the most common type of removable retainer and are relatively easy to use and remove. They are molded to fit the exact profile of your teeth, but they cannot be adjusted and therefore must be replaced if any adjustment becomes necessary. They have the benefit of being transparent, thin, and comfortable.

Hawley retainers are another type of removable retainer. They combine plastic or acrylic, shaped to fit the roof of your mouth or the inner side of your teeth, with a thin metal wire that runs along the front side of your teeth, thus keeping them in alignment. Hawley retainers are no longer a popular choice among orthodontists, in part because they are thicker than Essix retainers and therefore make it harder to speak with the retainers which result in many patients not wanting to wear them. Also, if the wire portion gets distorted it can cause the teeth to shift and move out of position, even though it may seem like the retainer still fits perfectly. They are also much less esthetic than Essix retainers and, thus, less popular among patients who plan to wear them during the day, as the wire running along the front of the patient’s teeth is more visible than a clear plastic retainer.

Lastly, bonded retainers consist of a wire curved to the contours of your newly straightened teeth. This wire is then cemented onto the inner side of your bottom 4-6 front teeth. This type of retainer is more often prescribed for the lower teeth than the upper teeth. Bonded retainers are permanently glued to the teeth and cannot be removed. They do an excellent job of holding the front teeth in place but have a high chance of breaking when a patient eats and can be quite costly to repair. While they are almost guaranteed to prevent your front teeth from shifting (as long as they don’t break), they do not hold the back teeth in place so significant shifting of the back teeth can occur which is why they are not the first choice for many orthodontists. Bonded retainers also have the disadvantage of potentially causing an excess of plaque and tartar, or irritating the gums or tongue. Bonded retainers can also make oral hygiene, and flossing in particular, more challenging for some patients, though a floss threader can help (see more below).

What’s the Best Way to Keep My Retainer Clean?

Most orthodontists will recommend cleaning your retainers twice a day just as you would your teeth. This is because they sit inside your mouth and against your teeth, and can therefore accumulate bacteria, plaque, and tarter just as your teeth and gums do.

Your orthodontist may recommend different cleaning regimens depending on the type of dental retainer you use. While clear plastic and Hawley retainers can simply be brushed with a toothbrush, your orthodontist may also tell you to soak them in a denture or retainer cleaner such as Polident. For bonded retainers, careful and thorough flossing is necessary, typically with the help of a floss threader.

Avoid using hot water on your retainer and always opt for warm or lukewarm water instead. This will help avoid warping and cracking of the plastic under heat and help them last.  Also see our article on staining around invisalign attachments for more great info on keeping things clean and healthy.

Keeping your orthodontic retainer clean

If you are unsure how to wear or take care of your retainer, we recommend reaching out to your orthodontist that completed your orthodontic treatment to get clarification on the specific wear/care protocol for your retainers.