When you have braces or Invisalign, it’s considered the active phase of your orthodontic treatment. When you finish, you move on to the retention phase. We know, we know, you may have thought you were done but we promise when you see how fantastic your new smile looks, having a final step in your treatment plan won’t seem like a big deal. What does this retention phase entail? Well, it just means wearing a retainer to hold your teeth in their new positions. We’ll be covering everything you need to know about orthodontic retainers to help you get an idea of what you can expect when you wrap up your orthodontic treatment.

What is an Orthodontic Retainer?

An orthodontic retainer, sometimes called a dental retainer, is a custom appliance, either fixed or removable, that holds the teeth in their new places after you finish the active phase of your orthodontic treatment. It applies gentle pressure so that the teeth don’t shift. Depending on the type of retainer, it is generally made of metal, metal and acrylic, or a thermoplastic material similar to Invisalign aligners.

Do I Have to Wear a Retainer After Braces or Invisalign?

Yes, it’s super important to wear a retainer after braces or Invisalign. When your braces or aligners apply pressure to your teeth and gums, they kick off the process of bone remodelling. Essentially, the supporting tissues and ligaments loosen and the cells in the bone break down to allow the teeth to move. Wearing a retainer after braces or Invisalign holds your teeth where they need to be while the bone, tissues and ligaments tighten back up and your new smile locks into place. If you don’t wear a retainer after braces or Invisalign, your teeth will shift back to their old positions once the appliance is no longer there to exert pressure. Wearing a dental retainer is the only way to maintain your results and ensure they last a lifetime.

Everyone’s schedule for wearing their retainer is different and it will depend on your unique smile needs. However, most patients wear their retainers at night only from the beginning. Eventually, you’ll probably have to wear it just a few nights a week. Many factors contribute to tooth movement including grinding, new restorations or fillings, and the health of the gums. Everyone has their own unique situation!

What are the Different Types of Retainers?

There are several different types of retainers. Your orthodontist will be able to tell you which one is best suited to your needs. Sometimes, we even combine different types, such as a permanent retainer on your lower teeth and having you wear a Hawley or clear retainer on your top teeth. Here are the types we offer at our Mustang, Norman and OKC orthodontic practice:

  • Permanent Retainer – A permanent retainer, sometimes called a lingual retainer or fixed retainer, consists of a thin, metal wire that is placed on the back of your teeth (on the tongue side). It’s bonded to your teeth with special adhesive, just like the kind we use for your braces brackets, to hold it in place. You can’t see it at all when you smile and it can stay in place for years or even decades. Once you get used to it, you won’t notice it’s there. It’s pretty much a set it and forget it appliance. However, a permanent retainer does it make it more challenging to remove plaque and to floss your teeth, so you will have to be diligent about keeping it clean.
  • Hawley Retainer – A Hawley retainer is probably what you think of when you hear the word “retainer.” The removable appliance consists of an acrylic piece that sits against the roof of the mouth with a thin wire attached to it that wraps around the teeth. It can be used on the top or bottom arch. When you have a Hawley retainer, you’ll take it out to eat and to brush and floss your teeth. It is noticeable when you smile but it’s lower profile than a full set of braces. While Hawley retainers are a great option for many patients and can even be adjusted to make minor corrections, more and more people are opting for clear retainers.
  • Essix or Clear Retainer – An Essix retainer is a clear retainer that’s very similar to Invisalign aligners. This type of retainer is made of clear, BPA-free, smooth plastic that’s custom-moulded to fit your smile. It slips over your teeth just like aligners do. A clear retainer, such as the Vivera® retainer, sometimes called an Invisalign retainer because it’s made by Align Technology, is comfortable and virtually invisible. Since the material is thicker than the material used to make aligners, it’s durable with proper care. You’ll take the retainer out to eat, drink anything aside from plain water, and brush and floss your teeth. The drawback of a clear retainer is you’ll have to keep track of it when you’re not wearing it.

How to Care for Your Orthodontic Retainer

Your specific instructions for caring for your orthodontic retainer will depend on which type you have but here are some general tips:

  • Brush and floss your permanent retainer. You may also want to use an interproximal brush to get rid of any plaque that accumulates around the wire.
  • If you have a Hawley retainer or a clear retainer, make sure to store it in its case whenever you’re not wearing it. Never put it in a napkin or a tissue when you take it out of your mouth because it can accidentally get thrown away. Also, remember that pets love retainers. Keeping it in its case when you’re brushing and flossing will prevent Fido from snacking on it and destroying it.
  • Don’t leave your retainers in extreme heat, such as a hot car, especially if you have an Essix-type retainer. The heat can warp the retainer and affect the fit.
  • If you have a clear retainer, take it out to drink anything except for plain water. This is because any liquid will get stuck between the retainer and your teeth, potentially staining your teeth or retainer and increasing your risk of tooth decay.
  • As for how to clean retainers, brush both Hawley and clear retainers with a soft-bristled toothbrush. You may want to skip the toothpaste since it can be abrasive. Brush your retainer in the morning and at night when you’re brushing your teeth to prevent plaque from building up on it. Can you use denture cleaner on retainers? Yes, you can. For the occasional deeper clean, soaking it in a retainer cleaning solution or Efferdent can be helpful. For a DIY retainer cleaning solution, mix equal parts distilled white vinegar and water and let your retainer sit in the mixture for about 15 minutes.
  • If you forget to put in your retainer for a few nights, you may notice your teeth are sore. The best way to avoid this is to stick with the schedule. Now, what if you forget to wear it for longer than a night or two? Should you wear your retainer if it doesn’t fit? No. If it’s been a while and your retainer isn’t fitting, don’t try to adjust it yourself. Make an appointment and we’ll get you back on track.
  • If you lose your retainer or it breaks, call our office right away so that we can make you a new one and prevent your teeth from shifting.

At our practice, since retainers are so important, we created our Retainers for 7 program to ensure our patients are never without their appliance. When you sign up for the program, you get seven years of replacement retainers for a reasonable fee. Retainer replacements include clear upper and lower retainers and Phase I Hawley retainers. While, of course, you’ll still want to take care of your retainer and avoid having to come in for a new one, if something does happen, you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’re covered.

Whether you want some more advice on orthodontic retainers or you’re interested in starting braces or Invisalign treatment, schedule a free consultation with a Mustang, Norman or OKC orthodontist at Craig & Streight Orthodontics today!