Braces have been around a long time. (The earliest varieties showed up centuries ago!)
And throughout their impressive history, braces have treated millions of smiles. There’s no case too tough; braces can even help correct issues like overbites and crossbites.
Despite braces offering top-notch results, many adults avoid them due to their lengthy treatment times, visibility, and cost. Luckily, if these are issues for you, you can opt for at-home clear aligners.
Braces and at-home aligners are very different treatments, though. And in this guide, we’ll outline the main differences between them, including who’s a good candidate for each method, costs, and more. By the end, you’ll have a clear picture of both treatment types, and more importantly, which one is best for you.
In-Office vs. At-Home Treatment: An Overview
If we had to summarize the difference between braces and home clear aligners in a phrase, here’s what we’d say: in-office vs. at-home treatments.
And that’s an important distinction. If you go with an in-office treatment (like braces), then you’ll have pretty consistent access to your orthodontist. Your orthodontist can add in metal appliances and elastics, too. Those add-ons allow for stronger, more nuanced shifts, which makes braces the most powerful treatment option on the market. And with centuries of technology and research behind them, braces have, without a doubt, seen a case like yours.
By contrast, at-home clear aligners are much newer. They got their start in 2014 when SmileDirectClub first brought aligners directly to the consumer, cutting out orthodontist visits entirely.
But longevity isn’t the only difference between home teeth aligners and braces. Here are some important distinctions to keep in mind:
|Treatable cases: Practically unlimited||Treatable cases: Mild to moderate cosmetic cases only|
|Cost: Varies, but $5,000 on average||Cost: Averages at $1,895, but ranges between $1,145 and $2,400|
|Orthodontist oversight: Extensive and consistent from start to finish||Orthodontist oversight: Limited to treatment design only (Exception: Candid’s Remote Monitoring)|
|Treatment speed: 12 to 18 months on average||Treatment speed: 6 months on average, but can range between 3 to 11 months|
This is just a fly-by of the differences, though. We dive into the advantages and disadvantages of braces and at-home aligners below. We’d highly recommend checking it out; understanding the pros and cons of each will help you pick the best treatment for your unique smile.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Braces
First, let’s talk braces…more specifically, the advantages of getting them. Braces may have a reputation as a “teenagers-only” treatment, but that’s not true. A fair number of adults choose to get them, and that’s because there are plenty of advantages to treatment with braces, such as:
- Treating severe conditions: In a way, the sky’s the limit when it comes to what braces can treat. Whether your issue is an overbite, underbite, severe crowding, or just your typical teeth spacing, braces can likely handle your case (even if you aren’t a good candidate for other treatment options).
- Consistent orthodontist oversight: Braces can only be administered (and maintained) at an orthodontist’s office by an orthodontist. The orthodontist in charge of your treatment will ensure that your progress stays on track at every appointment, so you’ll rarely encounter problems (and they’ll be resolved quickly in the rare cases when you do).
- Sturdiness: Braces are made from durable metal brackets and wires that are attached directly to your teeth. Occasionally, you’ll have a bracket pop off, but in general, things say put. You don’t have to worry about removing or replacing them yourself.
As powerful as they are, though, braces have a few notable disadvantages, too:
- Expensive: The cost of braces largely depends on your orthodontist’s fees, but on average, people usually spend $5,000 or more on braces. That’s thousands more than at-home clear aligners.
- Uncomfortable: Discomfort is an unavoidable part of any treatment method, but it’s especially notable with braces. The metal in the brackets and wires tends to cut into your cheeks and gums, causing irritation.
- Visible: Braces are many things, and one of them is easy to spot. While there are less visible options, overall, if you have braces, they will be part of your “look” until they are removed.
- Longer treatment timeline: On average, treatment with braces lasts 12 to 18 months, but it’s not unheard of for people to wear them for 2 years or more.
- Required office visits: Braces can only be administered and maintained in an orthodontist’s office. This isn’t a true disadvantage (office visits allow for extensive oversight, after all), but if you operate on a tight social calendar, it can be tough to fit in the necessary appointments.
- Difficult to clean: Brushing your teeth is hard when you have brackets and wires covering things up. Flossing is even harder. You’ll need a little extra patience to clean your teeth effectively during your treatment.
- Restricted eating: Tough, gummy foods like taffy and hard candies can damage or even pull off some of your brackets. Foods like popcorn can also get lodged in your teeth. That’s why, throughout your treatment, you’ll have to avoid certain foods.
Advantages and Disadvantages of At-Home Clear Aligners
At-home clear aligners are pretty new to the orthodontic scene, but they have established themselves as a popular alternative to braces. And that popularity is no surprise; there are lots of advantages to at-home aligners:
- Shorter treatment timeline: The average treatment time for home clear aligners is just 6 months, which makes them almost twice as fast as braces. Granted, mail-order aligners only treat minor cases (which naturally take less time), but the fastest company, Byte, takes just three months.
- More affordable: Each aligner company has its own price point, but the average price hovers around $1,895. That’s several thousand dollars cheaper than braces. And for reference, the cheapest at-home aligner option costs just $1,145.
- No office visits: No time to go to the dentist? No worries. 100% of your treatment is administered remotely, so you can focus on living to the fullest.
- Better looking: No matter what aligner company you choose, you’ll find that mail-order aligners are barely visible once they’re in your mouth.
- No foods off-limits: If you love popcorn, taffy, caramels, or other foods that are normally off-limits with most orthodontic treatments, then clear aligners have you covered. Since you can pop out your aligners whenever you eat, you won’t damage them.
Of course, there are disadvantages to at-home clear aligner treatment, too:
- Minimal orthodontist oversight: An orthodontist may design your treatment plan for you, but that’s pretty much all the orthodontist involvement you’ll get during treatment. The only exception to that is Candid, which offers CandidMonitoring, a program that combines a special imaging device and orthodontist reviews to keep treatment on track.
- Minor cases only: Two factors prevent mail-order aligners from treating severe cases. One: the orthodontist oversight (necessary to make nuanced, complicated teeth shifts) isn’t possible with online clear aligners. Two: aligner trays alone are only so powerful. If you want to exert force on the jaw itself, you’ll need add-ons to the trays (which at-home aligners don’t offer).
- Tough impression kits: With home clear aligners, you kick off your treatment by ordering an impression kit and making 3D molds of your teeth. It’s a tricky process, though, and some people find it hard to do on their own.
What About Invisalign?
Invisalign is the oldest and most well-known clear aligner treatment on the market. And that’s not surprising. After all, Invisalign created clear aligners as we know them today. Without their technology, home clear aligners wouldn’t even exist, and braces would still be the only option.
On the surface, Invisalign and online clear aligners are similar treatments. But there are plenty of differences between the two. For one thing, Invisalign costs more, and treatment requires more time. However, that extra time and money gets you a more powerful treatment.
That’s because Invisalign offers add-ons to their clear aligners, called SmartForce attachments. The attachments act like anchors for the aligner trays, allowing Invisalign to exert additional force on your teeth. Your orthodontist can also add on elastics, too. Because of that, Invisalign is nearly as powerful as braces.
In general, Invisalign is a great option for people who want discreet orthodontic treatment but their case is too severe for clear home aligners to handle. If that’s you, or you’d like to learn more, check out our Invisalign review.
Which Treatment Is Right For Me?
Honestly, we can’t give you a definitive answer. That’s because your smile is unique; what makes a good treatment for you won’t work for someone else, and vice versa.
There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a teeth straightening treatment: cost, speed, orthodontist oversight, and much more. And it’s only natural to prioritize some of those factors over others. For you, cost might be the top priority, or you’d really like to work with an orthodontist in-person. So you’ll have to decide for yourself.
In general, though, you should opt for braces (or even Invisalign) when you have a tougher case of misalignment or you want to work with an orthodontist directly. That said, for a lot of people, at-home aligners are a better, more affordable, more convenient choice.
Braces are strong. They’re durable. And they can treat pretty much any case imaginable. However, braces aren’t right for everyone.
And in our opinion, home clear aligners can typically do the job faster and cheaper for most adults. Let’s be honest: most adults require mild-to-moderate cosmetic changes to tooth alignment. For these cases, at-home aligners are as good as braces. Byte and AlignerCo are our two favorites, but they each have unique features to love:
Byte is our all-around favorite service because they excel in pretty much every category. But their treatment speed is their claim to fame; Byte treatment typically lasts just 3 months. They also offer both daytime and nighttime systems. Last but not least, Byte offers a Byte-for-Life guarantee. If your teeth ever shift post-treatment (and you’ve worn your retainers as prescribed), then Byte will send you new aligners to get your smile back to perfection.
If you’ve read this guide and thought that the sticker prices listed here are a bit hefty, don’t worry. AlignerCo has you covered. They have the most affordable treatment kit in the entire industry: $1,195. And like Byte, they offer both daytime and nighttime treatments, so you can choose whichever is more convenient for you.
Intrigued by Byte, AlignerCo, or at-home aligners in general? Check out our full comparison review of the Top 4 Home Clear Aligners.
How can I determine if braces or at-home aligners are better for me?
We suggest you start with impressions or a 3D scan from an at-home aligner company. While this might have an initial cost, most companies will refund it if it ends up you are not a candidate for treatment. This way, you can find out if they are an option without any risk, and if you aren’t, you can contact an orthodontist about braces.
Which conditions can prevent me from getting at-home clear aligners?
Any orthodontic concerns that exceed mild to moderate cosmetic corrections will need in-office treatments. Other conditions that can make you ineligible for at-home clear aligners include:
- Needing to get your wisdom teeth removed.
- Having teeth pulled in the previous two months.
- Missing multiple teeth.
- Having delicate cosmetic work on teeth that must be moved.
Which is better with at-home treatment: an impression kit or 3D scans?
If you can get them, 3D scans are generally more accurate than at-home impressions. However, not all companies offer these.
If I mess up my impressions, what comes next?
This depends on the company you work with. Most will send you a new kit for free. We encourage you to watch video tutorials before doing yours, and if the company offers video support, take advantage of that.
Do at-home aligner companies employ licensed dentists and orthodontists?
The vast majority do, with some, like Candid, working exclusively with orthodontists. However, there are companies who have trained technicians making their treatment plans. If doctor oversight matters to you, be sure the companies you consider offer it.
Should I expect to experience pain during treatment?
Pain, not so much, but soreness is common with braces and aligners. The teeth become sensitive when pressure on them changes, so at the start of treatment and after each new aligner or adjustment, you might experience discomfort. Braces can also irritate the soft tissues of the mouth.
Will I need to see a doctor regularly as part of my treatment?
With braces, yes. You must see the doctor for adjustments and monitoring every so many weeks. With at-home clear aligners, you do not see a doctor in person. However, depending on the system, you may do remote check-ins.
Are there restrictions on using HSA or FSA funds to cover treatment?
Most of these accounts prevent using funds on cosmetic treatments. If your orthodontic corrections are purely cosmetic, do not expect them to be covered.
What happens if I finish treatment and feel unhappy with the results?
If you are getting in-person treatment, you talk to your doctor about what you want to see changed. However, if you went with an at-home method, contact the company. Some will make more aligners to tweak your results so you can smile with confidence.
What allows at-home aligner companies to offer their treatment for less than braces?
There are a few differences between these treatments that allow mail-order aligner companies to offer their systems for less than braces. These include:
- The materials in aligners are cheaper than those in braces.
- You do not need to pay for office visits and the associated costs.
- A smaller percentage of overhead costs are shouldered by each patient.
- Treatment times are shorter.
- The treatments are less complex.