When someone mentions clear aligners, Invisalign immediately comes to mind. That’s because Invisalign is the industry’s top clear aligner provider. They’ve been crafting beautiful smiles since the 90s, and they keep improving their treatment methods.
But do Invisalign’s beautiful results last forever? Here’s the short answer: your new smile requires some upkeep. Without the right routine, your smile can shift back to its original, pre-treatment position. In this guide, we’ll explain why that shift happens and what you can do to prevent it.
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What Happens During Invisalign Treatment
During Invisalign treatment, you will wear a clear aligner on both your top and bottom teeth. Those aligners act a lot like the brackets and wires of braces would. Made from clear, molded plastic, each aligner pulls on your teeth, moving them into new positions. But each aligner tray only moves your teeth so far; that’s why you need a full set of aligners. When you wear each aligner for the prescribed amount of time (typically 2 weeks), you move your teeth from their starting positions to their perfect ones. Each aligner acts as a step in the process.
That’s just the basics, though. If your case is tougher, your orthodontist may add SmartForce attachments. These attachments are affixed directly to a few of your teeth (they’re tooth-colored, so they’re still discreet). Your aligners grip the attachments like an anchor, allowing for more powerful, nuanced movements. You can also have elastics added, much like the rubber bands used with braces.
The extra ‘oomph’ provided by elastics and SmartForce attachments allows Invisalign to treat tougher cases than at-home aligners. For example, Invisalign can correct almost any case of crossbite, overjet, overbite, underbite—you name it, and Invisalign can usually treat it.
Since Invisalign typically handles tougher cases, their average treatment times last between 12 to 18 months. The primary exception is Invisalign Express, a “mini version” of Invisalign that’s reserved for minor cases. Express treatment lasts 6 months on average.
What Happens After Invisalign Treatment
12 to 18 months sounds like a long time, right? Sure, it’s a long time to wait to see your perfected smile. But to your body, a year really isn’t that long—and it definitely isn’t enough time to fully adjust to the changes your aligners have made on your smile.
Invisalign exerts a lot of force on your teeth, and while the shifts seem gradual, there’s actually a lot going on under the surface of your gums. The tissues surrounding your teeth actually become slightly inflamed, and they soften up. That includes your bone tissue. This softening allows your teeth to move as desired, but eventually, the tissue needs to re-harden.
When you stop using Invisalign (and the aligners aren’t pulling on your teeth anymore), those tissues have their chance to solidify. But here’s the thing: after treatment, your teeth tend to shift back to their original positions. That backwards shift is called relapsing. If you don’t do anything to prevent it, your teeth may need another round of orthodontic treatment in just a few years.
Fortunately, you can easily avoid orthodontic relapse by wearing post-treatment retainers. Retainers don’t pull on your teeth to shift them into new positions; instead, retainers hold your teeth in their final positions until your tissues can harden around your roots again.
In reality, your teeth shift throughout your entire lifetime (and for women, during pregnancy). But your teeth are especially vulnerable after orthodontic treatment. Retainers protect them from that shift.
Types of Retainers
Just like there are lots of different kinds of orthodontic treatment methods, there are several different kinds of retainers. Let’s talk about the three most common types.
Clear retainers look a lot like the aligners you use during Invisalign treatment. In fact, the only real difference is that the retainers don’t pull on the teeth; they just hold the teeth in place. There is no one-size-fits-all price tag for clear retainers (each provider has their own fee), but on average, they cost $100 per set.
With clear retainers, you’ll typically need to wear the tray for 22 hours per day for the first two weeks. After that, you can usually switch to wearing them at night only. However, you should adhere to the wear schedule prescribed by your orthodontist.
Some orthodontists don’t prefer these retainers because they don’t allow the teeth to sit directly on each other (although the same argument can be made for Invisalign aligners). Another drawback is that the retainers can be a bit difficult to clean compared to other types of retainers. However, after Invisalign treatment, you’ll be a pro at cleaning aligners, so that’s not a big concern. It’s also important to note that clear retainers need to be replaced periodically. Most orthodontists recommend changing them every six months or so.
On the plus side, clear retainers are one of the more comfortable options (especially since you’re already accustomed to aligner trays). Even better: they’re practically invisible. And while the retainers are tricky to clean, they make it easy to clean your teeth.
Fixed, or permanent retainers, are completely invisible because they’re attached to the backs of your teeth. Typically, an orthodontist glues a thin metal wire to the front 4 to 6 teeth on both arches. The wire holds the teeth in place, but some types of fixed retainers will add in additional brackets, too.
Since fixed retainers stay on your teeth until removed, you don’t have to worry about wear schedules. Some orthodontists will recommend that you use fixed retainers indefinitely; they’re durable enough to last for years. In other cases, you’ll wear fixed retainers for six months to a year before switching to one of the other types.
The biggest downside to fixed retainers is that they can be difficult to floss around; you may even need a threading tool to floss effectively. These retainers can also be uncomfortable, since the wires and brackets tend to rub against your tongue. There’s a good chance you’ll have a slight lisp when wearing them, especially at first. They’re more expensive, too: fixed retainers can cost $250 or more per arch.
That said, fixed retainers do have some perks. Since they’re attached to your teeth, you don’t have to worry about losing them or forgetting to wear them for the right amount of time. Fixed retainers also retain the teeth well, and they’re completely invisible to other people.
Hawley retainers are a mix of wires and molded plastic (typically acrylic). The wires wrap around your teeth, and the plastic is molded to match the roof of your mouth. Unlike other types of retainers, Hawley retainers are adjustable, so your orthodontist can make minor tweaks to your teeth after treatment. If you want, you can pick sparkles or unique colors for the plastic portion of a Hawley retainer, but it’s not a necessity. Most people opt for flesh-colored or clear plastic to keep it subtle.
Like clear retainers, Hawley retainers typically require all-day wear for about two months. After that, you can usually switch to wearing them at night. Most orthodontists recommend that you continue nighttime wear indefinitely.
The biggest disadvantage to Hawley retainers is their visibility; it’s easy to spot the wires on our teeth. Some people also deal with a lisp when wearing them. They’re a little pricier than clear retainers, too; they typically cost around $150-200 per arch.
That said, Hawley retainers are easy to clean, and if you care for them properly, they last a long time. Some orthodontists also prefer them because they let your teeth touch normally.
Choosing a Retainer
Ultimately, the most important choice you’ll make is a daily one: deciding to wear your retainer as prescribed. If you do, your teeth will stay put in their new positions, and you won’t need any additional treatment. All three types of retainers will keep your teeth in place, so which one you pick is a matter of personal preference (and your orthodontist’s recommendations).
For example, if you want your retainer to be invisible, you might prefer clear aligners. If you don’t want to worry about taking your retainers in and out, fixed retainers are a great alternative. Last but not least, Hawley retainers are perfect if you don’t want to worry about replacing your retainers regularly. Some users report that their Hawley retainers last for 10 to 20 years!
Before you pick a type of retainer, you should chat with your orthodontist about your options. He or she will be able to tell you the local fees for each type of retainer. Plus, your orthodontist knows your smile, and depending on your needs, may be able to recommend the best retainer for you.
Invisalign has always produced impressive results; they transform smiles in the truest sense of the word. But even Invisalign’s transformations are only temporary unless you take the appropriate measures.
It may seem like a hassle to wear a retainer; after all, when your treatment ends, you’ve worn plastic aligners for over a year. It’s tempting to skip retainer wear and let your teeth be free. However, the hassle of retainers is completely worth it. You’ve invested a lot of time in your Invisalign treatment. So protect that investment by wearing your retainers. You’ll be glad you did!