You’ve reached the end of your orthodontic treatment. Congratulations! Perfecting your smile is a demanding, time-consuming process, and it takes a lot of patience. Nice work!
Since you’ve put so much work into your new dream smile, you’ll want to protect it for life. To do so, you’ll need to wear aftercare retainers faithfully. The catch: you have to wear retainers forever. If you’re frustrated by the thought of wearing your retainers after so much time wearing braces or clear aligners, you’re not alone.
But believe us; the frustration is worth it. And thankfully, you’ll have to wear your aligners for less time per day as time goes on. In this article, we’ll explain why that’s true, plus what happens if you skimp on retainer wear.
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What Do Retainers Do?
Retainers aren’t just another clear aligner in your treatment process. In fact, they play a vital role in your orthodontic treatment.
During treatment, your clear aligners (or braces) spent a lot of time pulling your teeth into new positions little by little. But instead of moving your teeth into new positions, your retainers will hold your teeth in the same positions. Retainers are necessary because teeth have a tendency to shift back to their original positions after aligner treatment.
That backwards shift is commonly referred to as dental relapse. Throughout your entire lifetime (or for women, during pregnancy), your teeth shift gradually anyway. But it’s especially likely after orthodontic treatment. Normally, your teeth are cemented into your jaw bone by the roots and dental ligaments. However, the forces used in orthodontic treatment actually break up and soften those tissues, allowing your teeth to move into new positions.
Orthodontic treatment moves your teeth pretty rapidly. By the time you finish, the tissues in your mouth are still soft. If left to themselves, your teeth will shift back towards their new positions because there’s no anchor for the teeth to grip onto. That’s why you need to wear your retainers. The retainer will hold your teeth in their new positions so your soft tissues have ample opportunity to re-harden.
Who Needs to Wear a Retainer?
Retainers are a little more common than you’d expect. Lots of people end up wearing them. In fact, they’re a staple item in many different orthodontic treatments:
- Braces: Even though braces are widely regarded as the most powerful orthodontic treatment method available, they still require you to wear retainers after treatment.
- Invisalign: Invisalign first introduced their clear aligners as an alternative to braces in the 90s, and they’re still going strong. But after wearing your last aligner, you’ll still switch to a retainer.
- Home aligners: Home aligner companies will ship you clear aligners (a lot like Invisalign trays) directly to your door so you don’t have to visit the orthodontist. As part of your treatment kit, they’ll also send you your first set of post-treatment retainers, too.
- Orthodontic surgeries: Sometimes, orthodontists will need to pull out all the stops to correct a severe issue like overbite, underbite, crossbite, and more. Once your incisions have healed enough, your orthodontist may have you wear a retainer to keep everything in place.
How Long Do I Need To Wear One?
Everyone has a slightly different experience with their orthodontic treatments, and aftercare retainers are no different. Typically, your orthodontist will recommend that you wear your retainers for 22 hours per day for the first 2 weeks after treatment. Some recommend maintaining that near-constant wear schedule for up to 6 months. But your wear schedule will match your smile’s unique needs.
But no matter what your wear schedule looks like, your teeth will begin to solidify in their final positions while you wear the retainers. The retention process won’t be completely permanent after just two weeks, but it will be hardened enough for you to reduce the amount of time you need to wear your retainers. At this point, most orthodontists will tell you that you can switch to wearing your retainers at night only.
You’ll need to continue wearing your retainers at nighttime for an indefinite amount of time. That said, your retainers don’t last forever. You will need to replace them, but how often depends on the type of retainer you use. For example, with clear retainers from home aligner companies, it’s best to buy a replacement set every six to twelve months.
Your dentist or orthodontist will give you the run-down on how often you should replace your retainer. He or she might also give you permission to wear it just a few nights a week. No matter what the dentist prescribes, you should follow their guidance carefully to protect your new smile.
What If I Don’t?
Wearing your retainer might seem like a hassle, but trust us; it’s worth it. Failing to wear your aftercare retainers could cause your teeth to shift back into your new positions. And in some cases, your teeth might end up more crooked, crowded, or spaced than they were to begin with.
Even if your teeth don’t shift back rapidly, they will do so over time. This reversal is relapsing, and it’s a common problem when orthodontic patients don’t wear their retainers as prescribed. Minor relapse is a bummer, but extensive relapse might require additional, expensive treatment down the road. In some cases, you could need treatment again in as little as a few years.
What Type of Retainer Should I Get?
When it comes to retainers, you have several different options. And since you have to wear your retainer for so much time after treatment, it’s well worth it to pick one that best fits your needs. So let’s talk about the three most common types of retainers.
Hawley retainers are one of the oldest, most common types of retainers. Made of a combination of moldable, aluminum wiring and plastic (typically acrylic), Hawley retainers have several advantages. For one thing, Hawley retainers are easily adjustable. You can customize them, too. Most people opt for clear or flesh-colored plastic, but if you want a bright color or sparkles, you can add them in. Hawley retainers are also really durable. It’s not uncommon for a retainer to last at least 10 years.
Hawley retainers also make cleaning very easy—both for your teeth and the retainer itself. You can brush and floss like you normally would, and cleaning the retainer is a cinch, too.
That said, there are a few disadvantages to this kind of retainer. For one thing, the wires are pretty visible. It can also take a while to adjust to wearing one; some people suffer from a slight lisp with Hawley retainers.
Invisible retainers look a lot like aligners used by Invisalign and home aligner companies. And they’re practically identical; in fact, some aligner companies tell you to just use your last aligner as your post-treatment retainer. These retainers have a few key advantages. Obviously, they’re nearly invisible, and since you can remove them, it’s easy to clean your teeth. And discomfort with invisible retainers is minimal, especially if you’ve been wearing clear aligner trays throughout treatment.
Invisible retainers aren’t as durable as Hawley retainers, though. Most professionals recommend that you get a new pair every six to twelve months. Unfortunately, the retainers are a little trickier to clean. And if you ever need dental work done that changes the shape of one or more teeth, you may need to redo your impressions to have new retainers made.
Fixed retainers use a metal wire and dental bonding agents to bind the retainer to the insides of your front teeth. That unique position has several advantages. First, they’re pretty durable, and they’re invisible to others. And unlike lingual braces, fixed retainers don’t affect your speech too much.
There are disadvantages to fixed retainers, too. For one thing, they can be a bit expensive since they take more time and expertise to install. Then there’s cleaning to consider: brushing and flossing around fixed retainer wires is a challenge. You also can’t remove it (although that might be an advantage if you’ll be tempted to take them out too frequently). Some people also find that the wire is uncomfortable against their tongues.
Regardless of whether you opt for a fixed retainer, an invisible one, or a Hawley retainer, you need to wear it consistently to protect your newly-perfected smile.
Wearing your aligners frequently might sound unpleasant, but it really isn’t as bad as it sounds. You get used to the feeling of wearing them pretty quickly, and they aren’t as uncomfortable or visible as braces. Plus, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to wear the aligners at nighttime only. Once you reach that point, you’ll be asleep for most of the time you’re wearing them, making them unnoticeable.
All in all, the retainers will keep your teeth from shifting, so the hassle of wearing them is worth it. You’ll ultimately save time, money, and of course, your smile.