No matter what treatment method you use to straighten your teeth, your orthodontist or dentist will need precise images of your teeth. After all, images allow for a clear picture of where your teeth are right now—from your molars to your incisors and every tooth in between.
With traditional in-office clear aligners (sometimes called invisible braces), an orthodontist takes digital scans (and sometimes even X-rays) at your first appointment. At-home clear aligners, however, work a bit differently. You’ll have to take care of images on your own, and there are two options: visiting a retail location for a teeth scan or taking impressions of your teeth.
There are pros and cons to either method, but taking impressions at home is the most common method. In this guide, we’ll give you everything you need to know about both teeth scans and impression kits so you can choose the best one for you.
A Quick Overview
Both teeth scans and impression kits are proven, effective methods for kicking off your treatment. And no matter which one you use, you’ll be well on your way to seeing your perfect smile. That said, even though teeth scans and impression kits have the same end result, they’re two very different processes. Here’s a quick look at the primary differences between teeth scans and impression kits.
|Teeth Scans||Impression Kits|
|Location: Scans occur at a retail location of your chosen company||Location: In the comfort of your home (ideally in front of a mirror)|
|Availability: Scans are only available at the cities where your company offers retail locations (more for Smile Direct, only about 40 locations for Candid)||Availability: Anywhere there’s mail service (note that not all companies ship internationally)|
|Cost: Teeth scans are completely free||Cost: Varies, but average cost is $49|
|Who does it: A lab technician or care assistant at the retail location||Who does it: You, the patient|
|Mess: Minimal, since the process requires scans only||Mess: Putty, dental trays, cheek spreaders, and other materials create some mess to clean up afterwards|
What Is an Impression Kit?
No matter what company you go with, the impression kits are pretty similar. Typically, impression kits include molding putty, dental trays, cheek spreaders, and of course, instructions. Some companies give you practice putty to work with, too.
In theory, the process of taking impressions is pretty simple: you mix the putty, fill each tray with putty, and then bite down on the putty-filled trays to make 3D molds of your teeth. You can do one tray at a time, but you’ll need to take an impression of each row of teeth. A lot of companies will also ask you to take pictures of your teeth from different angles, too.
However, a lot of people struggle to get the impressions quite right. They might not bite down deep enough, or they might be off-center. It’s fairly easy to mess them up. To help with this, several companies offer video consultations to coach you through the impression process.
There are advantages and disadvantages to impression kits. If you can get the impressions right, it’s very convenient to complete the process at home. That’s especially true if you don’t live near a retail location or you’ve chosen to use a company that doesn’t offer teeth scans.
However, impression kits are a bit time-consuming and they’re tricky to use. And there’s always cost involved, since you’ll need to purchase the kit yourself. (Teeth scans are usually free). Thankfully, if you do purchase an impression kit and it turns out that you’re not a good candidate for aligner treatment, you’ll get a refund on the impression kit.
What Are Teeth Scans?
For a while, impression kits were the industry standard for starting treatment. But it quickly became obvious that many customers were struggling with the impression kits. So, some companies wanted to find an easier method.
Smile Direct and Candid found one: teeth scans. In practice, teeth scans use technology similar to what an orthodontist would use to kick off treatment with braces or Invisalign.
To get started, you’ll need to schedule an appointment at a Candid Studio or Smile Shop (for Smile Direct; the other companies don’t maintain retail locations). When you arrive for your appointment—which should last about 30 minutes—a care assistant will use a special imaging device to take 360-degree images of your teeth. (It’s minimally invasive, so don’t worry about a dentist poking around in your mouth). After the scan, your care assistant will show you the images and answer any questions you have.
All you really have to do is show up and open your mouth when you’re told to. Compared to impression kits, teeth scans are very easy. As an added plus, the appointment is completely free. But there are a couple disadvantages. For one, only Candid and Smile Direct offer teeth scans. And there aren’t locations everywhere. Smile Direct has 300+ stateside SmileShops. Candid has about 40, and they’re typically concentrated in larger cities and suburbs. If you’re in a more remote location, you might find that an impression kit is a better fit for your needs.
When you compare teeth scans with impression kits, it’s tough to say definitively that one option is better than the other. Which one is better depends on your needs, and inevitably, your location. Many people prefer the simplicity and ease of teeth scans, though.
Honestly, our favorite company is Byte, but they only offer impression kits. If you’re drawn to the simplicity of teeth scans, we understand why this might seem like a mark against Byte. But we’d encourage you to look beyond the impression kits when choosing a company.
After all, there are a bunch of other factors to consider when choosing which company to straighten your smile: pricing, speed, treatment quality, and customer service, to name a few.
Which Home Aligner Companies Offer Teeth Scans?
Like we’ve mentioned before, only Smile Direct and Candid currently offer teeth scans. That’s not to say other companies won’t do so in the future, but for now, those two are your only options for teeth scans.
Smile Direct has 300+ locations nationwide, including most major cities and dozens of other locales. If you don’t live near a SmileShop, don’t lose hope; Smile Direct also has Smile Buses that visit cities throughout the country. Chances are, they’ll come to a city near you sometime soon. Either way, Smile Direct requires you to schedule an appointment to have your teeth scanned. All you have to do is show up, though. During your 30-minute appointment, a SmileGuide will take a 3D image of your teeth and answer any questions you have.
Candid has far fewer locations compared to Smile Direct Club (about 40), with most of their locations in major cities. Candid encourages you to make an appointment, but they do accept walk-ins. Of course, appointments get priority service, so if you’re in a rush, you should schedule one.
During your appointment, a care assistant will take a 3D image of your teeth using an intraoral device. At most locations, you’ll even receive a complimentary panoramic X-ray of your teeth. This helps your orthodontist get a comprehensive picture of your oral health prior to starting treatment. They’ll also collect important information from your dental and medical history. Candid requires each person to have had a dentist appointment within the last 12 months.
Byte, AlignerCo, and SnapCorrect do not offer retail locations; impression kits are the only option. That said, they do their best to make the process easier, including video guides, detailed instructions, and in some cases, video calls to coach you through the process.
There’s no question: teeth scans are more convenient than impression kits, and they’re easier to use. But both methods have their advantages and drawbacks. Teeth scans are free, and you don’t have to worry about messing anything up.
Teeth scans aren’t available everywhere, though. Depending on where you live, an impression kit might be your only option. And if you can get the impressions right on your own, then you can kick off your treatment from the convenience of your own home. That’s its own plus.
Starting out your treatment with an impression kit or a teeth scan is an important step in perfecting your smile, but it’s not the only one. So it shouldn’t be the only thing you base your decision on. We strongly recommend that you account for other aspects of treatment in your decision, including treatment speed, quality, price, customer service, and much more.
It’s a big decision; we get it. And if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the different options, we’ve got you covered. For more information about the top aligner companies, check out our full comparison review.
This guide stacks up Byte, Candid, AlignerCo, and Smile Direct to compare how they rank on all the essentials of remote treatment. So if you’re curious about home teeth aligners, it’s a perfect place to start.