Having braces removed or finishing clear aligner treatment can be an exciting time, but then comes the retainer. While it’s everyone’s dream to show off their new, perfect smile, retainers are a necessary tool to help preserve it. That’s because despite wearing aligners or braces for a year or two, the teeth still want to move once those braces are removed.

A retainer can make the difference between keeping that smile or going back to how the teeth were before treatment – which could mean the dreaded retreatment later in life. Read on to learn more about shifting teeth, types of retainers, and how to wear a retainer right:

The science behind shifting teeth

Still not convinced a retainer is necessary? Remember that teeth, like any part of the body, have shifted over the years to settle into their preferred position. When receiving orthodontic treatment, the teeth are forced into new positions that the body doesn’t love but has no choice in (thanks to sturdy metal, brackets, or aligners).

Once those straightening methods are removed, the body wants things to go back to how they were! For many, that means crowding toward the center, but it can look different for everyone. It also doesn’t help that repetitive habits, like grinding teeth, can also help to shift one’s teeth.

So, with the body wanting teeth back the way they were and external forces helping to move them along, it’s necessary for the patient to wear a retainer.

Retainer types

Retainers come in a few forms, making them adaptable to an individual’s wants and needs. The two primary forms are clear retainer trays and acrylic and metal pieces:

Clear retainers

Just like clear aligners and braces exist, so do clear retainers. They’re not interchangeable, but both are designed to help care for the teeth in a less visible way. These clear retainers are a clear tray that fits especially to that new smile, usually taken after a mold of the teeth when treatment is done. The plastic is durable, relatively inconspicuous, and removable!

Acrylic and metal retainers

This more traditional retainer form consists of a metal wire that wraps across the teeth to keep them in place. The wire is part of an acrylic piece that fits the roof of the mouth or against the back of the teeth in order to keep the wire snug and keep teeth in place.

How long does one have to wear a retainer?

The big question many people wonder is, “How long does one have to wear a retainer?” In one form or another, patients may have to wear retainers forever, since the teeth will never stop moving. But the good news is that the more time that passes, the less someone will need to wear their retainer. While the exact wear instructions will depend on each individual’s needs, here’s an example of a typical schedule:

  • One to six months after treatment: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • Six months to one year after treatment: 12 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • One year after treatment and beyond: 8-12 hours a day, 1-3 days a week

How to care for retainers

Luckily, retainers require minimal daily care. Wearers should rinse their retainer throughout the day to avoid any build-up while away from home. For acrylic retainers, an occasional soak or brushing with baking soda and water can help to keep the retainer squeaky clean, avoiding bacteria growth or other issues.

In the case of clear retainers, it’s important to be gentle as any scratches or clouding are much more obvious due to the clear trays. Use a softer brush and delicate cleaner like dish soap to deep clean. With both types of retainers, never use toothpaste as it is too abrasive, and always remove retainers before cleaning them or the teeth.

Coping with retainers

Retainers are something that can take a bit of getting used to. However, any lingering issues should resolve within the first few days or weeks of wear.


Retainers should not be too painful or cause more problems. They’re simply meant to preserve what braces have already done. But that is not to say that there may not be slight discomfort or pressure within the first few wears as the teeth adjust.

Also, keep in mind that there will be additional pain if one forgets to wear the retainers for a few days or weeks. If there is severe pain at any point, it may be time to consult an orthodontist.


Similar to braces, retainers may affect the way one can speak. While it may take time for the mouth, especially the teeth, to cope with the new addition, speaking should return to normal within a few days to a week of wear.

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Name: Michael Bertini
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