What is a Retainer and What’s the Best Type?

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After your braces come off, what next? You’ll need to wear a retainer if you want your teeth to stay in their new position. The definition of a retainer is simply something that holds something else in place, which is exactly what your retaining device will do for your teeth. 

plastic vs metal retainers
Clear or metal retaining devices? There are different options to consider.

There are two main types of teeth retainer your dentist might recommend: a permanent model (also known as a bonded or fixed retainer) or one that can be removed such as an Essix or Hawley model. There are also special retainer braces which can be used for teeth straightening.

In this article, we will guide you through all these options and explain how much retainers cost, both with and without insurance.

We’ll also show you how to clean your retainer to make it last as long as possible.

What is a retainer?

A dental retainer is a device that fits over or behind your teeth to keep them in position. These appliances are most often used after treatment with braces to maintain the changes made to your teeth once braces have been removed.

Retaining devices can be made from clear plastic, metal wire, or a combination of the two. The different types function in slightly different ways, but they have the same purpose.

How does a retainer work, and what happens if you don’t wear one after braces?

keep teeth straight
Wearing a teeth retaining device after braces is the best way to keep your teeth straight

Let’s be honest, wearing braces isn’t something you do for fun. You’ve worked hard and probably endured some discomfort to get a smile you’re happier with. The last thing you want is for your teeth to start moving out of position again. That’s where your teeth retainer comes in.

After your braces have been removed, your teeth will naturally start moving back to their original position. It’s also common for our teeth to shift as we get older and when wisdom teeth come through. Wearing a retainer after braces helps to hold your teeth in the correct alignment.

Both removable and permanent retainers will keep your teeth straight for years to come, as long as you keep wearing them as your dentist advises!

You can get a retaining device for the upper or lower teeth only, or for both – usually corresponding to where your braces were placed.

Braces vs. retainers: What’s the difference?

Braces are designed to move misaligned teeth into a better position to improve dental health. They can be fixed onto your teeth with brackets, or you can use removable aligner braces like Invisalign. Treatment with braces can last anywhere between 6 months and 3 years, depending on the amount of movement required.

Retaining devices are worn after braces and are usually intended to keep your teeth straight rather than move them. There are many different types: permanent or removable, plastic or metal, but they all have the same goal: to stop your teeth from becoming crooked again.

Can you use a retaining device for teeth straightening?

Some mouth retainers can straighten crooked teeth if only mild correction is needed. For example, if you have previously worn braces and your teeth have started moving again. Your dentist or orthodontist will be able to advise you of the best treatment for you.

Spring retainers, or spring aligners, can help with simple movements of the teeth. They look similar to a normal Hawley retainer, but they have extra parts that move one or more teeth slightly or help to prevent the teeth from overcrowding or twisting.

woman inserting invisible aligner
Invisalign retainers look similar to Essix devices

If you want to straighten your teeth without permanent metal braces, an Invisalign retainer could be a good solution. The Invisalign system uses clear, removable aligners. These look the same as clear plastic retainers and are almost invisible when worn. Unlike normal ones, though, Invisalign retainers are carefully designed to put pressure on certain teeth to move them into the desired position.

Read more about Invisalign retainers here and take our free Smile Test below to see if you’d be a suitable candidate for invisible braces.

Check your eligibility
for invisible braces
Step 1 / 4
1 Choose the image that most closely resembles your teeth:
2 Give some more information about the spaces between your teeth:
Upper teeth:
Lower teeth:
3 General information
I would like to begin orthodontic treatment:
Have you previously had orthodontic treatment (with metal braces, clear braces, or any other type)?
4 Please provide the following details to complete the process:

 

Read more about all your options for getting straighter teeth here.

What else are removable retainers used for?

There are other things, aside from maintaining straight teeth, that a dentist might recommend a dental retainer for. These include:

  • Stopping tongue thrusting
  • Helping a child to stop sucking their thumb
  • Preventing damage from bruxism (teeth grinding)

Types of retaining devices: Removable vs. permanent retainers

As we’ve mentioned, there are a few different types of teeth retaining devices available. We’ll give you some information about their plus points and downsides and show you what each retaining device looks like, but you should listen to your dentist’s advice about what’s best for your teeth.

Hawley Retainer

hawley customized
Hawley retainer: plastic and metal

Hawley retainers, also called wire or metal retainers, can be used on both your upper and lower teeth. They are fully removable and you should take them out for eating and drinking sugary drinks. The plate (the part that touches your gums and palette) is made from acrylic plastic, and there are wires that sit over and across your teeth. Some dentists might offer to customize the retainer color or add a pattern.

This is one of the cheapest options available and they can last for many years if cared for properly. One obvious downside of Hawley retainers is that they are very noticeable, especially if used on the upper teeth. Once you transition to only wearing them at night, though, this isn’t such an issue.

You may also hear a Hawley device called a ‘wrap-around retainer’, but it’s different from some braces treatments that need a headpiece. As mentioned earlier, spring retainers can be added to offer minor teeth straightening.

Essix Retainer

clear retainer what does it look like
These clear retainers are hard to notice

If you want a clear retaining device that is removable then an Essix retainer could be suitable. This is formed to completely cover your teeth and sit above your gum line.

Some people prefer this type because they are less noticeable than wire retainers. Essix retainer costs are similar to the Hawley style, but they may not last as long.

You’ll need to remove your device for eating and clean it regularly. It might become discolored over time, but you can prevent this with a proper cleaning routine – more on this later.

Vivera Retainer

This is the clear, plastic retainer from the manufacturers of the Invisalign retainer (sometimes called Invisalign braces). It is made from super strong material so it’s less likely to break than other plastic devices.

To get one fitted, a laser scan is taken of your mouth, so if you don’t like the feeling of teeth impressions being taken, this could be a great option. You don’t have to have had an Invisalign retainer to be able to get a Vivera retainer.

Permanent Retainer

permanent retainer what does it look like
The fixed metal wire of a permanent retainer keeps the front teeth in alignment

A completely different option is a permanent bonded retainer. Also called lingual or fixed, this type is only used on the front six teeth, often just as a bottom retainer on the lower jaw, although some people also have one on the top. A strong wire is glued behind the teeth, permanently retaining the shape you achieved with braces. You may find yourself replacing yours every 3-10 years.

Permanent retainers cost a little more than basic removable ones, but the fact that they are completely hidden is a plus for many people.

While there’s no chance of losing this type of device, having the wire fixed to your teeth does make it difficult to clean and floss properly.

How much does a retainer cost?

There are lots of factors that determine how much a retainer costs. Which dentist you go to, where the surgery is, and what type you are recommended to use can all affect the cost. Here’s a rough guide to how much different retainers cost with a private dentist:

Type of retainer Material Permanent or removable? Price range Lasts for:
Permanent (bonded) Wire fixed behind teeth Permanent $250-500 3 - 10 years
Hawley (metal) Wire and plastic Removable $150-300 5 - 10 years
Essix (clear) Clear plastic Removable $100-250 6 months - 3 years
Vivera (Invisalign) Clear plastic Removable $300-750 (price for a set of 4 1 - 5 years

 

Note that prices are for a single device, except for Vivera Invisalign retainers which come in a set of 3 or 4.

Follow-up treatment or checks may be needed after you have your appliance fitted, so make sure you check whether this is included in the price. There are other factors to consider as well; the cost of a removable retainer may be lower than the cost of a permanent one. However, how often will you have to replace them?

What does Medicaid cover?

Children under 18 in families below a certain income level are entitled to free dental treatment, either from Medicaid or from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  This applies to orthodontic treatment and orthodontic retaining devices, as long as the work is deemed medically necessary. The only thing that may not be covered is the cost to replace a retaining device that’s lost or broken beyond repair, which can cost anywhere from $70 to $500, depending on whether it’s an individual or a set. 

Generally speaking, Medicaid will not cover treatment for:

  • Slightly protruding teeth
  • Minor misalignments that don’t affect function
  • Over- or under-bites where you can still use teeth normally
  • Anything that won’t cause future health problems

This guide from the  Center for Healthcare Strategies explains more about what’s covered by Medicaid depending on what state you live in. If you have a Medicaid or medical assistance card, the phone number you should call for more information pertaining to your coverage will be listed on the back.

rainbow teeth retaining
Ask if you can get fun options like with this colorful Hawley retainer

Note that the type of retaining device you get depends on your insurance and what your orthodontist thinks best.

Most adults are not eligible for braces and retainers on Medicaid except where there is a clear medical need for the treatment. 

What does a replacement cost?

Whether or not you or your child qualify for a free replacement retaining device depends on your insurance and the state you live in. To find out if you or your child can get a replacement retainer for free, call the number on the back of your health insurance card. 

With a private dentist, a replacement often costs the same as the original. There might be some savings if you don’t need new dental impressions.

Damaged devices can sometimes be fixed. If yours has been damaged or broken, seek advice from your dentist.

It’s worth noting, Vivera retainers cost more but come in a set of three or four. This means that if you lose your device, or break it, you can just switch to one of the others rather than having to rush to the dentist.

How long do you have to wear a retainer after braces?

what does a retainer look like
You’ll be wearing your retaining device long term

Your teeth will slowly move throughout your life, especially if you had your braces before your wisdom teeth grew in. It’s quite common for people to notice their teeth have moved after braces, years after receiving orthodontic treatment. To make sure your teeth stay straight, you should be prepared to wear an orthodontic retaining device for the rest of your life.

If you have a removable retainer, you’ll probably be asked to wear it nearly all of the time for the first six months, except while eating of course! After that, you can normally start to wear your device only overnight. Your dentist will instruct you on how long to wear your teeth retainer each day according to your treatment.

By its very nature, a permanent retainer stays in place the whole time. You don’t have to remember anything except your normal cleaning routine – a plus if you are worried you might forget to put your device in each day or night.

How to clean your retainer

Cleaning your device is just as important as cleaning your teeth. Otherwise, food debris can get stuck and encourage plaque and bacteria to build up, increasing the risk of tooth decay and gum disease and creating bad odors. Clear retainers will also become discolored if you don’t clean them properly.

Removable and permanent retainers need different types of care, possibly including the use of a special retainer cleaner. Your dentist will show you the best way to clean your retainers, but here are some guidelines.

How to clean removable devices

Retainer Brite cleaning tablets
Use a specialized retainer cleaner to keep bad smells and stains away

You can follow these simple steps to learn how to clean your retainer:

  • Rinse your device with warm water after removal and before putting it back in.
  • Clean your device twice a day with dish soap, or castile soap, using a soft bristle toothbrush to brush away plaque and bits of food. Let it dry with the lid of the retainer case open. 
  • Use a cotton swab to get into any deep grooves.
  • Some dentists will recommend you soak your device in a retainer cleaner like Retainer Brite. Follow your dentist’s advice and the instructions on the product packaging of the cleaner.
  • To clean clear retainers that have turned yellow, gently scrub using baking soda, water and a soft toothbrush.
  • Never use toothpaste on your Hawley or Essix retainer! It can be too rough and abrasive, so stick to soap and water.

You can use these methods to clean your Invisalign retainer as well. Bonded devices can’t be removed for cleaning, so the process is different. It might take a little getting used to but it will be part of your daily routine in no time.

Dental floss or interdental brushes are vital to maintaining your dental health when you have fixed retainers behind your teeth. If you use floss, you will need to use a threader to pass it between your teeth, under the bonded wire. Interdental brushes may make it easier to get to any plaque build-up; have a try and see what works best for you. Of course, you should still brush your teeth as normal too.

How to Use Retainer Brite to clean your retainer

In the following video, this expert describes her cleaning routine using a sonic cleaner and Retainer Brite: 

Conclusion

There are several types of teeth retainers you can wear after braces, but they all have the same aim: to keep your teeth in position after they have been straightened. It’s also possible to get retainer braces which provide mild correction.

Whether you decide to get a permanent retainer or a removable Hawley or Essix retainer, the important thing is to follow your dentist’s instructions for using it properly. They will tell you how long to wear your device each day and how to clean it properly so it lasts as long as possible.

Teeth Retainer FAQs

Do retainers hurt?

Retaining devices can hurt sometimes, but usually just for a day or two after fitting. The pain should not be really bad and you can take your usual painkillers to manage this type of pain. If it continues or gets worse you should go to the dentist as soon as possible.

Can I keep my teeth straight without a retainer?

The short answer is, no. It’s completely normal for your teeth to move over time and this movement can be unpredictable. To guarantee your time with braces was worth it, you will need to keep wearing your appliance forever.

What’s the best retainer after braces?

best retainer after braces
Choose a clear device if you’d prefer something less obvious

It is important to wear a plastic or wire retainer after braces, but which one is best for you depends on what your dentist advises. There are a few factors to consider, such as cost, how easy they are to keep clean, how noticeable they are, and whether you are prone to losing things!

You may be offered a choice of metal vs. clear retainers, and there are positive and negative points about each. Weigh your options, but remember that a removable one can easily be changed if you don’t like it. Ask your dentist what they recommend for you, and why.

Why do my retainers smell bad?

Your device is exposed to all the food, plaque and bacteria in your mouth so – just like your mouth – it will start to smell if you don’t clean it properly. Soak it in a specially designed cleaning product like Retainer Brite every couple of days to keep smells and stains at bay. After each cleaning, make sure you store it in the retainer case with the lid open until it dries.

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Sources

Healthline: How to Clean Each Type of Retainer Consulted 28th March 2019.

Center for Healthcare Strategies Inc: Medicaid Adult Dental Benefits: An Overview Consulted 5 June 2019.

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