Millions of people all across the country have worn braces or aligners at some point in their lives to achieve a perfect smile. The key to keeping newly straightened teeth in place or starting over from scratch is the regular use of a retainer, an essential part of any orthodontic plan. Many patients underestimate the importance of retainers, but this appliance is all that stands in the way of the teeth shifting back to their previous places. Here at Coppe + Sears, we are proud to create healthy, long-lasting smiles. Keep reading below to learn all about retainers 101 and how they help us achieve those long-lasting smiles! 

What is a retainer?

A retainer is an orthodontic appliance that keeps teeth in their new positions following treatment. This helps patients avoid a phenomenon we call “relapse,” which describes a natural tendency the teeth have to drift back to their original positions over time. While relapse occurs most often in the late teens and early twenties, it can happen at any time, even following orthodontic treatment. 

This is because the teeth are always aware of their original places in the mouth. If there is no pressure on them, they will begin shifting back towards those spaces. During the active phase of treatment, that pressure is accomplished with braces or clear aligners. Once this initial phase is complete, a retainer is needed to prevent the teeth from drifting to their previous positions.

Patients need to wear their custom-designed retainer exactly as directed. Failure to do so can undo hard-earned progress and may require touch-up treatment. In severe cases, it may even be necessary to repeat the entire treatment process. This can happen faster than one may think, so it is essential that patients stick to the guidelines that are given along with their retainer. 

The different types of retainer

There are two types of retainers available to patients: fixed and removable. After a patient has completed the active phase of treatment with braces or aligners, Dr. Sears will determine which retainer option is best for them based on their specific needs, any preferences they have, and the level of compliance expected from them. 

Fixed retainers

A fixed retainer is composed of a thin wire that is positioned across the interior surface of the lower or upper front teeth. This is bonded into place with glue. Since the wire is stretched across several teeth, dental hygiene can require a bit more effort, especially when it comes to flossing. The bonded wire is incredibly efficient at keeping newly straightened teeth in place, however, and this type of retainer tends to have the best outcome overall. It comes with a bonus, too—patients never have to remember to wear it or worry about losing it since it stays in the mouth. 

Removable retainers

Removable retainers generally come with two different options: the Hawley retainer and the Essix retainer. The Hawley retainer is made of a wire and acrylic material, while the Essix retainer is composed of a clear plastic material similar to the kind used with Invisalign aligners. As with any retainer, each style is customized for the patient following the first phase of the treatment process. 

Hawley retainers

Hawley retainers have been around for a long time. In fact, they are probably one of the most recognizable orthodontic appliances we have outside of braces. They are kept in place by a wire that wraps around the teeth, which is then combined with an acrylic arch that rests against the roof of the mouth. The stainless steel wires can continue to be adjusted to achieve minor movement of the front teeth if needed. While many orthodontists have been moving away from this more traditional retainer, it can still be very useful for some patients.

Essix retainers

Essix retainers have been very popular with both orthodontists and patients over the last several years. They are made from a transparent plastic material and look similar to the trays that we use with the Invisalign clear aligner system. An Essix retainer is molded to the unique shape of each patient’s mouth and is much less noticeable than a Hawley retainer. With proper care, these retainers should last as long as the patient needs it. 

Caring for retainers

A good dental hygiene routine is necessary for a healthy smile, even after orthodontic treatment is complete. Patients need to know how to brush and floss their teeth properly, particularly if they are using a fixed retainer. The toothbrush should be angled properly and the surface of every tooth should be cleaned, taking special care with the area behind the fixed retainer. Patients should brush thoroughly but gently to ensure they do not damage the metal wire. 

Flossing with a fixed retainer can take some practice (and patience!) Using a 

Waterpik, floss threader, or orthodontic dental floss can help clean between the wire and the teeth. Patients should also avoid or moderate certain foods that can damage their fixed retainer, including crunchy or sticky snacks, and keep up with regular dental visits to keep plaque and cavities under control. 

Caring for removable retainers is fairly simple. The retainer should be removed when eating or drinking, and stored in a case any time it is not in the mouth. Patients should keep their removable retainer away from any heat sources, as this can cause deformation. This includes hot water, direct sunlight, in a hot car, near heat vents or the stove, and so on.  

Patients with removable retainers should follow Dr. Sears’ instructions for the care and cleaning of them. Normally this will include brushing the retainer with warm water and mild soap. It can also be soaked in an approved effervescent cleanser once a week or so for a more thorough cleaning.

Retainers 101

Trust Coppe + Sears for a lifetime of beautiful smiles

The latest in orthodontic wisdom is that most patients will need to wear some type of retainer indefinitely, although this is likely to only be part-time. This is the best way to keep a newly straightened smile looking and feeling fantastic for years to come! Although this recommendation can seem overwhelming at first, retainers quickly become part of a patient’s daily routine and are barely noticeable after some time has passed. To learn more about how our expert team achieves amazing smiles for patients of all ages, get in touch to schedule a FREE consultation with Dr. Sears!