different retainers

Braces may be used to treat a variety of orthodontic concerns, from crooked or crowded teeth to jaw alignment problems. Orthodontic treatment takes an average of 22 months, and when it’s time for your braces to come off, your orthodontist may recommend wearing a retainer. Read on to learn why orthodontists prescribe retainers and how long you have to wear a retainer after braces.

Why Should I Wear a Retainer?

Braces are used to move teeth into their ideal positions, but it may take some effort to keep them in place once your orthodontic treatment ends. Not only could the teeth drift back toward their original positions, but they could shift naturally throughout your life. To maintain your results, your orthodontist may recommend wearing a retainer

Wearing a retainer as prescribed may help keep your teeth where your orthodontist moved them. Holding the teeth in place allows the structures that support them to heal, which is important for the long-term stability of your orthodontic treatment.

Even after your orthodontic results are stable, your orthodontist may recommend wearing a retainer. The daily stresses of biting and chewing, coupled with the natural changes that come with aging, could shift your teeth to new positions over time. Your teeth could also shift positions if you have a habit of clenching and grinding your teeth or if you have certain oral health problems, such as gum disease.

What Happens if You Don’t Wear Your Retainer?

If you don’t wear your retainer as often as your orthodontist recommends, your teeth may not stay in their healthy new positions. When you put in the retainer, you might notice that it feels a bit snug. This could be a sign that your teeth have started to shift out of place, and the retainer needs to be worn more often.

When you don’t wear your retainer for a long period of time, it may not fit when you try to start wearing it again. That may happen if your teeth shift too far from their proper positions. If your retainer doesn’t fit, don’t try to force it onto your teeth. Your orthodontist may be able to make you a replacement retainer. 

Sometimes, the teeth may shift enough that your orthodontist recommends a touch-up treatment. For example, they may suggest a series of clear aligners to move your teeth back into their correct positions. If you get a touch-up treatment, remember to wear your retainer afterward to maintain the results.

Retainer After Braces

Relapse — teeth moving back to their original positions — is a risk after braces are removed. Wearing a retainer after braces may help you keep your teeth in their new, straightened positions. 

Braces apply a constant, gentle force to guide your teeth into their ideal positions. When a tooth is moved, the soft tissue that holds it in place (known as the periodontal ligament) gets stretched. This ligament connects the root of the tooth to the bone that surrounds the tooth and makes up the tooth socket. 

When braces are removed, these stretched ligaments may snap back. This may pull the straightened teeth back to their original positions, which could undo the hard work done by you and your orthodontist.

How Long Do You Wear a Retainer After Braces?

After braces, the straightened teeth need to be held in their new positions long enough for the bones and ligaments to heal. Your orthodontist may recommend wearing a retainer until this recovery process is complete.

The bone that supports the teeth tends to heal fairly quickly and may remodel within about a month. The ligaments may take longer to heal after being stretched. It could take eight months or longer for the elastic fibers in the ligaments to recover, according to the textbook An Introduction to Orthodontics. Until those fibers recover, the teeth could shift back into their pre-braces positions.

Since teeth may shift naturally throughout your life, your orthodontist may recommend wearing your retainer even after your mouth has healed. Talk to your orthodontist to find out how long you’ll need to wear your retainer.

Wearing a Retainer at Night

Some people may need to wear their retainers full-time, while others may only need to wear them at night. How often you’ll need to wear your retainer could vary based on how long ago you got your braces removed and how stable your teeth are. 

If your orthodontist recommends nighttime retainer use, you may wonder: How many hours should I wear my retainer at night? In the first six months after your braces come off, your orthodontist might recommend leaving your retainer in for 12 hours every night. After that, they may tell you to wear it during sleeping hours. For an adult, that means wearing a retainer for around seven or more hours a night.

Oral Hygiene with a Nighttime Retainer

When you wear a retainer at night, it’s important to clean it regularly. Your orthodontist may give you instructions on how to look after your retainer. Before putting in your retainer at night, your orthodontist may recommend brushing it with toothpaste. The retainer may need to be brushed again when you take it out in the morning. 

Retainer Types and Length of Time for Wearing Them

There are two main types of retainers: removable and fixed. Your orthodontist will recommend a retainer type that’s appropriate for your dental needs. 

Removable Retainers

Removable retainers are those you can put in and take out on your own. Removable options include:

  • Wire retainers. These removable retainers are also known as Hawley retainers or traditional retainers. The retainer features a thin, metal wire that runs across the front of your teeth and a plastic or acrylic plate that covers the roof of your mouth. Orthodontists may offer a variety of plate options, from a natural pink that blends in with the inside of your mouth to bold colors and personalized designs.
  • Clear retainers. Clear retainers are also called invisible retainers or Essex retainers. They’re made from a clear, plastic-like material that’s molded to fit over your teeth. Since they have no metal wires, they offer a more natural appearance than traditional retainers.

After your braces are removed, your orthodontist may recommend wearing a removable retainer full-time. This means wearing the retainer 24/7 and only removing it when it’s time to eat or brush your teeth. You may need to wear the retainer full-time for as little as four months or as long a year.

During this time, remember to see your orthodontist for routine checkups. They can check your retainer and monitor your tooth movement. If your straightened teeth are stable in their new positions, your orthodontist may recommend only wearing the retainer at night. This nighttime wear may be necessary for a few months or years, depending on how stable your teeth are. 

Fixed Retainers

Fixed retainers are also called permanent retainers or bonded retainers. They consist of a thin, custom-fitted wire that’s cemented to the backside of your front teeth. Fixed retainers may be fitted to the upper and/or lower teeth. 

Since fixed retainers are cemented to your teeth, they may help keep your teeth in their new positions for many years. The lifespan of your retainer could vary based on the type of wire and how well you take care of your teeth. One study found that most fixed retainers remain on the teeth for as long as 10 to 15 years.

Despite their name, permanent retainers may not need to stay in your mouth forever. Your orthodontist may recommend removing the retainer if you’ve worn it long enough for your teeth to remain in their new positions. Other reasons it might need to be removed include:

  • Oral hygiene concerns. Some people may find it difficult to brush and floss around the permanent retainer. If your orthodontist notices plaque and tartar building up around your retainer, they may recommend removing it. 
  • Damage to the retainer. Like your braces, a fixed retainer could break or loosen if you bite or chew sticky or hard foods, such as candy or ice cubes. Over the years, daily wear and tear could also damage the retainer.
  • Tooth pain or discomfort. After a successful orthodontic treatment, the teeth generally don’t move or shift enough to cause discomfort. However, if your teeth continue to hurt, your orthodontist may recommend removing the permanent retainer. 

Find a Dentist Near You to Learn More About Retainers

A removable or fixed retainer could help you enjoy a healthy, straight smile long after your braces are removed. To learn more about your retainer options, talk to an orthodontist. If you're asking where to find an orthodontist near me, you can search for Smile Generation-trusted orthodontists in your area with our Find a Dentist tool. You can browse orthodontists’ bios, read reviews from other patients, and even book an appointment to learn more about retainers online.