Retainer care: do’s and don’ts

From getting a better smile to correcting oral health issues, braces are worth the time, effort and upkeep. Despite all their benefits, no one can argue against the satisfaction you feel when the metal wires finally come off. Now, you have the smile you’ve been looking forward to — for potentially years.

With your braces off, your orthodontist is suddenly putting a putty-like substance in your mouth and telling you you need to wear a retainer afterward. What’s the point of a retainer? To ensure your smile stays stunning, you must practice proper retainer wear and care after wearing braces.

This article will provide you with all the basic information you need to know to make your smile last for a lifetime.

What do retainers do?

In short, retainers have a few duties, including:

  • Stabilizing your bite
  • Preventing treatment reversal
  • Maintaining space for wisdom teeth and new teeth
  • Aligning jawbones with gums
  • Helping teeth hold their position

In general, retainers keep your teeth aligned long after your braces finally come off. Usually, retainers are made of metal, plastic, acrylic or polyurethane and fit to the new positioning of your teeth. This “tool” is strong enough to prevent your teeth from returning to their original position. Ultimately, whatever your braces originally corrected will stay corrected thanks to the retainer.

Sometimes, you may not have had braces before getting a retainer. If you have mostly straight teeth with one or two that need correcting, your orthodontist may fit you for a retainer to help shift your teeth into place. In this case, your retainer is meant to align your teeth and then keep them that way once they’re in place. Note that retainers differ from aligners — aligners are essentially clear braces that gradually shift your teeth into straighter positions through several cycles.

To create a custom retainer, your orthodontist will take an impression of your teeth. From there, they’ll send it to a lab that will take the mold and design a retainer that fits inside your mouth. At your next visit, your orthodontist will ensure the retainer fits comfortably before giving you instructions on how to wear it.

Why are retainers needed after braces?

The teeth are held in place by a tissue layer called cementum. This layer of tissue weakens as braces shift the teeth and jaw to specific positions. After the braces come off, the cementum and your gums will want to move back to their starting positions. Much like a rubber band, the tissue in your mouth will want to snap back to its original shape.

If you don’t wear a retainer, you allow your cementum and gums to shift back — retainers force the tissue to remain in its new position indefinitely. Over time, your teeth will adjust to their new positions with the help of the retainer. Without its help, your teeth would gradually move into their old positions, meaning you may have to get braces again.

Different types of retainers

Depending on your teeth, your orthodontist may advise that you get a certain retainer. These orthodontic appliances come in three styles — fixed, Hawley and Essix. Here’s a look at each style.

Fixed (Lingual)

These retainers consist of a solid or braided wire that bends around the inside of your teeth. To apply it, your orthodontist cements the wire in place, similar to braces.

A typical reason your orthodontist would recommend a fixed retainer is if they believe your teeth are at a high risk of displacing themselves back to their original positions. A fixed retainer ensures your teeth won’t move, as it can’t come off unless they remove it. These retainers are also common choices for teens, especially when orthodontists think the patient won’t wear a removable retainer.

While fixed retainers may require an adjustment period, specifically with your tongue, they’re unnoticeable, and you take care of them just like you would with different types of braces. At the same time, fixed retainers can lead to poor oral hygiene, as they can be tough to maintain. Ensure that you floss daily to remove food particles, taking care to brush them, too.


Hawley retainers combine an acrylic or plastic base with metal bands that wrap around your teeth. While the acrylic or plastic portion presses against the roof of your mouth or lower jaw area, the metal bars wrap around your teeth. There’s a bar that wraps around your six top and bottom middle teeth and two bars on each side that hug one of your molars.

When worn, they’re the most noticeable of the three retainer types. However, Hawley retainers are removable and the most durable of the three retainer types. What makes the Hawley retainer ideal for many people is that it offers the most natural feel for your teeth. Since no material covers the tops and bottoms of your teeth, they’re at liberty to rest against one another as they would normally.

Hawley retainers do affect your speech more than the others and will take some adjusting.

Clear (Essix)

Essix retainers offer the most accurate mold of your teeth. The plastic conforms to your teeth’s new positions, including each crevice, to create a perfect fit. These clear retainers work by creating a seal around all sides of your teeth.

So long as your mold and retainer are done correctly, a clear retainer should be practically invisible on your teeth. There could be a slight gap between the bottom of your teeth and the retainer, but it won’t be too noticeable. Because of their almost invisible nature, most people wear clear retainers. Additionally, an Essix retainer won’t usually affect your speech.

Note that clear retainers can warp from heat, are more likely to damage and may discolor over time. Proper clear retainer care is important to help prevent damage and discoloration. If you’re someone who grinds their teeth throughout the day or at night, you should speak with your orthodontist about whether an Essix retainer is a smart choice.

Do’s of wearing retainers

Like with braces, you should take note of a few “do’s” of wearing your retainer:

  • Do wear your retainer as directed. If your orthodontist recommends you wear it full-time, you should wear it full-time.
  • Do clean your retainer thoroughly by brushing it with cool water.
  • Do take your retainer out when eating.
  • Do keep your retainer in your mouth or designated container. Placing it elsewhere can lead to accidentally damaging or misplacing it.
  • Do bring your retainer with you when you visit the orthodontist.
  • Do write your name and phone number on your retainer case, especially if you wear it in public.
  • Do brush your teeth after every meal and before putting on your retainer.
  • Do use your hands before putting your retainer in your mouth. Make sure it’s correctly in place before biting down. The jaw muscles have a much greater force than your hands, and you can easily break your retainer by biting down when they’re misaligned.

Don’ts of wearing retainers

Of course, with do’s come don’ts! Here are a few mistakes you should avoid making while wearing your retainer:

  • Don’t eat foods that can damage a retainer, specifically with fixed retainers.
  • Don’t store or place a retainer in a napkin or other material that could be mistaken for trash and thrown away.
  • Don’t leave a retainer outside of its container for extended periods. This orthodontic equipment can dry out and become brittle and fragile.
  • Don’t boil a retainer in water or clean it with alcohol.
  • Don’t play with a retainer inside of your mouth.
  • Don’t put a retainer inside of the dishwasher.
  • Don’t bite your retainer to shift it into place.
  • Don’t leave a retainer where small children or animals can reach it.
  • Don’t leave a retainer in while eating.
  • Don’t use toothpaste on Hawley or clear retainers — toothpaste can be abrasive and leave scratches that allow for bacterial growth.
  • Don’t brush your retainer with baking soda. Much like toothpaste, it’s abrasive and can leave scratch marks on your retainer.
  • Don’t use a hard-bristled toothbrush to clean them — opt for a soft-bristled toothbrush instead.
  • Don’t soak a retainer in mouthwash.
  • Don’t use bleach to clean a retainer.
  • Don’t drink anything other than water when you wearing your retainer.
  • Don’t leave your retainer in while playing contact sports. Wear a mouthguard.
  • Don’t swim with your retainer in your mouth. If it falls out of your mouth, you may have a hard time finding it afterward. Additionally, chlorinated water can damage the material.
  • Don’t expect one pair of retainers to last you a lifetime. While proper care and maintenance can extend their lifespan, you’ll want to ask your orthodontist for a new one whenever they become too damaged.

Foods to avoid with retainers

If you wear a fixed retainer, you’ll want to avoid a majority of the same foods you would with braces. These include but are not limited to:

  • Chewing gum
  • Sticky candies
  • Nuts
  • Hard candy
  • Ice
  • Popcorn
  • Tough, chewy foods

For foods like ice and hard candies, the consensus is to not bite down on them. It’s OK to leave them in your mouth to dissolve, but do not attempt to chew them. Any type of food that could become lodged in between your teeth and the retainer or break your retainer should be avoided.

When it comes to one of the removable retainers, your list of foods to avoid isn’t as long. As you’ve probably guessed, you can eat anything with a removable retainer. Before eating or drinking, remove your retainer and eat as you normally would. The only two rules you should concern yourself with are to place your retainer in a safe spot while eating and not attempt to eat with your removable retainer in.

How to care for retainers after braces

Maintaining proper oral hygiene with your retainer is essential. If you don’t practice proper retainer care, you risk tartar and plaque buildup on your teeth and gums. Fortunately, retainer cleaning doesn’t take much effort. So long as you remember a few care tips, your retainer should last a while.

If you have a fixed retainer, you’ll want to buy a floss threader to help you remove food from between the metal bar and your teeth. When you brush your teeth, be careful around the retainer, and try to get the bristles in the gap to better remove food and another buildup. Remember to take your time when brushing and flossing — being too rough can cause issues.

With removable retainers, you should clean them as often as you would your teeth, about two to three times a day. Ideally, you should clean them after every time you eat, so no food particles and bacteria become trapped between them and your teeth. A quick rinse in cool water works perfectly when you’re in a pinch. For a deeper clean, cool water, scrubbing with a clean soft-bristled toothbrush.

Be cautious when using toothpaste and hard-bristled brushes. These can easily create micro-scratches that house bacteria and are harder to clean. When it comes to cleaning your retainer, the simplest solution is often the best. If you ever want to deep clean your retainer, be sure to ask your orthodontist for specific instructions so you don’t accidentally harm it.

What should you do with your retainer if it breaks?

Accidents happen all the time. If you ever lose, damage, or break your retainer, you have options. When the inevitable occurs, you should schedule an appointment with your orthodontist as soon as possible. If you’ve worn your retainer for less than a year, you’ll want to schedule an emergency appointment to have a new retainer made. Keep in mind that the longer you wait, the more time your teeth will have to relapse to their original positions.

Schedule a consultation with Fredericksburg Orthodontics

Don’t give your teeth time to relapse and ruin the smile you spent so long to achieve. Fredericksburg Orthodontics will take care of all your retainer needs. Our ABO-certified orthodontists will assist you in replacing your damaged, broken or lost retainer and set you on the path to straightening your teeth. Over more than 16 years, we’ve treated 12,000 smiles — and counting!

Schedule an appointment today to keep your smile as perfect as possible.