How long do you really have to wear a retainer?

Medically Reviewed by a
Licensed DDS

Table of Contents

  1. What Are Retainers?
  2. Permanent Retainer
  3. Is It for Life?
  4. Proper Care
  5. References

The moment you've been waiting for has arrived. Your dental health team says your teeth are in the perfect position, and you no longer need an active treatment plan. You're excited! And then you find out that you have to wear a retainer.

It can be disappointing news, but you must wear a retainer after active treatment. This isn’t optional. Here’s what you need to know to prepare.

What are retainers?

Think of a retainer as protection. You've invested in your smile with braces or aligners. Your retainers ensure that your teeth stay in the right place.

Multiple types of retainers exist, including:

Traditional
These are plates that sit on the roof of the mouth, and wires wrap around the front of the teeth to keep the plates in place. You can remove these retainers when you eat, or you may only wear them at night.
Plastic
These retainers look a little like aligners. They wrap all the way around the teeth. Similarly, you remove them when you eat, or you might only wear them when you sleep.
Permanent
These retainers sit behind the teeth, so they're not visible. But they never come out.
You've probably heard of traditional and plastic retainers before. But permanent retainers might seem a little unusual to you.
Retainers keep your smile in place when active treatment is complete and adults need to wear their retainers for life, but adolescents may be able to stop wearing them after about 10 years.

What is a permanent retainer?

A permanent retainer is glued to the back of your teeth. Your orthodontist installs it, and it never comes out unless someone else removes it and dissolves the glue.

Experts say permanent retainers are typically recommended for people who had teeth that were:

  • Very rotated.
  • Crowded.
  • Spaced far apart.

Teeth like this are very tempted to take up their old positions, and they need the constant presence of a retainer to keep them in line and in place.

A permanent retainer may also be recommended for people who struggle to follow instructions. You can't take it out, so you're not tempted to take a break from it. If you know you won't wear a removable retainer as instructed, a permanent version may be smart.

But permanent retainers also come with some serious drawbacks, experts say. They include:

Damaged
The wire can come loose and poke and prod your teeth.
Decay
You can't push floss between your teeth while wearing a permanent retainer. The wire blocks access. It's also hard for dentists to clean between your teeth when you're wearing a retainer like this.
Discomfort
Permanent retainers can rub on the tongue, and the chafing can be incredibly uncomfortable.

Do you have to wear them for life?

Whether you choose a permanent retainer or a removable version, that appliance will be part of your routine for at least 10 years, if not the rest of your life.

Braces and aligners work by applying consistent pressure that stretches the network of tissues that connect your teeth to your jaws. The bones in your teeth remodel and change shape based on that pressure. But some spring in the tissues remains.

The first three months after treatment are critical, dental experts say. When constant pressure is removed, teeth are tempted to take up their old positions. During this time, you'll wear your retainer all the time to protect your investment.

But even when those months pass, you'll need to entice your teeth to keep their new position. It's best to wear your retainer at night, every night, to protect your teeth. But if you had your dental work done when you were a teenager, and you wore your retainer for 10 years after treatment, you may be able to stop wearing the device, if your dentist approves.

If you had your teeth adjusted as an adult, you'll wear your retainer for life. Your chance of a tooth shift is simply greater, and teeth tend to move as we age. To protect your investment, your retainer should be part of your life moving forward.

Take care of your removable retainers.

Retainers you can pop in your mouth and remove again are easy to wear and clean. But they're also easy to neglect, and doing so could come with serious consequences.

To take care of your retainers, you must:

Remove Them
Take out the device when you're preparing to eat or when you're going to drink something other than water.
Clean Them
Nasty buildup can make your device both look and taste bad. A brushing under cool water can help you keep the retainer clean.
Protect Them
Keep your retainer in a case when it's not in your mouth. It's very easy to forget these devices and throw them away.
Replace Them
If the devices feel loose or worn, or if they are cracked or damaged, you'll need new ones.

Retainers aren't cheap. Researchers say a standard, wire retainer can cost up to $340. Some companies offer a retainer as part of your treatment package. But replacement tools usually come with a price tag.

Take care of your retainers, and they're likely to keep your smile as gleaming as possible. If you notice that your teeth keep moving, despite wearing your retainers, a conversation with your dental team is appropriate.

You might need a new retainer that keeps your teeth in the right spot, or you might need to wear your retainers for longer each day. Your team can tell you more about what you need to do.

References.

Retainers After Braces: Types and Maintenance. Colgate.

Pros and Cons of Permanent Retainers. Healthline.

Four Reasons You Might Need Permanent Retainer Removal. Colgate.

The Reality of Retainers. (June 2018). Nemours.

Taking Care of Your Retainer. (October 2017). American Association of Orthodontists.

Bonded Retainers. (September 2016). Dear Doctor.

You Have to Wear a Retainer. (December 2015). Medium.

What to Know Before You Get a Retainer. (May 2018). Healthline.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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