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How do I care for my retainers?

Retainers are an incredibly important aspect of orthodontic treatment.  Simply put, once the teeth are straight we need to keep them that way!  Read more here [ Retention and Retainers ] and here [ How often should I wear my retainers ] for further information on this topic.  Retainers can be cared for in a number of ways.  Retainers must be cleaned and maintained as well as managed properly.  Read on for more details!

All retainers should be cleaned regularly.  Consider them like your teeth.  If you don’t brush your teeth regularly (preferably at least twice a day for 2 minutes each), you will develop a sticky film on your teeth.  That sticky film is actually known as a “biofilm” and its composed of many many different species of bacteria all clinging desperately to each other and to the microscopic surface of your teeth in an effort to replicate and “live the dream” (the bacteria one that is) in your mouth.  This film must be cleaned off your teeth and  your retainer daily.  Brush your retainer just as clean as you would brush your teeth.  You may consider purchasing a bigger toothbrush if you have an “Old School” Hawley style retainer as a bigger brush will allow you to brush more surface area at once.  The clear retainers should be brushed as well but care should be taken to avoid using toothpaste directly in the retainers (it’s okay to use the residual after you’ve brushed your own teeth).  The abrasives included in toothpaste (which keep your teeth sparkling and shiny white) will scratch up the inside of the clear plastic retainer and create (larger) microscopic valleys to harbor bacteria in a biofilm.  This biofilm that coats the surface of the clear retainer can also cause it to take on a cloudy or foggy appearance.  This may not matter visually if you’re wearing your retainers only at night but if you do need to wear them during the day (say a tooth is trying to move back to where it came from) then your clear plastic retainer will not look nearly as good.

Caring for your retainers also extends to how you insert and remove your retainer.  Clear plastic retainers (especially the thinner materials) have a tendency to fatigue and crack if not handled carefully.  The classic example of this is when a right-handed patient reaches up and removes their upper retainer starting on the right and “tearing or ripping” towards the left.  A fatigue line or crack will generally develop on or near the upper left canine.  Generally speaking, the technique to avoid this is to insert from front to back fitting over the front teeth first and pressing gently towards the biting surface of the farthest back teeth.  When removing the retainer, the process is reversed – gently loosening one side in the back and then the other and finally removing the retainer straight out towards the front teeth.  This gentle process will help avoid fatigue cracks and wear in your retainers.

The “Old School” Hawley retainers are generally a little more robust.  Their lifespan is generally measured in decades versus years but they will still need to be cared for diligently.  Make sure that as you remove this type of retainer you don’t put undue force on the wires that hold it in place.  Even though these wires are fairly sturdy they can still be bent out of shape and cause the retainer to not fit as well and therefore not hold the teeth in as stable of a position.

A fixed aka bonded or permanent retainer must also be cared for.  Good brushing and flossing will help protect this retainer from calculus (tartar) buildup and thus protect it from an overzealous hygienist who is trying to help your teeth by removing that material (and sometimes the retainer with it).  A patient must also exercise care flossing around these retainers as sometimes an exuberant “tug” with the floss can dislodge the glued portion from its appropriate resting place.

The classic way to end up losing a retainer is one of two methods.  Method Number One: leave your retainer out where a dog or other pet can get access to it.  This is the fastest way to turn your retainer into a $200 chew-toy.  Not cool.  Retainers will disappear into shards of their former self in 30 seconds flat.  Some dogs have been known to chew through retainer cases themselves to get at the retainer.  It’s not just your dogs you need to watch out for but other family members’ pets and the occasional neighbor who stops by with their pooch.  Always keep your retainer in its case and in a drawer or better yet in your mouth!  Method Number Two to lose your retainer is to wrap up your retainer in a napkin at a restaurant.  We hear this story so often we can almost recite it word for word.  A patient is leaving for a fishing trip or playing at an out-of-state soccer tournament or just on a road-trip vacation and they stop at a burger joint.  They don’t want to look at their retainer while they eat (or let their friends or teammates see it either) so they wrap it up in a napkin.  When they’re done eating, they dump their tray into the garbage and are 10 miles down the road before they realize something’s missing.  Now they get to drive back and go “dumpster diving” for their retainer.  Not cool.  Always keep your retainer in your mouth or in your case in your pocket or at the very least in your purse or backpack by itself.  Never wrap a retainer in a napkin.

Regardless of retainer type, diligent and regular care must be performed to protect your smile investment!