How Long Do You Have to Wear a Retainer

two young girls are smiling together after removing retainers

Perfect smiles don't happen overnight. A consistent brushing and flossing regimen, together with good eating and drinking habits, creates a strong foundation for healthy teeth that begins at a very young age. Yet, even healthy teeth don't always erupt in just the right spots, and may require braces to help correct a misalignment.

Once the orthodontia ends, however, you'll wear a retainer to help keep your teeth straight. How long do you have to wear a retainer? That depends on a variety of things – here's what you need to know when it comes to the appliance you wear to ensure your smile continues to look as healthy as it is.

What Braces Correct

Braces are necessary to correct a variety of conditions, as observed by the South African Orthodontic Association (SASO)including bad bite (also known as a malocclusion), crooked or protruding teeth, jaws that don't line up correctly, or a misalignment at any point in your mouth. Malocclusions can be caused by an accident that damages the mouth, thumb-sucking as a child or even premature tooth loss. Malocclusions can have a genetic factor, too.

If left untreated, any of these conditions can cause issues that complicate a person's growth: difficulty speaking or chewing, tooth cavities and loss, gum problems, and poor oral health overall. Nowadays, braces can be constructed from ceramic, plastic, metal or a combination of these materials. A patient's final appliance typically reflects how much tooth movement is needed.

When They Come Off

Having braces removed is certainly a reason to smile, but to keep it that way, your retainer needs to be a best friend. A retainer is a custom-made apparatus designed to keep teeth in place after braces are finally removed. Although this device can be removable, your newly aligned teeth need time to settle into the soft tissue and jawbone that house them.

Wearing a retainer at night and between meals allows your teeth to hold their new form as they naturally try to shift over time – which would ruin the effort and expense put into the braces you started with.

Types of Retainers

There are two main varieties of retainers: removable and fixed. Removable retainers easily slide out of your mouth when you eat or brush your teeth. These retainers should be worn full-time for at least one year after your braces are removed. The orthodontist will determine the length of time a retainer is worn based on the treatment he or she provided during the braces process. After that period, if no movement is detected, your orthodontist may recommend wearing them only at night – some people may even wear them at night indefinitely. Fixed retainers are typically kept in place for several years, and, according to the Korean Journal of Orthodontics, they can be worn for several decades.

Of the two types of retainers, there are three models to choose from:

  • Fixed retainers: These are held in place after being cemented to the backs of your teeth.
  • Hawley retainers: The most common type, the Hawley adheres to your mouth's shape and is kept in place by a wire that wraps around your teeth.
  • Invisible, or Essix, retainers: These are made of clear plastic that makes it easy for you to look as if you're not wearing it.

Retainer Care

Retainer maintenance can't be neglected once you start wearing one. For a fixed retainer, regular check-ups with your dentist are especially necessary to check for cavities and keep the areas around those teeth clear of tartar and plaque. Removable retainers can be cleaned by soaking them in denture-cleaning tablets or vinegar and water. As you can expect, they'll be removed during these appointments (but should go right back in once they're done).

Just because you or your child had braces, that doesn't mean you should let up or neglect oral care. On the contrary, you spent a small fortune on a smile that won't stick around unless you do all that you can to protect it. Your teeth continue to age just like you, and that means you need to brush at least twice each day, along with daily flossing (something that braces made very difficult). Use a good toothbrush to help remove the germs that collect between your teeth, so that even though you might still be unsure – how long do you have to wear a retainer? – you'll still be keeping your mouth in great oral health.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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  • Swish with water before brushing – instruct your child to rinse with water after eating. This will loosen food that may be caught in the braces, then brush thoroughly.
  • Floss once a day – each night help you child floss. Flossing helps loosen food debris and plaque at and under the gum line that would otherwise harden into tartar. It can also help reach the nooks and crannies in the teeth that might be difficult to reach with a toothbrush.
  • Use a fluoride rinse – after brushing and before bed have your child rinse with fluoride rinse to help keep teeth strong and healthy
  • Dental visits every six months – take your child to the dentist for a checkup and cleaning every six months. The dentist can point out areas that need more attention, and help make sure you're keeping your child’s teeth healthy and clean.

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