Many people think of teeth straightening as cosmetic — but there is so much more to gain from orthodontics than just an aesthetically pleasing smile (though that’s a pretty great bonus!). The placement of teeth in our jaw can have a huge impact on our overall oral health.
In this guide, we will explore in which ways clear aligner treatment can improve your oral health. We hope you leave with a better understanding of the wide range of benefits that an aligned smile can provide, as well as an idea of whether or not clear aligners are right for you and your unique smile.
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Can Clear Aligners Improve My Oral Health?
Our mouths are little ecosystems operating in a delicate balance. If you change part of the ecosystem, the rest of the ecosystem is affected. With clear aligner treatment, these changes are positive.
Clear aligners are great for shifting teeth into the proper position, closing gaps, and correcting crowding. Some clear aligners can even incorporate small elastics or plastic hooks that help shift the bite.
If your dentist or orthodontist deems you a good candidate for clear aligner treatment, then yes — it’s very likely clear aligners will improve your oral health. Let’s unpack why that is.
What Can Clear Aligners Improve?
Clear aligners straighten your teeth and align your bite. So how do those positive changes affect the rest of your oral health?
Straightening crooked teeth isn’t just an aesthetic decision; it can also help improve your oral hygiene.[ 1 ] Crooked teeth provide numerous hiding places for bacteria that even the most practiced brushers and flossers may be unable to reach.
Though bacteria are the root of most dental problems, there are also good bacteria that help your body. When bad bacteria are allowed to flourish, they can create cavities, cause gum recession, and even sometimes lead to tooth loss.[ 2 ]
Clear aligners can help you avoid these problems by straightening your teeth and allowing for easier cleanings. However, during your treatment, clear aligners make maintaining good oral hygiene much easier than with braces. You won’t have to brush and floss around bulky brackets and wires; you’ll just remove your aligners.
Patients with braces may encounter hygiene problems because it is more difficult to brush around brackets and wires. And if your hygiene is poor, you’re more likely to develop tooth decay. With clear aligners, it’s easier to brush, floss, and avoid cavities.
Gingivitis and Periodontal Disease
As we’ve already mentioned, straight teeth are easier to keep clean than crooked ones. If plaque stays on your teeth for too long, it can turn into tartar, which solidifies and is difficult to remove (you’ll need a dental hygienist to do a deep cleaning).
Tartar can cause some real problems. If it stays up at the gum line long enough, it can irritate the part of your gums surrounding the tooth (called gingiva).[ 2 ] Inflammation of the gingiva is called gingivitis, which manifests as swollen gums that easily bleed. Though gingivitis is very common, if left unaddressed, it can turn into periodontal (gum) disease, which has much more serious implications — like gum recession, or tooth loss.
Getting your teeth straightened with clear aligners will make your teeth easier to clean. Since you’ll be giving bacteria fewer places to hide, this could potentially save you from larger problems down the line.
Your gums are delicate — numerous behaviors can cause them to recede, and once they do, they don’t grow back. The good news is that clear aligner treatment sets you up for success with your gum health, helping to eliminate many of the issues that lead to gum recession.
Many causes of gum recession stem from the uneven wear and abrasion that can occur from a misaligned bite.[ 3 ] When your bite is properly aligned, all the teeth are working together when you chew. When your bite is misaligned, that isn’t the case — which can put a lot of pressure on just a few key teeth. This overuse and stress can cause the gums to recede.
Clear aligners put your bite into proper alignment, potentially saving a few stressed-out teeth from causing gum recession.
Bruxism (the chronic grinding and/or clenching of your teeth) can be done consciously or unconsciously. When you grind your teeth overnight, (sleep bruxism) you may not even realize you are doing it. That constant wear can wreak havoc on your teeth, sometimes causing the enamel to wear off prematurely or your gums to recede — both of which can lead to invasive (and expensive) procedures down the line.[ 4 ]
Oftentimes, a dentist or orthodontist will recommend a night guard to treat bruxism. This is a durable piece of plastic worn overnight that prevents your teeth from grinding against each other. It provides a cushion-like barrier that gives the muscles and jaw a much-needed break. Clear aligners and post-treatment retainers can also provide this kind of relief.
When you undergo clear aligner treatment, you’ll be wearing aligners for 22 hours a day — which doesn’t leave much time for teeth grinding. Once you’ve finished clear aligner treatment, you’ll need to wear an overnight retainer indefinitely to help keep your teeth in their new positions. Both the aligners and the retainers have the ability to provide relief from bruxism. This may not happen immediately (which is also true of night guards) but over time, you should see results.
Addressing bruxism can improve your oral health in the short term and long term by relieving you of pain and discomfort while preventing you from dealing with costly procedures later down the line if bruxism is left untreated.
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is what connects your jaw to your skull. This joint is responsible for our jaws opening and closing — so be sure to thank your TMJ for its hard work at your next meal.
TMJ refers to the joint itself, but TMJ has also become shorthand to describe disorders of that joint, which is technically referred to as TMD (temporomandibular disorder).[ 5 ] Both are understood in the medical community, even though TMD is technically the correct term for pain in that joint.
TMJ/TMD can be brought on by numerous factors. Clear aligners may be able to help when it comes to TMJ/TMD cases that were brought on by bruxism or misalignment. A misaligned bite can put too much pressure on certain areas of the jaw, potentially resulting in TMJ/TMD.[ 5 ] TMJ/TMD can also be brought on by the stress of bruxism, which we have already established clear aligners are capable of handling.
Can Clear Aligners Cause Any Oral Health Problems?
Clear aligner treatment prescribed and administered by a qualified, licensed provider isn’t typically associated with oral health problems. This is, of course, if the patient is following the correct care and hygiene recommendations. If you never clean your aligner trays, chances are you’re going to have some dental problems. Teeth straightening treatment isn’t a substitute for oral hygiene.
Straightening teeth is likely to create some soreness, but that’s true of any method of orthodontia — not just clear aligners. Jaw soreness during treatment isn’t necessarily an indicator of something wrong with your oral health. If anything, it means that treatment is working and your teeth are on their way to their new locations.
There may be a little bit of irritation to the cheeks and gums as you get used to your aligner trays, but this typically fades pretty quickly. It isn’t an indication of a larger oral health issue; it is a response that will subside once your mouth is more used to the aligners.
How Else Can I Improve My Oral Health?
The balance of good/bad bacteria in your mouth has so much to do with what you eat. The main culprit throwing off that balance (and allowing bad bacteria to flourish) is added sugar. We aren’t talking about naturally occurring sugars; you can still fearlessly eat a banana. Added sugar intake, however, is actually known to be a better predictor of potential cavities than even brushing and flossing habits — the pillars of oral health routines.
If you want to improve your oral health, cut out added sugar. Ditch the soda for green tea, the sugary cereal for oatmeal, and the fruit snacks for fruit. Taking sugar out of the equation gives you the best chance at avoiding cavities.
Stress can begin as an aspect of our mental health, yet often ends up physically affecting us, too.[ 6 ] If you’re stressed out or navigating anxiety, your body may end up being affected. Stress can be the main cause of bruxism. We know it’s easier said than done, but de-stressing can vastly improve your physical health as well as your mental health.
Addressing your stress can be done in small, simple ways like journaling, adopting a new exercise routine, or talking with a friend or counselor. Sometimes even just taking a long shower or listening to the right music can provide you with the recalibration you need. Mental and physical health are lifelong projects, but small changes can make a big difference.
Regular Dentist Visits
Making a twice-yearly trip to the dentist is an important part of oral health. Not only can deep cleaning help you avoid cavities, but regular trips to the dentist can address any problems you experience before they have a chance to get out of control.
Gum recession, for example, begins so gradually that it can be hard for the untrained eye to pick up on. Regular trips to the dentist allow your progress to be tracked and monitored, catching problems in their early stages — when you have the most treatment options available to you.
If you avoid the dentist because of cost, perhaps consider searching for dental schools in your area. These institutions provide discounted or free dental treatments by students, all monitored by licensed dentists.
Consistently wearing your retainers after orthodontic treatment is critical. Your overnight retainers will help your teeth keep their new, properly aligned positions, preventing old issues of misalignment from returning.
Clear aligners can do more than just give you a beautiful smile — they can also improve your oral health and save you from invasive treatments and expensive complications down the line. Clear aligners even make it easier for you to keep your teeth clean!
If you’ve been wanting to straighten your teeth and oral health is on your mind, then clear aligners may be just the right way to get the healthy smile you’ve been waiting for.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is tooth damage permanent?
Enamel damage and gum recession are both permanent. This is why regular dentist appointments are so important; you can correct these issues as soon as possible.
Isn’t straightening my teeth just an aesthetic decision?
We know that orthodontic treatment is often framed as a purely cosmetic pursuit, but that isn’t always the case! Misaligned teeth have the potential to cause major health problems down the road, like premature enamel wear, gum recession, and even tooth loss.[ 1 ] Consider the aesthetically pleasing nature of straight teeth just an additional perk of tending to your oral health.
What is the most important change I could make to improve my oral health?
Giving up added sugars. Added sugars are the best possible gift you could give to the bad bacteria in your mouth. They are the number one predictor of cavities, even beyond brushing and flossing habits.
Will clear aligners irritate my gums?
Sometimes, at the beginning of treatment, aligners can irritate the cheeks and gums, but after a little time, the irritation subsides. If you find the edges of your aligners feel particularly sharp or uncomfortable, check with your dentist or orthodontist and see if they can help you, or if they can give you the go-ahead to lightly file down the hard edges of the aligners with a nail file.
Which is more comfortable: clear aligners or braces?
It mostly comes down to personal preference, but typically, people find clear aligners more comfortable than braces. The metal wires and brackets can be more abrasive than the comparatively smooth texture of a clear aligner.
How do I know if I’m a good candidate for clear aligners?
Talk to your dentist and get their opinion on if clear aligners may be a fitting solution for your unique smile.
Can I drink while my aligners are in?
You can drink water, but that’s it. You’ll take your aligners out for mealtimes, which includes any drinks that aren’t water. You’ll then need to brush your teeth and floss before putting your aligners back in.