Orthodontia is a big investment of both time and money. When you finally get your long-awaited results, you’ll want to keep them as long as possible. The best way to do that? Aftercare retainers. But even a diligent retainer wearer may slip up now and then. How long is too long to go without your retainer? That’s what we’re here to explore.
In this guide, we’ll explain what happens when you forget to wear your retainer, so you can determine whether your retainer lapse was negligible or potentially harmful.
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Why Do I Need A Retainer, Anyway?
Orthodontic treatments can gradually shift our teeth because dental ligaments have some elasticity. However, that same elasticity is also to blame for relapse (teeth shifting) after treatment ends.
Your teeth are attached to your jaw bone by periodontal ligaments. As orthodontic treatment applies pressure, the periodontal ligament tears down bone in the direction the teeth are moving, and rebuilds bone on the side where the pressure is applied. This process is known as compression and resorption. Without a retainer, your ligaments will gradually move your teeth back to their previous positions after treatment ends.
Your smile’s elastic memory isn’t the only element that can move your post-treatment smile. Aging, gum issues, teeth grinding, and even just regular chewing can contribute to teeth shifts. That’s why retainer wear is a crucial and ongoing part of orthodontia.
How Long Can I Go Without Wearing My Retainer?
Not all teeth relapse at the same pace, so there aren’t cut and dry rules detailing exactly how many days you can skip wearing your retainer without affecting your alignment. However, there are some general parameters worth considering.
Typically, if you haven’t worn your retainers in a week or less, your smile may have shifted slightly, but they could still fit. If you haven’t worn them in a month, the changes in your smile may be slightly more noticeable, but it’s still possible your previous retainers could fit. If you’ve gone several months or over a year without wearing your retainer, don’t even try to put your old trays back on. Instead, you’ll need to get fitted for a new set.
Before trying to fit into your old retainer trays, we recommend consulting your orthodontist to ensure your safety. Since it’s challenging to assess your relapse visually, it’s important to put your retainer on gently and cautiously. If you feel any pain, stop immediately.
It’s never a good idea to force on an old retainer. This can cause the retainer to get stuck or, in extreme cases, chip your teeth. If you’ve ever been unable to remove a ring from your finger on a hot day, imagine that same stress, only in a place as critical as your mouth. In some cases, you may need to attend an in-person appointment to remove a stuck retainer, which will take up more of your free time.
If your old retainer no longer fits, it could also put pressure on your gums and cause sensitivity in the gum tissue.
How Far Into Post-Treatment Are You?
Retainer wear is always critical, but it’s especially important during the first year after treatment. A year of retention gives your teeth and periodontal ligaments time to settle into their new positions. That doesn’t mean your teeth won’t try to shift back after a year, but it could mean that it won’t happen as quickly.
This means that a week without your retainer could render very different results depending on whether it happens two months or two years after your treatment ends. If you’re within one year of your treatment’s conclusion, discuss your retainer lapse with your orthodontist so they can address it.
Drawbacks to Not Wearing Your Retainer
The benefits of maintaining consistent retainer wear are pretty evident, but the problems that stem from non-compliance are a little less obvious. The most visible impact of not wearing your retainers is that your teeth will gradually shift out of alignment. But that relapse can cause a host of other issues.
Orthodontia doesn’t just align your smile, it also improves your bite. As your teeth shift out of alignment, your bite can gradually change too. If you were dealing with bite issues before treatment, they could return if your teeth relapse. Malocclusions can cause discomfort, as well as chewing and jaw problems.
If you stop wearing your retainer habitually, it might not fit when you try to wear it again. On average, it costs $100–$550 for a removable retainer. If you have Hawley retainers, your orthodontist might be able to repair them. But clear plastic retainers usually require replacement.
If your teeth relapse, any extra clear retainers you have will be a wasted expense. Invisalign, for example, typically sells their Vivera aftercare retainers in sets of four. If you get lax with your retainer wear during the first set, the rest may not fit anymore. A set of Vivera retainers can last for multiple years, so it would be a shame to lose out on all that coverage.
Additional Orthodontic Treatment
If your smile relapses, you can always opt to undergo treatment all over again, but that’s a sizable investment. From the price tag and frequent appointments to the length of your treatment plan, orthodontia can ask a lot of you, so you don’t want to go through treatment again if you don’t have to.
Additional Tips For Maintaining Your Smile
Retainer wear is a long commitment, and you’re only human. If you occasionally forget to wear your retainer, it’s not the end of the world. But if you notice yourself forgetting more often, or frequently losing your retainer altogether, then it may be time to change up your aftercare strategy.
Get a Permanent Retainer
Removable retainers require a high level of patient compliance. If you forget to wear your retainers frequently, a permanent retainer might be a better option. Permanent retainers, also known as bonded or fixed retainers, consist of a small wire attached to the lingual (tongue) side of your teeth.
Since you can’t take them off, permanent retainers don’t require as much planning or organization on your part. You’re busy, so taking one less thing off your to-do list can provide significant peace of mind.
However, some orthodontists don’t recommend wearing a permanent retainer on both dental arches, since the lower teeth can interfere with the upper bonding. Though permanent retainers are most often recommended for the lower arch, it can’t hurt to ask your orthodontist if you can get one on the upper arch too.
Have a Backup Retainer Or Retainer Subscription Plan
If you wear a removable retainer, it helps to have a backup set on hand just in case. This way, your smile won’t risk relapse if you lose or break your retainer unexpectedly.
Retainers are customized appliances, so replacing one isn’t as simple as clicking “add to cart.” Your provider may need to retake your dental scans or impressions, then wait on the lab to manufacture and ship your retainers. Keeping a spare retainer can eliminate that risk and help you stay calm if you lose one.
Many online retainer retailers store your impression information, which shortens the turnaround time for reorders. Plus, online providers often offer discounts to incentivize ordering multiple retainers at once, so you can avoid a panicked reordering situation altogether.
One of our top-rated online retainer retailers, Sporting Smiles, offers an Emergency Retainer option. For $325, they’ll get you a new retainer within 6–7 business days (provided you complete and return your at-home impression kit immediately). It’s a steeper initial investment, but still significantly more affordable than paying for another round of orthodontic treatment due to relapse.
Most people forget to wear their retainer at some point, so it’s valuable to have a game plan in place. The most important thing is to make sure you’re back wearing a retainer as soon as possible.
Whether that’s your current retainer or a new retainer depends primarily on how long you went without your retainer and your orthodontist’s advice.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will crowns and/or fillings affect how my retainers fit?
Since clear retainers are designed to fit snugly around your smile, dental work like crowns and fillings can potentially affect how they fit.
Are there downsides to buying retainers in bulk?
Buying extra retainers can save you time and money. That said, if you don’t adhere to your retainer wear schedule, your teeth can shift and your spare retainers won’t fit anymore. Dental work like crowns and fillings can also affect how your retainers fit. It’s helpful to have backup retainers on hand, but this comes with a certain level of risk.
When shouldn’t I try to wear my old retainer?
If you haven’t worn your retainer for several months or over a year, it could be dangerous to force it back on your teeth.
Which retainers can be repaired?
Orthodontists can repair both Hawley and permanent retainers, but not clear retainers. Repairing a permanent retainer is usually as expensive as just buying a new one. Hawley retainer repairs, on the other hand, usually cost a fraction of the initial purchase price.
Which type of retainer lasts the longest?
Permanent retainers. They can last over ten years, and sometimes even well beyond that.
I forgot to wear my retainer yesterday. Will wearing it today hurt my teeth?
Usually, one day without a retainer won’t cause large dental shifts. Just be gentle when you’re putting on your retainers and reach out to your orthodontist if you experience any discomfort.
Can I eat while wearing removable retainers?
You should remove your retainers before consuming anything other than water. Chewing can damage your retainers, plus food and drinks can stain them. Plus, trapping food particles and bacteria on the teeth can cause oral health problems.
Which retainer model is the least visible?
Permanent retainers are attached to the backs of your teeth, so they’re arguably the most discreet. Clear retainers also boast a very low profile, since they’re made of clear plastic.
Will retainers affect my speech?
They can, but only temporarily. It can take a few days to adjust to wearing any dental appliance, and retainers are no exception. Just know that the more you speak while wearing your retainers, the sooner your speech will return to normal.
Do I have to purchase retainers from my orthodontist?
You can purchase removable retainers from your orthodontist or an online retailer. Permanent retainers, on the other hand, require an in-person appointment with an orthodontist.