For decades, the only option for straightening your teeth was metal braces. Then, along came Invisalign. While this system changed the way we straighten teeth, some aspects of treatment remain the same as they are with braces — namely, the retention phase.
Never heard about the retention phase of orthodontic treatment? In truth, you likely have, but only in terms of the appliances used during it: retainers.
The retention phase begins as soon as active treatment is complete. So, once you are done with wearing your Invisalign aligners, it is time to switch to your choice of retainers. This phase is focused on keeping the teeth in their new, ideal locations, and it lasts for the rest of your life.
Table of Contents
Why Do I Need Retainers After Invisalign?
The process of moving the teeth from one position to another is pretty complex. Invisalign aligners place pressure on your teeth, which is transferred through the visible parts down to the roots. The tooth roots are bound in place by periodontal ligaments that attach the teeth to the jawbone.
For the teeth to move, the jawbone has to remodel itself. It creates new bone on one side of the tooth and removes it on the other, helping support the tooth in its new location.
However, the body likes what is familiar. If the teeth are not held in place by appliances, they tend to shift back to where they once were located.
The greatest risk of relapse is in the first 12 to 24 months after Invisalign treatment when the jawbone might still be in the process of remodeling itself. However, even decades after treatment, without retainers holding the teeth in place, they will migrate.
Invisalign is a major investment, costing anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, and in many cases, it isn’t covered by insurance. You want to ensure that your money isn’t going to waste. Keep in mind that retainers aren’t always included in the cost of treatment, so this could be an additional expense, but it is cheaper than completing another full round of treatment.
Retainers hold your teeth in place, preventing them from migrating once you are no longer in active treatment with Invisalign. There are several types of retainers you can choose from, making it easy to find the option that is best for you.
Which Retainers Are Best After Invisalign?
When it comes to the retention phase of treatment, you aren’t locked into a single type of appliance. While all retainers accomplish the same thing — holding your teeth in their corrected positions — different types accomplish this in different ways. There are three primary types of retainers.
Clear Removable Retainers
These retainers will feel quite familiar to Invisalign patients. In terms of their appearance, they are essentially identical to aligners. However, their plastic is a bit thicker and firmer, helping them hold up to constant wear over many months, or even years.
Many patients prefer these retainers after Invisalign since they are so similar to their aligners. Additionally, since they surround all the teeth, they prevent shifting even in the molars — something no other type of retainer offers.
A set of clear retainers from your dentist or orthodontist should cost somewhere in the range of $200 to $400, but online retainer companies, like Retainers Direct and Sporting Smiles, offer similar products for hundreds of dollars less.
These retainers are pretty durable but will wear down over time, so expect to need new ones every 2-3 years. Additionally, they require a lot of patient compliance, which means that if you start slacking, your teeth will start moving.
Fixed Permanent Retainers
These retainers can last many years. Made from a wire placed against the backs of your front teeth using dental adhesive, most people only need to replace their permanent retainers when they are damaged. If you take good care of them, yours could, in theory, last decades.
While their long lifespan is a major plus, the biggest benefit of fixed retainers is the fact that they aren’t removable — which is also a major downside for some. Since they are secured with dental adhesive, you don’t need to worry about taking them out and forgetting to put them back in. At the same time, you have to change how you eat, brush, and floss to accommodate them.
If you aren’t careful, bacteria and plaque can build up around the wire and adhesive, but your dentist or orthodontist should teach you how to properly clean your teeth with your retainer in place.
On average, fixed retainers cost $300 to $500, with most people needing theirs replaced roughly once every 5 years.
The Hawley is a classic orthodontic appliance that has been in use since braces went mainstream. It is made up of a plastic or acrylic plate that is custom made to fit the upper arch of the patient. This is connected to a wire that goes across the front of the teeth.
Hawley retainers offer a good mixture of effectiveness, affordability, and convenience. They are good at holding the teeth in place, aside from the molars, which are not covered. A single retainer costs just around $300, which is a pretty middle-of-the-road price for in-office retainers. And since they are removable, they can be pretty convenient to wear.
The biggest plus side of wearing Hawley retainers is that they often last 8 years or more when properly cared for. The downside is that they are the most visible option, and for people who invested in Invisalign treatment, switching from an invisible appliance to a visible one doesn’t make a lot of sense.
How Long Will I Need to Wear a Retainer After Invisalign?
This probably isn’t what you want to hear, but you will need to wear your retainers for the rest of your life. After thinking about Invisalign in terms of treatment times, this can come as a shock, but it isn’t bad once you get into the rhythm of things. And if you were treated with Invisalign, you likely already are.
If you choose a removable retainer, you will need to keep it in for at least 22 hours a day every day for the first 12-24 months after treatment. Once your teeth seem to have firmed up into place, your dentist or orthodontist will ask you to switch to wearing your retainers only at night.
You will continue to wear your retainers every night for some time, likely another 12 to 24 months. Then, you will be able to switch to wearing them every other night.
What Happens If I Don’t Wear My Retainer?
Patient compliance is essential to using removable retainers. You might think that this will be easy for you if you did well with Invisalign. However, retainer treatment lasts longer, and once you switch to wearing your retainers every other night, it can be easy to get out of the habit.
Do whatever it takes to stay on track with retainer use. Set reminders on your phone or with your smart home system to make your retainer wear as error free as possible.
If you stop wearing your retainers or forget them too many days in a row, your teeth will start to migrate back towards their original positions. One way you can tell if your teeth are shifting is to put on your last aligners from your active treatment days. If they feel too tight — not just uncomfortable because of the pressure — it indicates your teeth have moved.
How to Get a New Set of Retainers
If you want to get a new fixed retainer, there is one source: your dentist or orthodontist. For clear removable and Hawley retainers, you can either work with a doctor or order them online. Companies like Custom Teeth Devices and Smile Retainers will create custom Hawley devices based on impressions you take at home.
Online retainer companies, like JustRetainers, Retainers Direct, and Sporting Smiles, offer convenient and affordable removable retainers. You order their impression kit, make molds of your teeth, and ship them back. Then, they send you retainers custom made for your smile.
The only downside to online retainers is that you don’t get direct supervision from your doctor. As such, we suggest you choose clear removable aligners over Hawley retainers if going the mail-order route. However, in either case, you can still bring your retainers to your appointments and get guidance as needed.
Want New Retainers at an Affordable Price?
Given how often retainers need to be replaced, it’s a good idea to save money whenever possible. We suggest using Sporting Smiles. As a mail-order service, Sporting Smiles makes it easy and affordable to get new retainers — all from the comfort of your home.
After you wrap up active treatment with Invisalign, you must actively participate in the retention phase, wearing your retainers as directed. While you might be itching not to wear any appliance during the day, this is essential to getting and keeping good results. Make retainers work for you by selecting the kind that best fits your lifestyle and personality. Then, enjoy a smile that lasts a lifetime!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a set schedule for stepping-down retainer use?
No, there isn’t a universal schedule. Your teeth are unique to you, and that means your step-down schedule should be tailored to your needs. Expect to wear your retainers all day for at least 12 months, then every night for a minimum of another 12 months before moving to every other night. However, while 12 months per step works for some, others need 24 months or more.
Should I expect to replace my retainers every year?
Assuming you are properly caring for your retainers, they should last for at least two years, with some types of retainers still working well after 7 years or more. Your doctor can advise you on when to replace yours.
Can my teeth start shifting back to their original positions after just a few days of not wearing retainers?
This depends on where you are in your retention phase. After 12-24 months, the ligaments that hold the teeth in place should be pretty firm. The teeth can still move, but it is unlikely to happen after just a few days. Early in the retention phase, tooth movement can begin after just hours.
Is there a risk of damaging my teeth with retainers?
Assuming your retainers are well made and cared for correctly, they shouldn’t cause any harm. Make sure you purchase yours from reliable providers and that you carefully follow your care instructions.
What are things that might damage my retainers?
Certain foods will — anything hard or crunchy should be avoided, as well as sticky foods if you have a fixed retainer. Removable retainers need to be kept away from heat sources and the sun, as this can cause them to warp.
How should I clean my retainers?
Each retainer type is cleaned in different ways. Fixed retainers require special brushing and flossing, Hawley retainers need to be soaked and scrubbed since food can get stuck on the plate, and clear removable retainers should be brushed like you would your teeth.
What does it mean if my retainer is suddenly too tight?
This is a clear indication that you went too long in-between wears. Start wearing your retainer every night and consult with your orthodontist to see if your teeth have shifted too much.
How do you store removable retainers?
Removable retainers should come with a protective case. Whenever you aren’t wearing them, place them inside that case. It is a good idea to purchase extra cases and keep them in your bag and other places you might need them to ensure you are never caught without one. Improperly stored retainers can easily be damaged.
How are online retainer companies able to make custom appliances?
They have you complete an impression kit at home. Based on the molds you mail back to them, they create your retainers.
Are mail-order retainers safe?
Yes! As with any industry, there will be the risk of running into an untrustworthy company. Make sure to read reviews, do your research, and select a company you feel confident working with.