Smiles are meant to last a lifetime – but only with the right care. Maybe you’ve worked hard to get that perfect smile with braces. However, the work isn’t over yet! Retainers are super important to keep your teeth from moving back to their old positions. That’s why in this full guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about orthodontic retainers: what they are, their main types, cleaning routine, and wearing care; then, we will answer some important questions about them.

What are Orthodontic Retainers?

Think of orthodontic retainers as the finishing touch on your orthodontic journey. Braces or Invisalign may have painstakingly shifted your teeth, but there’s still a natural tendency for them to move. Retainers are custom-made appliances worn after active treatment to hold your teeth in their new, improved positions. They act like tiny guardians, preventing relapse and ensuring your beautiful smile stays put.

The 3 Main Retainer Types

When it comes to orthodontic retainers, you have a few options:

The Classic Hawley Orthodontic Retainer 

The Classic Hawley Retainer

This reliable warrior features a clear acrylic base with a metal wire (labial bow) running across the front of your teeth. Clasps made of the same wire grip your back teeth for a secure fit. Hawley retainers are adjustable, making them a good choice for some minor adjustments after treatment. They’re also quite durable, but their visibility can be a downside for some. On the plus side, they’re relatively easy to clean and may even help with certain speech issues.

Dental Orthodontic Essix Retainer 

The Stealthy Essix Retainer

These clear, custom-made plastic retainers are practically invisible, making them a popular choice for the privacy-conscious. They’re comfortable to wear and super easy to clean. However, since they’re made of plastic, they’re more prone to losing or damaging them. Unlike Hawley retainers, you’ll typically need multiple sets throughout your retention journey.

Discreet Bonded Retainers For Teeth

The Discreet Bonded Retainer

This permanent resident is a thin wire bonded directly to the back of your teeth with a dental adhesive. Its invisibility is a major perk, but it requires a visit to the dentist for any adjustments or removal. Bonded retainers can sometimes irritate the gums, so proper cleaning is crucial.

Analyzing Each Retainer Types

Now that you know about the different orthodontic retainers, let’s learn more about each type:

Hawley Retainers

  • Advantages: Adjustable, durable, and repairable.
  • Disadvantages: Visible, requires cleaning, may affect speech.
  • Care: Soak the retainer in a cleaning solution and gently brush it with a soft toothbrush.

Essix Retainers

  • Advantages: Invisible, comfortable, easy to clean.
  • Disadvantages: It can be lost or damaged, so multiple sets are needed.
  • Care: Rinse them after each use and brush them gently with a soft toothbrush. Store them in a sturdy case when not in use.

Bonded Retainers

  • Advantages: Invisible, no need for removal.
  • Disadvantages: It may irritate gums and require the dentist to make adjustments/removal.
  • Care: Floss carefully around the bonded wire and maintain good oral hygiene to prevent gum irritation.

Who Needs Retainers?

While orthodontic retainers are essential for most people undergoing orthodontic treatment, the specific need can vary. Your dentist will consider factors like the type of treatment you received, your age, and the complexity of your case. Generally, everyone who has braces or Invisalign will benefit from wearing retainers.

Brushing Orthodontic Retainers with a Soft-Bristled Toothbrush

General Cleaning Routine (Applies to All Retainers)

Orthodontic retainers ensure your teeth stay perfectly aligned after braces or Invisalign, but just like your teeth, they need proper care and cleaning to function effectively. Here’s a guide to keep your orthodontic retainers happy and your smile sparkling:

Rinse, Rinse, Rinse

This is the simplest yet most crucial step. Rinse your orthodontic retainers thoroughly with clean, lukewarm water whenever you take them out of your mouth. This removes food particles and saliva, preventing build-up and bad breath.

Brushing Basics

Use a separate, soft-bristled toothbrush specifically for your orthodontic retainers. Avoid the harsh bristles of your regular toothbrush, as they can scratch the retainer surface. Gently brush your orthodontic retainers with a mild, unscented dish soap or toothpaste specifically formulated for retainers.

Soak it Up (Optional)

For a deeper clean, consider soaking your orthodontic retainers once a week. Here are your options:

  • Cleaning Solution: Use a commercially available effervescent cleaning tablet designed for orthodontic retainers. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for soaking time and dilution.
  • DIY Soak: Mix equal parts white vinegar and lukewarm water. Soak your orthodontic retainers for 15-30 minutes, then rinse thoroughly. Avoid using straight vinegar or soaking for extended periods, as it can damage the orthodontic retainer material.

Wearing Schedule and Care

When it comes to wearing and caring for your orthodontic retainers, following their specific instructions is paramount. 

The Initial Wearing Phase

Immediately following the removal of your braces or completing Invisalign treatment, your dentist will likely recommend full-time retainer wear. This typically means wearing your orthodontic retainers for 20-22 hours daily, only removing them for eating and brushing your teeth. This crucial initial phase allows your teeth to settle into their new positions and solidify the bone structure around them. Think of it as giving your teeth time to “relearn” their new home.

Graduating to Nighttime Wear

After a designated period of full-time wear (4-6 months), your dentist may gradually transition you to nighttime wear only. This signifies a successful adjustment of your teeth; nighttime wear helps maintain that alignment while you sleep. This transition is tailored to your individual progress, and your dentist will closely monitor your teeth to ensure everything stays on track.

How Long Do You Need to Wear Your Orthodontic Retainers?

Wearing orthodontic retainers in the long term depends on several factors. Here are 3 main factors:

  1. Age: Younger patients are more prone to tooth shifting, so they might require longer wear times compared to adults.
  1. Type of Retainer: The material and design of your orthodontic retainer can influence wear frequency. Hawley retainers, for example, may need more frequent wear than Essix retainers due to potential adjustments needed.
  1. Complexity of Treatment: If your orthodontic treatment involves significant corrections or complex tooth movements, you might need to wear your orthodontic retainers longer to maintain the achieved results.


Orthodontic retainers are the guardians of your straight teeth, diligently preventing them from returning to their old ways. They are essential for preserving your beautiful smile after braces or Invisalign treatment. Whether you choose a type of orthodontic retainer, the classic Hawley, the nearly invisible Essix, or the discreet bonded retainer, you can affect the general guide that you should follow, including cleaning routine, wearing schedule, general care, etc. 

Remember, a straight smile is an investment; orthodontic retainers are the key to unlocking its long-term value. While they may require some adjustment and commitment, the benefits of maintaining your perfect tooth alignment make them well worth it.