portrait of Dr. Irwin and team at Vancouver Orthodontic Specialists PLLC


Last updated: February 09, 2019

Young woman wearing a retainer

Welcome to the Retainer section of vancortho.com! Here you will find everything you want to know about retainers, including types and pros and cons of each, wear and care info, and answers to common questions.

Scroll down to start reading, or use the menu below to skip to the section you are most interested in.


Retainer Wear: The Final Phase of Your Orthodontic Journey

After your orthodontic treatment with braces or Invisalign® is complete, you will wear a retainer to keep your teeth in place. The initial retention phase can last anywhere from 6 to 24 months or longer; it varies from patient to patient and is based on factors such as length of treatment and likelihood of relapse.

During this phase, following your orthodontist’s instructions for retainer wear is essential to achieving and maintaining maximum benefits from your orthodontic treatment. It is also important to take care of your appliance by cleaning it regularly and keeping it in a safe place to avoid loss or damage.

It is important to note that while the retention phase is necessary and will stabilize the results achieved through orthodontic treatment, the teeth and jaw are never truly “locked” into place. A variety of conditions can cause shifting over time, including everything from posture and lip and tongue pressure on the teeth, to dental work and the natural aging process.

As such, the only way to ensure your amazing new smile will last for the long haul is to make a life-long commitment to retainer wear. The good news is that constant (or near constant) wear won’t be required long-term. After the initial retention phase, wearing your retainer for 4-7 nights a week while you sleep will be enough to keep your smile intact indefinitely.

Retainer Care Tips:

  • Brush your retainer daily as you would your teeth.
  • Soak in a dental cleaning product monthly for deeper cleaning.
  • Never soak or brush with hot water, which may distort the plastic.
  • Don’t wrap your retainer in a napkin as it can be mistaken for trash.
  • Keep your retainer away from pets—they may see it as a chew toy.

Types of Retainers and Pros and Cons of Each

Types of retainers

Removable Retainers

Hawley and clear (Essix, Tru-Tain, Vivera) are the two main styles of removable retainers. While each type carries its own advantages and disadvantages, a general benefit shared by all removable appliances is that they are, indeed, removable. This means you can take them out to eat, brush and floss, and during those times when wear is not needed. This can also be a negative, however, as removable retainers can get accidentally lost or thrown away, and compliance with wear requirements is imperative to prevent the teeth from moving back to their original position.

Hawley Retainer


The Hawley retainer has been around since the 1920s and is still one of the most commonly used retainers for upper teeth today. This retainer is made of plastic and bendable wire and is ideal when the teeth need to ‘settle’ or minor adjustments are still needed following orthodontic treatment. The plastic comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns so you can have a little fun personalizing this retainer.


  • + Repairable if damaged/full replacement not usually needed
  • + Durable construction
  • + Easy to clean
  • + Adjustable wire allows for tweaking after orthodontic treatment


  • – Bow wire that runs across the front of the teeth is clearly visible
  • – May cause a lisp (in most cases just initially)

Clear Retainer


Clear retainers look very similar to Invisalign® aligners. In fact, the company that makes Invisalign® makes a line of clear retainers under the brand name Vivera®. Essix and Tru-Tain are other names for these appliances.

Clear retainers are made of a (you guessed it) clear molded plastic that fits over the teeth. This type of retainer is popular with patients because it is virtually invisible; however, it is not adjustable like the Hawley retainer and would need to be replaced if damaged.


  • + Virtually invisible
  • + Comfortable


  • – Needs to be inspected regularly for damage and replaced as needed
  • – May be difficult to keep interior surfaces clean
  • – Does not allow teeth to touch in a natural way

Permanent or Fixed Retainers

permanent bonded

Image Source: thermadent.co.uk/

Permanent retainers are ‘permanent’ as far as being bonded in place, but while they typically outlive removable appliances, they do not last a lifetime and may need to be removed/replaced down the road. This type of retainer is primarily used on the lower teeth and is comprised of wire that is glued to the back of the teeth with dental composite.


  • + Can’t be seen by others
  • + Long lifespan
  • + Compliance isn’t a concern; can’t be lost


  • – More difficult to keep teeth clean
  • – May need dental wax to make more comfortable
  • – Ongoing visits required to monitor the retainer

The type of retainer(s) your orthodontist recommends will largely depend on factors unique to your situation, such as whether any fine tuning is needed following orthodontic treatment. In the end it is ultimately your decision, but it is strongly encouraged to comply with the retention instructions of your orthodontist to ensure your teeth remain in place and that your fabulous post-treatment smile lasts a lifetime.


Retainer FAQ


To help you learn even more about the retention phase of your orthodontic treatment, we’ve provided some answers to frequently asked questions about the process, including why retention is needed, how long a retainer is worn, and how to care for your retainer.

What is a retainer?

A retainer is a small orthodontic appliance that is custom made for each patient. Retainers are usually made of plastic and metal (see photo at top of post), but clear plastic aligners (similar to Invisalign®) are also available. Retainers can be permanent or removable; your orthodontist will recommend which type of retainer is appropriate for your situation.

Why do I need to wear a retainer?

The most common use of retainers is to keep teeth in place once they’ve been aligned with braces or Invisalign® while the surrounding bone and tissue adapt to the change.

Retainers can also be used in lieu of braces when only minor adjustments are needed, such as the closing of a gap or the movement of a single tooth.

How long do I wear my retainer?

Retainer wear is typically graduated, meaning you will need to wear your retainer constantly (except during eating and oral hygiene) for the first several months after your braces are removed, but thereafter you will only have to wear it when you sleep

Retainer wear can continue to taper off over time, but it is important to keep in mind that teeth are never fully cemented in place; they move and shift with age and changing oral health conditions, so it is a good idea to make friends with your retainer and plan to keep it in your life for years to come.

How do I care for my retainer?

Caring for your retainer is easy and will quickly become a normal part of your oral hygiene routine. If you wear a permanent retainer, brushing and flossing as usual is enough to keep it clean.

For removable Hawley retainers, you can brush them with a toothbrush and toothpaste when you brush your teeth. If using the clear plastic type of retainer, disinfecting with a denture cleaner is best as it can become scratched with brushing.

Next Steps

If you’ve already had braces and are now in the retention phase, it is crucial to follow your orthodontist’s instructions for wear to ensure your teeth remain in their new position.

If you are researching orthodontic treatment options for yourself or your child and are in the Vancouver, WA area, contact Vancouver Orthodontic Specialists, PLLC to schedule your free consultation and exam today; Dr. Irwin will go over all of your treatment options with you and answer any remaining questions you may have.

In the event that your retainer becomes damaged or lost, it is important that you contact us right away for a replacement to avoid relapse. Remember, the success and longevity of your new smile is dependent on your cooperation during the retention phase.