The Pros and Cons of a Removable Retainer

When you undergo orthodontic treatment, your teeth need time to set in place as the surrounding bone and gums adjust to the changes in your smile. This is why you have to wear a retainer to stabilize them after you’ve had orthodontic treatment such as braces or Invisalign; if you fail to do so or are inconsistent with it, you risk having your teeth shifting from the finished position.

Removable retainers—such as the classic Hawley retainer, or clear retainers—are a popular option, though there are also types that are permanently affixed. This article covers the advantages and drawbacks of removable retainers, as well as how best to care for and clean them.

Removable Brace or Retainer for Teeth correction

rdonar / Getty Images

Types of Removable Retainers

As the name implies, in contrast to the permanent type, removable retainers can be taken out for cleaning and eating. Though they both serve the purpose of retaining and promoting tooth alignment, there are two primary types of removable retainers:

  • Hawley retainers: With a design that’s been employed since 1919, Hawley retainers are the type that most think of when they think about retainers. The upper portion consists of wires (to wrap around the teeth) attached to an acrylic or plastic body that conforms to the upper ridge of your mouth. For the lower set, the body slides behind the teeth.
  • Clear retainers: A more recent innovation, clear retainers—such as Essix or Vivera retainers, among others—don’t have any metal components. Designed to conform exactly to your teeth, they function much like the Hawley variety. While they impact your appearance less, they may not be as durable.

Clear Retainers vs. Clear Aligners

Whereas clear retainers primarily work to retain tooth position after orthodontic work, clear aligners, such as Invisalign, are used to actually adjust your smile. With this approach, you wear a series of appliances that progressively move your teeth into the desired position.

Related: What Are the Best Invisible Braces?

Permanent vs. Removable Retainer

While removable retainers are a popular option, orthodontists (dentists that specialize in the alignment of the teeth and jaw) may also consider the permanent type. Also known as “bonded” or “lingual retainers,” the latter are basically specialized metal bars that are permanently affixed to the back of your teeth (usually to the front four to six teeth). This type of appliance is only replaced if it’s damaged, often lasting up to 20 years or longer.

Permanent retainers are put on either immediately after braces are removed or after a period of several months, during which you wear the removable variety.  

Pros

When considering your options, it’s important to get a sense of the advantages of removable retainers when compared to the permanent type. Here’s a quick breakdown of their relative benefits:

  • Easier dental care: Removable retainers, of course, can be taken out for eating and dental care. As such, it’s easier to properly brush and floss with this type.
  • Easier cleaning: Since you can remove this type of retainer, it’s easier to keep clean (as long as you follow the proper protocol when doing so). Permanent retainers are more likely to allow plaque and tartar build-up.
  • Fewer dietary restrictions: Related to the above, since the appliance can be taken out, there are fewer restrictions on what you can eat.
  • Lower upfront costs: While, over time, the durability of the permanent retainer may equal things out, the up-front costs of removable retainers are generally lower.  

Cons

Of course, permanent retainers have their own advantages over those that can be removed. Potential drawbacks of removable retainers include:

  • Adherence to care: Put simply, for retainers to work, you have to wear them as much as possible (at least in the early going). The ability to take this appliance out can make it tougher to use it consistently. Also, there’s a chance of losing or misplacing it.
  • Aesthetics: A key benefit of permanent retainers is that they don’t rely on a wire wrapping around the teeth and are not visible from the front. This can be a major factor for those concerned about the appearance of their smile.
  • Durability: Removable retainers don’t last as long as those that are fixed and are more prone to damage. Whereas permanent retainers are effective and can stay in place for up to 20 years or longer, removable retainers last anywhere from six months to 10 years.   
  • Difficulty speaking: It’s more difficult to speak clearly and articulate with removable retainers at first. However, over time you’ll adjust to this. Also, depending on how your teeth were originally positioned, you may only need to wear your retainer at night.

The Trade-Off

There’s a lot to be said for permanent retainers. Since they can’t be taken off, there’s no chance of you forgetting to wear them or losing them. But for the very same reason, they can make dental care more challenging. The wire or bonded material can allow food to get trapped—leading to plaque and tartar development, gum disease, and other dental issues—and flossing is much more difficult.

Cleaning

Taking good care of your removable retainer by keeping it clean is essential for the success of your orthodontic treatment. Good hygiene prevents gum disease and bad breath, while also stopping plaque and tartar from forming on the appliance. Your orthodontist will give you specific guidance, but here’s what you need to keep in mind:  

  • Regular rinsing: Rinse your retainer thoroughly before putting it on and right after taking it off.
  • Deep-cleaning: Brush the appliance once a day with a soft-bristled brush. Use non-whitening toothpaste, mild dish soap, or castile soap.
  • Soaking: Once a week, soak the retainer in denture cleaner or fluids designed specifically for retainers. Solutions of diluted white wine vinegar and warm water can also work.

Lost or Bent Retainers

As noted, making sure you’re consistent about wearing your removable retainer is critical for the success of your tooth straightening. If you don’t do so, your teeth will start migrating back to their original positions. While this may not be problematic for a couple of days to a week or so, after that it’ll hurt to wear it. If you do feel pain, you’ll need a new one.

So what should you do if you lose your appliance or it becomes damaged? The first step is to call your orthodontist as soon as possible; they can order a new one, and you may need an appointment. You may also consider ordering a replacement online, though make sure to speak to your provider first. Never try to fix a damaged appliance or attempt to wear it, as that could make matters worse.

Summary

Removable retainers are commonly used items after orthodontic treatment, such as the removal of braces. While removal retainers are not as durable or as aesthetically pleasing as permanent retainers, they are affordable, easy to clean, and do not interfere with teeth cleaning.

Removable retainers are not the same as clear aligners such as Invisalign, which are used to adjust your teeth rather than maintain the adjustment after orthodontic care. If you are not consistent in wearing your removable retainer and your teeth shift, the retainer cannot move your teeth back into their original position.

A Word From Verywell

Retainers play a critical role in orthodontic care, ensuring that your teeth stay aligned. Alongside the confidence you might gain from it, having an attractive smile also helps prevent dental problems. There are many options for straightening your teeth, and it’s worth exploring them and seeing what you can do. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much does a removable retainer cost?

    Removable retainers range in cost considerably, and much depends on the extent of the work you need, as well as the specific type used. Hawley retainers, made of wire and plastic, cost between $150 and $300, whereas all-plastic retainers range from $50 to $200. Your dental insurance may cover all, some, or none of the costs of a removable retainer.

  • Can you wear both permanent and removable retainers?

    A combination therapy that involves both permanent and removable may be recommended to ensure successful long-term results. Every case is different, but a common combination is a removable retainer for the upper set of teeth and fixed retainers for the lower set.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Napitu A, Rose A. Permanent retainer vs removable: pros, cons and cost. Dentaly.org.

  2. Rose A, Stevens C. Hawley retainer: costs, advantages and disadvantages. Dentaly.org.

  3. Napitu A, Rose A. Essix retainer: cost, cleaning, care and pros and cons. Dentaly.org.

  4. American Association of Orthodontists. Taking care of retainers.

  5. Asmussen N. I lost my retainer: what to do and how to stop your teeth from shifting. Dentaly.org.