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Do I have to clean my retainer?

If you wear a retainer, you might be wondering how to care for it. Your retainer sits inside your mouth and against your teeth, so it quickly accumulates bacteria, plaque, and tartar. Just like you brush your teeth every day, it’s important to clean your retainer every day.

Many people need to wear a retainer full time for a while after they have their braces removed. This is because teeth aren’t set in a rigid environment. Even after they’ve been corrected by braces and moved into a better position, they can shift over time.

Retainers help the muscles and tissues in your mouth hold teeth in their new placement. Some people may even need to wear their retainers at night indefinitely to keep teeth in place.

Here’s more about the different types of retainers, how to clean them, and other tips to keep them well-maintained.

Caring for your retainer starts with identifying which kind you have. There are three types of retainers:

  • Hawley retainers are molded out of acrylic to fit your mouth. They have a wire that helps hold the retainer in place. This type of retainer is removable, so it’s easy to clean.
  • Clear plastic retainers may go by the names Essix, Vivera, or clear aligners. These retainers slip over your teeth and are pretty much invisible. They’re easy to remove, but aren’t as durable as Hawley retainers.
  • Fixed, or bonded, retainers may also be called permanent retainers. These are actually attached to your lower front teeth. They’re used if you have a high risk of having your teeth shift. You can’t remove this type of retainer. It’s usually put into place for months or even years.

Hawley and clear plastic retainers

Both Hawley and clear plastic retainers can be removed from your mouth for daily cleaning.

To clean your Hawley or clear plastic retainer, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure you clean your retainer as soon as you remove it from your mouth, while it’s still wet. This will make it easier to clean off any debris before it hardens.
  2. Brush out your retainer with lukewarm water after each meal. It’s a good idea to brush your teeth at this time as well.
  3. For a deeper clean, mix lukewarm water with mild dish soap (toothpastes are abrasive and can scratch the retainer’s surface). Use a soft toothbrush or denture brush to gently scrub away plaque and other debris.
  4. If necessary, use a cotton swab to get into the deepest grooves and ridges on clear plastic retainers.
  5. Ask your dentist about soaking your retainer in a denture or retainer cleaner, like Efferdent or Polident. If they recommend soaking, mix a cup of lukewarm water with one tablet of cleaner and follow the package instructions for timing.

If you notice debris on your retainer that won’t come off, take it to your dentist or orthodontist. There are special solutions that can remove stubborn tartar.

Fixed, or bonded, retainers

These retainers are attached to your teeth, so you must floss them daily to keep them clean. This process may seem intimidating at first, but you’ll eventually get the hang of it. Here’s how to clean your permanent retainer:

  1. Grab a 6-inch piece of floss and use a floss threader to thread the floss between your two front lower teeth.
  2. Hold one end of the floss with your fingers and the other with the threader.
  3. Once you get the floss under your retainer wire, simply move it up and down between the teeth all the way to the gum line. The floss should gently go below the gum line if possible.
  4. Slide the floss sideways to the next area you want to clean. Pull down until it’s between your teeth.
  5. Repeat this process with each tooth that’s attached to your permanent retainer.

If you’re having a hard time flossing, don’t hesitate to ask for help from your dentist or orthodontist. They can help guide your technique and provide more tips.

1. Avoid heat

Exposing your retainer to high heat can warp and ruin it. Keep your retainer away from:

  • boiling water
  • microwaves
  • dishwashers
  • washers and dryers
  • the dashboard of your car

Always wash retainers in lukewarm water.

2. Skip the chemicals

You don’t necessarily need to use harsh cleansers to get a squeaky-clean retainer. In fact, in a study on Essix retainers, researchers discovered that using chemical cleaning tablets didn’t reduce the number of bacteria any more than simple brushing did.

That being said, the tablets were effective at removing “cocci” bacteria, like Streptococcus bacteria, the cause of strep throat. Strep throat is an infection in the throat and tonsils that causes a sore throat, fever, and red, swollen tonsils.

3. Time your soak

If you do choose to use tablets, don’t soak a Hawley retainer for too long. Doing so can corrode the metal components. Only soak the retainer for the time it takes to clean it, or as specified on your cleaning tablets.

You can do a quick mouthwash soak if you want to freshen your retainer’s smell and kill some bacteria. Be sure to mix equal parts mouthwash and lukewarm water.

If your mouthwash contains alcohol, only soak your retainer in this type of a solution occasionally. Alcohol can harm your retainer’s plastic.

4. Clean your case

Also make sure to clean your retainer case regularly. Try cleaning it once a day before you put your retainer away. Gently scrub all surfaces pf it in warm, soapy water. Then rinse it off and pat to dry.

5. Keep watch

You’ll want to keep your retainer away from pets so they don’t chew or choke on it. Likewise, be mindful of where you place your retainer while you’re eating. If you place it on a napkin, you may forget it or accidentally toss it in the trash.

6. Replace as needed

Retainers are somewhat like contact lenses or shoes: They’re subject to daily wear and tear. Eventually, they may need to be replaced. Essix retainers may only last six months to a few years, as the plastic tends to wear out. Hawley retainers can last 5 to 10 years if properly cared for.

Contact your orthodontist if you notice that your retainer is particularly dirty, worn out, or no longer fits properly.

Your retainer will keep collecting bacteria, plaque, and tartar from your mouth while you wear it. Over time, it may even start to smell or taste funny if you don’t clean it often enough.

More importantly, retainers can harbor dangerous bacteria like Streptococcus, including S. sanguinis, S. mitis, and S. salivarius, in addition to Lactobacillus and Veillonella. While many bacteria are normally found in the mouth, when too many build up, they can cause illness.

You may also become exposed to Candida albicans. This is detrimental yeast that’s normally found inside the mouth, but it may accumulate on your retainer and cause an infection.

Streptococcus and Candida may not be big threats if you have a healthy immune system. If your immune system is compromised in some way, though, you need to be more careful. Let your doctor know right away if you notice any redness, swelling, or other worrisome symptoms in your mouth.

Cleaning your retainer is just as important as brushing your teeth. You need to clean your retainer in warm water and dish soap once a day to keep it healthy. It’s a good idea to brush it out after each meal as well. The tips in this article are general, so it’s always best to ask your dentist or orthodontist for specific care instructions for your retainer.