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What is a retainer for teeth?

In today’s dental health-conscious society, one commonly heard term is “retainer”. In this comprehensive guide, we at Wimpole Street Dental Clinic, a leading dental care provider in London, will shed light on this subject, delve into UK statistics, and answer the most frequently asked questions regarding dental retainers.

A dental retainer is a custom-made device usually made from plastic (removable retainers) or metal (fixed retainers) that is often used to hold the teeth in position after orthodontic treatment. It’s an essential part of the final phase of orthodontic treatment, designed to keep teeth stable in their new positions.

According to a 2020 survey by the British Orthodontic Society, an overwhelming 95% of orthodontists recommended retainers for life to ensure the long-term stability of treatment results.

Why do people need to wear retainers?

Retainers are prescribed post-orthodontic treatment for a number of reasons:

  • Prevent Orthodontic Relapse: This is the primary reason for wearing a retainer. After teeth have been moved and repositioned through orthodontic treatment, they naturally tend to shift back to their original positions over time. This phenomenon, known as orthodontic relapse, can undo the hard work and financial investment of orthodontic treatment. Retainers prevent this by holding the teeth in their new positions.
  • Maintain Oral Function: Properly aligned teeth are crucial for normal oral functions such as chewing and speaking. A retainer helps maintain these alignments, ensuring these functions are not compromised.
  • Manage Space for Erupting Teeth: In younger patients, retainers can be used to manage space in the mouth for teeth that are yet to erupt. This can reduce the need for further orthodontic treatment in the future.
  • Minimise Age-Related Teeth Shifting: Even in adults who have never undergone orthodontic treatment, teeth can shift over time due to age, habits, or changes in oral musculature. Wearing a retainer can help manage these shifts and maintain optimal alignment.

By wearing your retainer as instructed by your orthodontist, you can enjoy these benefits and ensure that the investment you’ve made in your smile lasts a lifetime.

Different types of retainers: which one is right for me?

There are two main types of retainers: removable and fixed.

Removable retainers are to be used during sleep. Hawley and Essix retainers are common types of removable retainers. Hawley retainers are made of acrylic and metal, while Essix retainers are clear, plastic devices designed to fit precisely over your teeth.

Fixed retainers, also known as bonded or permanent retainers, are attached to the inner surface of the teeth and are not visible when you talk or smile.

Your orthodontist will recommend the best type of retainer based on your individual needs, oral health, and lifestyle.

How to take care of your retainer?

Retainer care is crucial for maintaining its quality and function. It involves cleaning the retainer regularly to remove plaque and food particles, storing it properly when not in use, and regular checks to ensure it’s still well-fitted and effective.

The British Dental Association emphasises the need for regular professional cleaning for fixed retainers as a measure to prevent potential gum and tooth problems.

What happens if you don’t wear your retainer?

As reported by the British Orthodontic Society, not wearing your retainer as instructed by your orthodontist could lead to your teeth gradually shifting back to their original positions, diminishing the effects of your orthodontic treatment. This could mean a need for re-treatment and additional costs.

At Wimpole Street Dental Clinic, we encourage patients to think of retainers as a long-term investment for maintaining their perfect smiles.

In conclusion, dental retainers play a pivotal role in the world of orthodontics. Their role in maintaining the alignment of your teeth post-orthodontic treatment is essential to your oral health. While it may seem like a daunting commitment, the lifelong benefits of a beautiful, confident smile are well worth it. After all, a well-informed patient is a happy patient, and we at Wimpole Street Dental Clinic are committed to fostering smiles, one patient at a time.


Created: 31/7/2023

Clinically reviewed by: Prof Dr Christian Mehl

Written by: Dr Raul Costa

Dr Raul Costa

About the author:

Dr Raul Costa is a restorative dentist with a unique set of skills for dental aesthetics and a drive for ultra-conservative techniques. He qualified from the Lisbon Dental School in 2005 and has been practicing in London since 2008. He works with world-renowned ceramists in order to deliver natural-looking, life-like, crowns and veneers. He is also particularly talented and experienced with composite bondings and implant-supported restorations.