Orthodontic retainers are an attractive option for dental patients looking to make slight improvements to their tooth alignment or those who aim to keep their recent dental work intact.

Patients have more options than ever, and orthodontists use cutting-edge techniques to ensure retainers are as effective as possible. How do you know if retainers are the right option for you? Read on to learn about how retainers work, the options available, and how to make an informed decision.

What Are Retainers?

Retainers are small devices that are placed in a patient’s mouth behind his/her teeth in order to re-align or maintain a specific position of the teeth. They are typically made from clear plastic or wires.

Orthodontists have them customized for each patient so that they perfectly fit a person’s mouth — with minor adjustments made to gently force the patient’s teeth in the preferred direction. There are different types of retainers, such as removable versus affixed. More on those options below.

What Are Retainers Used For?

Sometimes, dental alignment issues are minor enough that they can be addressed without the help of braces. Other times, braces are able to do the bulk of the re-alignment work, but once they are gone, the patient’s teeth want to shift back to their natural position. This is where orthodontic retainers come in. In general, retainers are used either before or after a patient has dental braces.

Before braces, this can help to gently position the teeth and gums ahead of more rigorous re-alignment from braces. After braces, they can help to ensure that a patient’s straightened teeth will last over the long term.

What Do Retainers Do?

Many patients are familiar with braces, but some will ask, “How do retainers work?” In short, retainers are customized to very fine measurements based on the shape of the patient’s mouth. They are made to leave no wiggle room that might allow for backsliding once braces are removed.

After braces, your bones might require some additional time to adapt to the new shape of your mouth, and they need something to keep everything stable while slowly repositioning to match straighter teeth. How long might you expect to wear your post-braces retainer? Typically, an orthodontist will recommend one year of wearing a retainer for a given amount of time each day.

That can be reduced to just nightly wearing during the second year. Beyond that, many patients can slowly phase out their retainer entirely. Of course, your specific retainer schedule will depend on your unique circumstances. An orthodontist will provide you with the best instructions.

How Are Retainers Made?

Because they are customized, it takes a bit of work to get retainers made perfectly. The first step to having retainers made is taking an impression of the patient’s mouth so that it can be poured into plaster and serve as a perfect model.

Next, a lab technician will bend wires around the model, with special care taken to ensure the retainer will be both effective and comfortable.

Next, the wires are fitted with acrylic, which cures and solidifies. The end product is sanitized and ready for patient fitting.

Are There Different Kinds of Retainers?

Retainers come in various styles, and an orthodontist can help you select the style that is right for you. Here are the main styles:

  • Hawley retainers are the most common. Available with various features (some are less visible, for example), Hawley retainers use a metal wire to hold the six anterior teeth in place, with an acrylic arch held to the roof of the mouth. The metal wire can be adjusted to help shift teeth in the right direction.
  • Essix retainers , also known as vacuum formed retainers (VFRs) are molded retainers that fit over the teeth, typically covering the teeth between your canines. The advantage to this style is that it can be made with clear material, which is less noticeable when in place.
  • Fixed retainers are surgically placed and usually found on the inner side of the teeth beneath the tongue. This option is considered more permanent, although it can be removed by a dentist, if needed. Fixed retainers address more serious alignment issues and are more common in patients whose teeth are very likely to revert back once braces are removed.

If you have additional orthodontic consultation questions and you live in the Charlotte area, contact Burrow Welchel & Culp Orthodontics today.


Dr. Sam BurrowDr Sam Burrow D.D.S., D.M.D. – Dr. Burrow was born in Charlotte and moved to Charleston to obtain a Bachelors of Science in Biology at the College of Charleston. He graduated magna cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, and then stayed to earn a D.M.D. with honors at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Burrow completed his orthodontic residency at University of Detroit Mercy in Michigan and is now in practice with his father at Burrow Welchel & Culp Orthodontics in the Charlotte area.