Selecting The Right Retainer

Your teeth have been straightened, your smile is worth showing off, and your bite is where it needs to be. Now it’s time to pick a retainer to keep all of that work in place. Retainers, which sometimes also are used independently of braces to fix the alignment of teeth, have been around for decades.

The word “retainer” might conjure different images. Those who were patients years ago might picture bulky, metallic messes that impair speech and cause discomfort. Today’s patients, however, know that dental science has come a long way. Not only are there far more options for retainers, but each option has been optimized for comfort and to be less visible.

A person next to you might be wearing a retainer without anyone noticing. It’s a great time for those who must use a retainer, because patients no longer are forced to make extreme sacrifices for the sake of a straighter smile.

Where To Begin When Selecting a Retainer?

Your dentist and orthodontist can give you guidance regarding the effectiveness of each option, but there are also personal considerations. You should ask yourself:

  • How much time are you willing to devote to using and caring for your retainer?
  • How visible do you want it to be?
  • Do you want a removable option or something permanent?

You could be using a retainer for years or indefinitely, so it is important to pick a type that works for you.

Types of Retainers

From invisible to wire, retainers come in a variety of styles. There are multiple options to suit style and appearance preferences, but retainers fall into three basic categories: permanent and two types of removable styles.

  • Permanent retainers – Permanent retainers go by several names, such as bonded wire retainers, fixed retainers or lingual retainer wire. These types of retainers are considered permanent, because while an orthodontist can remove them, patients cannot. Permanent retainers are bonded to the back of the patient’s teeth. They can be placed on the lower six front teeth and/or the upper four front teeth, depending on what is needed. This type of retainer holds the teeth firmly in place to prevent them from moving back into their previous positions.
  • Hawley retainers – Hawley retainers may be the most widely recognized type of retainer. Commonly referred to as wire retainers, this style has been around for decades and continues to be a reliable option for orthodontists. They are made from a molded acrylic arch and wire, custom-fitted to the wearer’s mouth. They work by slowly maneuvering teeth into place or holding them in place, and they can be adjusted as needed. Hawley retainers are removable.
  • Clear retainers – These types of nearly invisible retainers have become increasingly popular in recent years, as the technology has dramatically improved. They are made from clear plastic, and like Hawley retainers, they are custom-fitted for the patient’s mouth. Because they are clear, they are hard to notice without looking for them. They are not considered as durable as other types of retainers and can be removed as needed.

Making the Right Choice

Here are a few factors to consider when deciding what type of retainer is best for you. Remember, your orthodontist might recommend the best path forward, and it is important to discuss your options thoroughly.

  • Effectiveness – All three types of retainers generally are very effective when used properly. Much depends on a person’s individual habits. For example, it is important that one remember when to use, remove or clean his or her retainer.
  • Convenience – This can be a key consideration. How well your retainer does its job comes down to you, so you will want an option convenient for your lifestyle. Permanent retainers can be very convenient, as the patient does not have to do much beyond general maintenance and practicing good oral hygiene. Clear retainers and Hawley retainers need to be cleaned regularly but are not in the way as you brush and floss your teeth.
  • Appearance – If appearance is a priority, your best options are a clear or permanent retainer. Clear retainers are virtually invisible, which means you could wear them at any time and they barely will be noticed. The same goes for permanent retainers because the wire is positioned along the back of your front teeth. Hawley retainers are more visible, with wires crossing the front teeth, and many patients wear them only when they are not in public or while they are sleeping.
  • Maintenance – Upkeep is very important. Poor maintenance of your retainer can lead to a host of other issues, such as tooth decay or gum disease. Permanent retainers are often preferred for maintenance reasons because they generally cannot be damaged as you clean your teeth. Removable retainers are not difficult to clean, but the process must become part of a regular routine, and you have to keep track of them when not wearing them.
  • Durability – Both permanent and Hawley retainers are well regarded in terms of durability. Clear retainers are less so. Patients who grind their teeth, for example, might consider one of the other options.

Care Considerations

Proper care of your retainer is critical. With a permanent retainer, plaque can build up, so excellent oral hygiene is a must. For removable retainers, here are a few simple cleaning tips:

  • Soak them – When you aren’t wearing them, your retainers should be soaking to keep them moist and clean.
  • Use baking soda – Water alone won’t thoroughly clean your retainers. Try a bit of baking soda, which will clean them naturally while also killing bacteria as they soak.
  • Brushing – Just like your teeth, your retainers require regular brushing. Use a brush other than your toothbrush, and a solution such as denture cleaner, not toothpaste. Gentle brushing will not damage your retainers, and it is crucial for removing tartar buildup. Work brushing into your routine at least every few days.
  • Don’t leave them where pets can get them – Remember that consulting with your orthodontist is the best way to decide which type of retainer is best for you. With the right guidance, you’ll find the option perfectly suited for your teeth and your lifestyle.


Dr 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 the University of Detroit Mercy in Michigan and is now in practice with his father at Burrow Welchel & Culp Orthodontics in the Charlotte area.