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The Ultimate Guide to Dental Retainers: Types, Care, and Benefits

6 min read
by Dylan Hao |

When you think of a retainer, what do you picture? Most of us imagine them as metal devices worn in the mouth after braces are removed, and that’s not wrong. However, that’s not the only type of retainer. 

Dental retainers fall under two categories: removable or permanent. Some are visible, some are clear, and some are a combination of the two.

Regardless of the type, each one has a unique set of benefits and drawbacks. If you’re considering investing in one of these handy dental appliances, you should understand your options and what’s involved in caring for each one.

While the final decision should be between you and your orthodontist, our ultimate guide to all things dental retainer will help you understand your options and decide which type is right for you.

How Dental Retainers and Orthodontics Work Together

Braces and similar orthodontia, such as Invisalign and headgear, treat disorders that cause a person’s teeth to grow improperly. Although they’re commonly seen in pre-teens and teenagers, more and more adults today invest in orthodontia for cosmetic reasons.

However, misaligned teeth due to overbites, underbites, and other imperfections can cause oral health disorders.

If the problem is a single tooth, it’s easier to address and less likely to result in serious side effects. But when the position of the jawbone is incorrect, or several teeth are misaligned, these issues may cause speaking, chewing, and breathing problems. The risk of gum disease and tooth decay increases with crooked teeth.

Bringing Dental Retainers Into the Plan of Care

The patient's orthodontic treatment is only part of the overall dental care required to fix these misalignments. It's not permanent until the gums, bones, and muscles around them adjust. The placement you’ve worked so hard to get can be easily reverted with simple habits like eating, chewing, and teeth grinding.

Teeth retainers are custom-made devices worn by patients after they’ve had their teeth shifted into proper alignment. Retainers are essential to your new, straighter teeth because they keep — or retain — the current position. 

As mentioned earlier, the two categories of dental retainers are removable and permanent. We’ll break them down and dig deep into each one next.

Read more: Stress and Bruxism: How to Stop Teeth Grinding

Removable Dental Retainers

As the name implies, removable dental retainers are temporarily placed over your teeth and taken out of your mouth on demand. These are the most popular types of retainers, as they afford the wearer the most control and are often cheaper than permanent retainers.

Removable retainers come in two main options: Hawley retainers (HR) and vacuum-formed retainers (VFR), usually called clear plastic retainers. The first brand on the market was Essix, so these are also known as Essix retainers, but now, many other companies market a similar product.

Hawley Retainers 

Chances are, when you pictured a retainer earlier, you envisioned a wired version that slides over the top or bottom teeth. That would be a Hawley retainer.

These popular choices are made from a combination of hard plastic or acrylic for the plate, and a thin metal wire that slides over the outer surface of the teeth. The retainer is custom-made to comfortably fit the roof or bottom of your mouth.

This type of retainer is usually the go-to for many orthodontists because it’s simple to customize the mold and can be adjusted over time. 

It’s fun for each person to design their own retainer, easy to keep clean, and removable. Patients like that wearing the Hawley ensures they don’t have any food or drink restrictions, as they can take it out and put it back in as they wish.

But there are downsides to a Hawley.

The wire sits over the front teeth, so it’s noticeable — people are less likely to wear it around others. The plastic plate can cause temporary speech impediments and irritate the delicate tissue around the gums, lips, and tongue.

It’s also easy to misplace or lose your removable retainer. (Replacing it costs about the same as the initial design, between $350 and $600.)

Check with your orthodontist and insurance company, as the cost of the first replacement retainer may be included in the price you were initially quoted. 

Clear Plastic Retainers

clear plastic retainer

When appearance is a concern, clear plastic retainers (like those we offer at JS Dental Lab) save the day.

These orthodontic retention devices protect your teeth from reverting to their old positions and allow you to wear them all day without worrying about visibility.

The vacuum-formed, clear retainer is an effective alternative to the Hawley. It is custom-designed from thermoplastic materials to each person’s unique mouth shape, covering the surfaces of every tooth.

The main advantages of a clear retainer over an HR option are:

  • Aesthetics
  • Ease of creating the device
  • Lower price tag

Clear dental retainers can be ordered online, delivered by mail, and customized without leaving your home. This saves you the expense of a visit to the specialist without sacrificing quality.

But, as with the Hawley version, it’s possible to lose the clear retainers. You might consider a permanent dental retainer if you prefer avoiding the hassle of remembering to keep tabs on your oral appliances.

Permanent (Bonded) Dental Retainers

Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to forget to wear your removable retainer — or stop wearing it — before the ligaments adjust to their new positions. Permanent retainers, AKA fixed or bonded, were created to prevent this problem.

Not only do fixed retainers help you avoid floating teeth shifting back too soon, but they also hide the wire. They’re typically placed on the back of the bottom teeth, and the wire is connected to your canine teeth with a bonding material. 

Benefits of Fixed Retainers

Unlike the removable device, a fixed retainer matches your bite and doesn’t impact chewing or talking. Your dentist can remove and replace it during cleanings and check-ups; otherwise, it stays where it is.

It’s particularly helpful right after the braces are removed. Those who opt for these retainers will most likely keep their teeth in their newly shifted positions.

Today’s fixed retainers are comfortable and slim-fitting. Many orthodontists prefer bonded options over removable devices if the patient will need them for long-term use.

What You Should Be Aware Of With Bonded Retainers

Patients may prefer fixed retainers because they’re hidden and can be worn all day without concern about remembering to take them out and put them back in. 

However, to work right, the doctor must bond them precisely. To ensure comfort, the design is more fragile than a removable retainer. When worn in one place for a long time, the enamel underneath the metal can weaken, causing oral health issues.

Cost varies depending on the brand, material used, number of arches, and the specialist. Generally, bonded materials come in copper or titanium and cost between $225 and $550, plus an initial placement charge of $250-$700. 

Although it won’t get lost, you can break a bonded retainer, and you’ll have to pay the replacement cost and office visit to have it reset.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Retainer

things to consider when choosing a retainer (young woman putting a retainer into her mouth)

Orthodontic retainers are intended to be long-term dental appliances, so you want to put a lot of thought into which kind you choose. 

You know yourself best.

  • Will you keep track of a small retainer that you have to take out when you eat?
  • Will you remember to wear it at night before going to bed?
  • Are you most concerned with what the retainer looks like on you?
  • Are cost and ease of use more important?

There are other parts of having a retainer that impact your daily activities, like keeping up with oral hygiene. For instance, using a toothbrush and flossing differ with a bonded retainer. Instead of regular floss, you may need a floss threader. The toothpaste doesn’t always get behind the adhered material, and you must take special care to ensure the enamel doesn’t weaken and decay.

With Hawley and clear aligners, you can remove them before brushing. 

Keeping them clean and germ-free is essential, though. You’ll need to regularly scrub the retainer and store it in a retainer case. You might also want to invest in an ultrasonic cleaner for the best results.

When determining the price, be sure to factor in how much the retainers cost, plus the additional expense of office visits and the possibility of replacing lost or damaged equipment.

Finally, if you have bruxism and need to wear a night guard to prevent clenching and grinding damage, talk to your orthodontist about your options. They may recommend rotating your night guard and your retainer, which eliminates fixed options.


When it comes to keeping your upper and lower teeth straight, the treatment lasts long after your braces come off. Without wearing your new retainer, your aligned smile can shift back to its original position. 

Every retainer option we’ve discussed will be custom-fit for your teeth and palate. But there are advantages and disadvantages to removable (either clear or wire retainers) and fixed options. 

You want the time you spend undergoing teeth straightening procedures to last as long as possible. At JS Dental Lab, we’re here to help you reach those goals.

Before you invest in a dental retainer, visit our site and check out our custom-fit clear retainers. With our high-quality and affordable appliances, you can skip the expense of the dentist and still keep your nice, even smile!

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