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Nightguard vs. Retainer: What's the difference?

  • nightguard
4 min read
by Angela Todd |

With the wide array of different dental devices available, it can often be tricky trying to determine which device is right for you. One of the more common questions we receive from our prospective customers deals with the topic of nightguards and retainers. 

Many of our customers are looking for a device that will both help to maintain their recent braces or alignment treatment while also protecting the teeth from damage caused by grinding or clenching throughout the day or night. 

So what is the difference between a night guard and a retainer?

Night Guards

nightguard insertion

A night guard is a dental device that is designed to fit over either your upper or lower teeth to serve as a barrier which prevent the teeth from making contact with one another. This barrier helps to reduce damage to the teeth surface that is often associated with clenching or grinding behaviors. 

Night guards can be fabricated in a number of ways and from a variety of materials, depending on your individual bruxism needs. They range in thickness from 1.5 mm to 5mm for our customized guard users. 

A Night guard is not meant to align your teeth, nor are they designed to help maintain your alignment following a treatment of braces of invisible aligners. They are not as tightly fitted to the teeth as a retainer, allowing the pressure of clenching and/or grinding to be exerted without causing significant damage to the guard. 

JS Dental Lab night guards are also not designed to address sleep apnea or snoring. We recommend consulting with a specialist to determine if a night guard for your bruxism is a good part of your overall night time health plan. 

The night guard is fabricated from a thermo-forming process which uses a plaster mold of your teeth. This mold is created from your impression taken using the purple putty and trays. The selected material is heated and formed to the plaster mold. Once fabricated, additional time is allotted to allow a lab technician to ensure that the fit meets a criteria of standards, or baselines. They will check the completed guard against the teeth mold to ensure that the fit looks acceptable.

(As a note, there is always a little margin for error as some customers may experience more sensitivity than others. Click here for more information about night guard adjustments.)


Girl with retainer

A retainer is a thin dental device which forms securely to your teeth, preventing the natural shifting that is known to occur over time. Retainers are typically 0.76mm thick and are made from a material very similar to what is used for clear aligners.

It is very common for an individual to wear a retainer on both the upper and lower teeth, if alignment treatments or braces have been applied to both.

The primary purpose of a retainer is to help ensure the alignment of your teeth. They are not great agents at withstanding the pressure and stress that is associated with bruxism behaviors. 

The fabrication of the retainer is very similar to that of the Night guard, however, the impression is the critical difference.

For night guards, while a perfect impression is always ideal, there is a bit more room for imperfection. As long as the night guard fits snugly enough to stay on the teeth, the impression can be a little less than picture perfect.

For a retainer, however, a much more pristine impression is required. This is because the lab needs the truest and most accurate model of your teeth to ensure that the retainer fits snugly enough to prevent any migration that might otherwise occur. 

For your consideration

We cannot promise that your retainer can withstand the more intense clenching and grinding behaviors. This is because the thinness of your retainer typically isn’t enough to withstand the pressure and force exerted by grinding and/or clenching.

That being said, it is possible that if you are a very mild clencher or grinder, the retainer can help to also protect your teeth. You just may find that you need to replace your retainer more frequently than you would a traditional nightguard. 

If you’re a very mild clencher or grinder, your retainer may serve as both a barrier and an alignment maintenance device. But if your bruxism behaviors are a bit more severe, you’ll most likely need to consult with your dentist to determine the best combination of devices to both protect and maintain your teeth. 

Alternatively, if you only need to wear a retainer on one side, say your upper teeth, you may also choose to wear a night guard on the opposite side to provide protection for your teeth and the alignment. While we typically do not recommend wearing two night guards simultaneously, a night guard and a retainer do not pose the same issues with the jaw positioning and may be the right choice for you.

permanent retainer, bonded retainer

Another common option for individuals who need both a retainer and to wear a night guard is to consult with your dentist about a permanent retainer. This is typically a metal wire that is bonded permanently to your teeth. It helps to retain the teeth’s position without requiring a removable retainer to be worn nightly. These types of retainers are common and we are able to fabricate night guards that can be worn over a permanent retainer. 

Regardless of whether you need a retainer, a night guard or both, JS Dental Lab is here to provide you with a high-quality, customized dental device to suit your needs. If you have any questions, please reach out to our awesome customer support team here

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