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Nightguard Vs. Retainer: What's the Difference?

  • Teeth Grinding
7 min read
by Dylan Hao |

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

The terms are frequently used interchangeably, but they’re distinctly different oral appliances.

Many people are looking for a device to help maintain their recent braces and shift their teeth into alignment. At the same time, they want something that can also protect the enamel from damage caused by grinding or clenching throughout the day or night.

So, your choices are night guards and retainers. What’s the difference? 

We’ll delve into that here.

What is a Night Guard?

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 preventing them from making contact with each other. This barrier helps to reduce damage to the teeth surface often associated with clenching or grinding behaviors, called bruxism. 

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

Our night guards are fabricated from a thermo-forming process that uses a plaster mold of your teeth:

  1. This mold is created from your impression taken using the purple putty and trays. 
  2. Then the selected material is heated and formed to the plaster mold.
  3. Once fabricated, additional time is allotted to allow a lab technician to ensure that the fit meets a criteria of standards, or baselines. 
  4. They will check the completed guard against the teeth mold to ensure that the fit looks correct.

When You Need a Night Guard — and When You Don’t

The most common purpose of a night guard is to prevent damage caused by teeth grinding. This is a side effect of conditions such as TMD or sleep disorders.

TMD refers to a temporomandibular disorder. This problem occurs when your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is out of alignment. The joint is responsible for everything that moves your mouth, from chewing to talking and beyond. 

If your facial muscles are moving, chances are your TMJ is involved. And when it’s out of place, it can be very painful, resulting in clenching and grinding in your sleep. Sleep disorders, such as nighttime anxiety and obstructive sleep apnea, can also cause grinding and clenching. 

These conditions stress your body, and your brain responds by tightening the jaw.

Both problems cause sore jaw muscles, severe jaw pain, and neck and shoulder discomfort.

How a Night Guard Helps

A night guard limits the contact between your top and bottom teeth, limiting the damage. 

The device is not meant to align your teeth like a retainer, nor is it designed to help maintain your alignment following orthodontic treatment of braces or invisible aligners.

These dental appliances 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. 

Night guards are also not designed to address the conditions of 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 nighttime health plan. 

Read more: Easing the Effects of Nighttime Anxiety

What Type of Night Guard is Right for You?

We mentioned earlier that the severity of your grinding affects the appliance you need. 

If you want a night guard that doesn’t have to be replaced within a few weeks because you ground straight through it, consider this factor when you choose your appliance’s material.

For example, an over-the-counter or boil-and-bite guard is designed as a one-size-fits-most product. If your grinding is still in its early stages, these might be helpful to reduce the contact. 

But they’re not custom-designed for your mouth, so it’s common for users to have more problems with an OTC night guard than they did before using it.

Rather than take the chance, your first step should be to contact a professional, like JS Dental Lab

You can skip the expensive dentistry route and still get high-quality, custom-made appliances that are designed with your level of teeth grinding and comfort in mind.

We offer night guards in multiple strengths for varying purposes, including:

For some people, a hard night guard works best, while others need the benefits of a soft night guard to reduce their oral health symptoms. 

Our experts know the questions to ask to pinpoint the key differences and find the custom night guard ideal for you.

Going ahead with one of our products above? Read more about how to clean a night guard so you can keep it fresh even after many uses.

What is a Retainer?

Girl with retainer

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

It is 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.

Unlike a night guard, a retainer is not great at withstanding the pressure and stress associated with bruxism behaviors.

Which Type of Retainer is Right for You?

Most of the time, your orthodontist will tell you what kind of retainer you should use and supply it for you. If it’s been a hot minute since you saw your doctor, you’ll want to get to know your retainer options before buying a product.

Permanent Retainer

A permanent retainer is often necessary for those with more moderate-to-severe dental conditions. This is typically a metal wire that is bonded permanently to your teeth. 

The appliance helps to retain the teeth’s position without requiring a removable retainer to be worn nightly. These types of retainers are common and — although the term “permanent” can be scary — it’s easy to get used to having them in your mouth. 

And don’t worry, they’re hidden behind the arch of your teeth.

One of the favorite perks about permanent retainers is that you never have to worry about accidentally throwing out your oral appliance with your meal’s trash or forgetting to put it on when you’re supposed to be wearing it.

Custom Clear Retainers

We have an alternative to metal retainers that uses a similar material to clear aligners. 

Our Custom Clear Retainers are removable, comfortable, and last up to three years. 

You can wear them as often as the dental professional suggests, and they’re nearly invisible.

Hawley Retainer

Finally, you have the option of a Hawley retainer, which is a sort of combination of the plastic clear retainers and the metal permanent ones.

Hawleys are called wire retainers. They’re removable and made from plastic or acrylic and metal parts. 

The retainer is shaped to fit across the roof of your mouth or inside your lower teeth. The metal wire maintains alignment by sitting in place across the front teeth.

These retainers are visible, which makes them less preferable for those who don’t want everyone to see their appliance. Because it is made from wire and sits across the outside of the teeth, it can irritate your soft gum tissue and affect your speech.

However, Hawley retainers are somewhat more durable than clear plastic retainers, making them a better option for moderate teeth grinders. They’re also fixable if you do manage to bite through them.

Can a Retainer Stand in for a Night Guard?

We cannot promise that your retainer can withstand the more intense bruxism 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 mild clencher or grinder, the retainer can also help protect your teeth. You just may find that you need to replace your retainer more often than you would a traditional night guard. 

But if your bruxism behaviors are a bit more severe, you’ll most likely need to consult your dentist to determine the best combination of devices to both protect and maintain your teeth. 

If you already have a retainer and are now experiencing bruxism, you should also consider 9 Natural Solutions To Teeth Grinding To Try Tonight.

Will a Night Guard Act as a Retainer?

The fabrication of the retainer is very similar to that of the night guard. But the impression is the critical difference.

For custom-fit 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, cushioning in its new position, the impression can be slightly 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 post-dental work to ensure that the retainer fits securely enough to prevent any migration that might otherwise occur.

Can You Use a Night Guard and Retainer Simultaneously?

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 protect 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 jaw positioning and may be the right choice for you.

However, consult your dentist to see if it may be more comfortable and provide a better fit to use a permanent retainer for your dental care needs. We can 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 and call us or contact us online.

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