Cleaning orthodontic retainers. (How to / How often) -

Instructions and recommendations for cleaning different types of removable retainers (Essix, Hawley). | How to clean around a permanent (bonded) ortho retainer.

How do you clean dental retainers? | How often do they need it?

The same plaque and tartar that tends to build up on natural teeth will accumulate on your retainers too.

Add in the fact that you'll be wearing the same appliances on a long-term basis, it's easy enough to understand why proper upkeep is important if you expect yours to stay presentable and odor free.

Additional product selections are shown at the bottom of this page.

The cleaning instructions you need vary according to the type of retainers you have.

There are basically three kinds of orthodontic retainers.

And because each is made of different materials or used under different circumstances, there's a separate set of instructions and issues you need to know about when cleaning each kind. (Use the links above to jump directly to that information.)

 

How often do you need to clean your retainers?

The simple answer to this question is "at least daily." But in reality, the cleaning frequency, and possibly even the level of diligence that's needed for any particular session, must be based on how much they are worn each day. Here are some examples ...

A picture showing Essix and Hawley orthodontic retainers.

Two kinds of removable orthodontic retainers, Essix and Hawley.

a) Removable retainers (Hawley, Essix), Overnight wear.

If you're just wearing your retainers at night when you sleep, then just once-a-day cleaning should be often enough.

  • When you first take your appliances out in the morning it's expected that they may taste stale or have an unpleasant odor.

    That's related to the phenomenon of morning breath, which is due to the reduced level of saliva output that's produced when you sleep.

  • It's best that the debris that's accumulated on your retainers overnight (dental plaque, initial tartar formation) is removed before it has any chance of drying out. (If it does, it will tend to be more difficult to remove.)
  • If for some reason you decide that your appliances must wait to be cleaned, like until after breakfast when you brush your teeth, at least keep them wet (like in a glass of water).

b) Removable retainers (Hawley, Essix), Extended wear.

If you're still at a point where you're wearing your retainers for a substantial portion of your day, or even around the clock, there are some extra considerations about cleaning frequency to keep in mind.

1) Routine daily care.

It only makes sense that when you clean your teeth you do the same for your retainers too. After all the exact same type of build up will tend to accumulate on both.

  • As mentioned above, best form would be to clean them at that time when you first take them out (like before you eat).
  • If that's not possible, the next best choice would be to at least keep them wet while they wait (a baggie with a little water would do if you're away from home).
  • If even that's not possible, then just make sure you do as thorough a job as possible when you finally do get to them, so to minimize any build-up effect.

2) Intra-day care.

When you wear removable retainers (especially Essix-style ones) some portion of your teeth and gums will be covered over by your appliances.

  • This underneath area is a cozy protected location for plaque formation.
  • And it may be hard for saliva, which provides beneficial washing and buffering effects, to penetrate into this space.

As a result, problems may develop. And as a worse case scenario, cavity or gum disease may form. (We discuss this phenomenon here for Invisalign® aligners, which is a very similar type of appliance.)

On a practical level there's a solution that's easy enough and should deal with this issue effectively. That's just rinsing with water every few hours.

  • The idea is that the agitation will tend to dislodge bacteria, associated debris and generally retard dental plaque formation.
  • Acidic bacterial waste products that have built up underneath the appliance will be flushed away and diluted too.

Some people may be able to accomplish all of this just by loosening up their retainers a little bit in their mouth, rinsing around and underneath them, spitting out the water, and then positioning their appliances fully back in place.

Picture of a permanent (lingual wire) orthodontic retainer.

A fixed (bonded) orthodontic retainer.

c) Fixed (bonded) retainers, Permanent wear.

Just cleaning around a bonded orthodontic retainer when you regularly clean your teeth is usually often enough.

  • Your dentist would probably hope that that would include brushing it at least three times a day (after every time you eat a meal).
  • With at least one of those three daily sessions accompanied by flossing.

Tartar accumulation may be a problem.

A bonded retainer's wire that runs across the backside of your teeth will tend to protect and harbor plaque and debris. And any that's missed when you clean will tend to transform into tartar as days pass, so it's important to be thorough every time.

Some people might anticipate that cleaning more frequently is what's required when tartar build up is found to be a problem, and that may be true.

But keep in mind that no number of extra haphazard sessions equates with effectiveness. Only diligent cleaning provides it. And for most people what's describe above (especially the flossing part) is usually all that's needed to stifle tartar accumulation.


How do you clean orthodontic retainers?

The cleaning process you use with your retainers will depend on what type you have. (Click a link to jump ahead.)

  • Essix (Vivera®) - These appliances are clear vacuum-formed shells that fit over your upper or lower teeth as a unit. They look just like Invisalign® aligners.
  • Hawley - If your retainer has a wire on it that runs across the front side of your teeth, it's generally considered a Hawley appliance.
  • Fixed (permanent) - These retainers are bonded directly to the backside of your teeth. They can be as simple as a single curved wire.
An animation showing cleaning an Essix orthodontic retainer.

Cleaning Essix-style retainers in a soaking solution.

Essix / Vivera®

Due to their identical construction (clear plastic, vacuum-formed), the same cleaning techniques that we outline for use with Invisalign® aligners makes a good choice for Essix retainers too.

It's common that an effervescent soaking solution is used.

Picture of an Essix orthodontic retainer.

An Essix-style retainer.

A study we ran across.

We noticed the abstract of a study (Chang 2014) [page references] that evaluated ways to disinfect Essix retainers.

It reported that using a toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste removed 99% of (Streptococcus mutans) bacteria from appliances. Thus implying that this is an effective way to clean and disinfect this type of retainer.

Concerns about brushing.

We feel that we should point out that the page linked to above has a section that discusses how brushing (especially with toothpaste) tends to scratch plastic surfaces.

And in the case where the same appliance is worn over an extended time frame (like retainers are), micro scratches might start to: 1) Affect its appearance (make it look more opaque/cloudy). 2) At least in theory, provide more locations for microorganisms to inhabit.

We're not saying that brushing doesn't necessarily make a reasonable way to clean Essix retainers but instead that these issues should be considered before choosing it.

Hawley retainers.

Hawley retainers are a type of removable appliance that has both plastic and metal components.

A picture of a Hawley orthodontic retainer.

A Hawley orthodontic retainer.

  • Cleaning a Hawley should start with brushing. This page describes acceptable cleansers and brush types to use.

    (The page itself is about denture brushing, which is applicable to cleaning Hawley's because the plastic used for both is very similar.)

  • Brushing should be followed by chemical disinfection. Commercial soaks made for retainers (or probably even dentures) should be suitable. Check their packaging for their recommendations.

    Make sure the product's packaging states it's safe for use with dental appliances that have metal components.

 
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Permanent (fixed, bonded) retainers.

The most common form of bonded orthodontic retainer is the lingual wire (see picture). And when it comes to cleaning, it offers the two worst scenarios possible.

  • It's fixed in place and can't be removed, making it hard to access your teeth (especially in between them).
  • It's bonded in a location where tartar formation is frequently a problem.
A picture of a permanent (lingual wire) orthodontic retainer.

A bonded (fixed) orthodontic retainer.

Unfortunately, when it comes to cleaning around this type of retainer there simply aren't any simple solutions. It takes effort. (This point alone may be reason enough that this type of appliance should not be placed for those who have poor oral home care habits.)

1) Cleaning in between your teeth.

The good news in most cases is that it's just the ends of the retainer that are bonded (see picture). And that means when it comes to cleaning between your teeth, all you have to do is get the floss positioned in between (two teeth) and underneath (the wire) once. From there you can clean every place else.

The ways you do this is simple enough.

Picture of a dental floss threader.

A floss threader and floss.

  • One is by using a "floss threader." There are many forms of this device but basically it works like a plastic needle and thread. The threader pulls the floss between the teeth as it is passed through.
  • As an alternative, some brands of floss come cut into lengths where the tip of one end is very stiff and thus easy to poke in between teeth and under the retainer.
  • If you have very big spaces between your teeth, you may be able to just poke your regular floss through on its own.

Once you have your floss in position, it should be simple enough to figure out what to do next and how to do it.

Then, after you've cleaned between your first two teeth, you'll find that you can just lift one end of the floss up over the biting edge of one of them and then down in between it and its neighbor, where you'll then just continue on cleaning.

2) Brushing around your retainer.

Having a fixed-wire retainer will make it a little harder for you to brush the backside of your teeth. However, the needed solution is simply to be persistent.

And while it certainly isn't mandatory, you may find that using an electric toothbrush (sonic or rotational) may make cleaning this area easier or go faster.

 

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