Do I Really Have to Wear My Retainer after Removing Dental Braces?

Not wearing your teeth retainer after your Invisalign or metal braces come off is basically like vacuuming and then dumping the contents of the bag all over your floor again.

The only difference is that vacuuming is a whole lot quicker (and cheaper) than fixing your orthodontic issues.  It’s like a punch in the gut every time an orthodontist sees a patient’s teeth return to their formerly-crooked state after they’ve been painstakingly corrected.

If I had my wish, we could fix orthodontic issues overnight.  Unfortunately, it’s a long process that involves commitment on the patient’s part.  You shouldn’t see the removal of dental braces as the end of that process.  If you want to keep that perfect smile, there’s still work to be done.

But, Why?

Braces force your teeth to slowly shift position by applying a light force to the bones and muscles around the teeth.  Braces actually slightly loosen your teeth so that they can gradually change position.  As your teeth move, the bones shift to support the new positions.  That’s the basic idea.

When we remove dental braces, your teeth naturally want to shift back to their old, comfortable position within your mouth because the bones that support the new position aren’t totally set yet.  Also, most people’s teeth are constantly shifting, even into old age.  The braces moved them to a new position, but once removed, all bets are off.

That’s where retainers come in.  They stabilize the new position of your teeth and “remind” your bones of the way they should be growing.  Think of it this way:  If you’re way out of shape, you may exercise every day to get fit.

After a year of this routine, you’re in great shape!  However, if you suddenly stopped all physical activity, you wouldn’t stay in shape – you’d have to work out at least a few days a week to maintain it.

It’s the same way with dental retainers; they are worn to keep your teeth “in shape” once they’ve reached their ideal position.

But, for how long?

No orthodontist will tell you to wear your dental braces for the rest of your life, so you can stop worrying about that.  Most likely, they will recommend that you wear it round the clock for a while (anywhere from 3 months to a year).

The idea is to gradually take away the support systems around the new position of your teeth.  A dental retainer exerts a little less force than braces, so at first it needs to be worn all the time.  Then, maybe your orthodontist will take it down a notch by allowing you to just wear it for half of the day.  It’s still supporting, but a little less.

After a couple of years, you may be able to wear it just a few nights per week.  It’s like we’re slowly, slowly removing the support a little at a time so that your teeth don’t go back to their old crooked ways while you’re not looking.

Your orthodontist will tell you when he or she thinks it’s OK to remove dental supports completely.  However, don’t be totally shocked if you’re told that it wouldn’t hurt to wear them overnight a couple times a week for a while longer.

But, What if I Don’t?

Unless you’re a small child, there probably won’t be anyone standing over your shoulder enforcing your dental retainer usage.  This is all you.  But, remember, your teeth are all you too and you’re the one who will have them for life.

If you decide to throw caution to the wind, you should be fully prepared for your teeth to move.  And where they’ll go, nobody knows.  They could just shift a little, they could go back to the same position they were in before you got dental braces, or they could become even worse than they were before.

Basically, this comes down to common sense.  It’s pointless to spend years and money on fixing your smile, only to let it revert back after the dental braces are off.  If you can’t commit to following your orthodontist’s teeth retainer instructions, consider whether or not you want to invest in braces at all.

Nobody will tell you that wearing a teeth retainer is a barrel of fun.  The truth is, a lot of things that are really good for us aren’t much fun, but we do them because they have long-term benefits in our lives.  It would be much more fun to spend all my money on fancy electronics and fun trips, but then I’d be too broke to buy groceries.

The retainer years are a drop in the bucket compared to a lifetime of a beautiful, straight, and functional smile.  Put the time in now and reap the benefits for the rest of your pearly-white days.

Dennis De Mesa, DDS is a partner at MKD Dentistry in Los Angeles. In addition to providing personalized care to his patients, he enjoys writing to educate people about dental hygiene and care. Dr. De Mesa is a proud member of the American, California and San Gabriel Valley Dental Associations. For more information or to contact him, please