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In order to prevent any relapse, the teeth shifting back to where they were pre-treatment, patients must wear their orthodontic retainer religiously. Patients always ask how long they need to wear their retainers for after they have their braces removed and the answer to that question is, forever! 

Will my retainer get dirty?

It is important to know that retainers are life-long, and they will collect bacteria, get dirty, and wear out with every use just like contact lenses or shoes that are worn daily. Bacteria is always present in the mouth, regardless of the number of times a person brushes or flosses their teeth. Doctors and scientists like to refer to bacteria as your “normal flora” because it is the building block of plaque. You will find a bacterial plaque on the surface of your retainer. This plaque colonizes on your retainer just like in your mouth and on your teeth, this causes the retainer to have a funky taste, smell, or look to it. Lastly, for the patients that generally form tartar or calculus in their mouth should also find white calcium deposits on their retainers. 

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”

The key to a clean retainer is preventing it from getting dirty in the first place. Knowing there are bacteria, plaque, and tartar that attach themselves to your retainer every time it is in your mouth is the first step. It is critical to clean your retainer immediately after removing it from your mouth while it is still wet. Letting debris harden on your retainer will complicate its removal. Even if you can’t see anything on your retainer, you may notice that it has developed an odor over time. This is most often due to invisible plaque. Although brushing your retainer can remove bacteria, there are areas that are not easily accessible on certain designs. For this reason, I recommend that patients soak their retainer in some form of denture or retainer cleaner daily. Common trade names include Efferdent and Polident, but in my experience, the brand isn’t important. What is important is that it is antibacterial. After removing your retainer from your mouth, drop it into a cup of lukewarm water with one of the “fizzing” tablets, and your retainer will taste and smell better the next time you put it in.

What do I use to clean my retainer?

If you notice visible plaque or debris on your retainer, you should remove it with a soft brush (like a toothbrush, denture brush, vegetable brush, etc.). Use only water or mild dish soap and never use abrasives (like toothpaste) or the finish will become scratched. If you wear clear plastic retainers, you may need to use a cotton swab (“Q-Tip”) to clean down into the deepest parts. Again, avoid using any cleaning agent which might scratch your retainer.

Some deposits on your retainer may need professional help

If you notice calcium deposits on your retainer that do not come off with brushing or denture cleaner, you may need to enlist the help of your orthodontist. There are tartar removing solutions that he can use to professionally clean your retainer in his office. If the calcium has become incorporated into the plastic over time however, even he may not be able to get it off. In that case, you may have to live with a discolored retainer or buy a new one. Discoloration won’t affect its function.

You may have noticed that the steps for keeping your retainer clean are very similar to keeping your teeth clean. You must physically remove the plaque (brushing), chemically treat the bacteria and bad breath (toothpaste), and sometimes go to your dentist to get tartar removed. If you take care of your retainers, they will look better and last longer.