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Dental retainers are fabricated after a patient has completed orthodontic treatment to straighten the teeth. They keep the teeth in their new and improved position after the active phase of moving the teeth is finished.
If nothing is used to keep the teeth in the new position, the teeth move and become crowded over time. (1)
Removable retainers are custom appliances made from impressions of the top and bottom teeth. They are usually made of plastic and metal. Upper retainers usually fit in the roof of the mouth. Lower retainers can be removable or permanently cemented to the back of the front teeth.
The Importance of Cleaning Retainers
When retainers are worn, they sit in the mouth directly against the teeth. They can quickly attract bacteria and plaque that eventually turn into a hard yellowish substance called tartar (calculus).
The use of removable retainers is associated with increased occurrence of cavities and gum problems. They also increase the likelihood of bad breath.
Bacteria left on teeth can use food particles to form cavities in the teeth. Keeping the teeth and retainers clean will help prevent cavities and infections from developing. It is also important to clean the case where the retainer is stored.
Products Available for Cleaning Retainers
The simplest and most natural products to use for cleaning retainers are:
- Dish soap
- White vinegar
- Baking soda with water
- Hydrogen peroxide with water
All are applied using a soft toothbrush. Some commercial cleaning products are also available for purchase:
- Ultrasonic denture cleaners – These are small machines that vibrate and use sound waves to clean material off of retainers.
- Tablets or cleaning crystals – It should be noted that in a recent study, using chemical cleaning tablets after brushing the retainers with a toothbrush did not significantly reduce the number of bacteria on a retainer more than just brushing it did. (2) The study was testing for the bacteria that are responsible for developing dental cavities. The tablets did appear, however, to be effective against another type of bacteria. (2)
- Castile soap – This is a gentle type of soap made from vegetable oils and has been recommended for cleaning dental retainers.
The Proper Way to Clean a Retainer
Retainers should be cleaned daily. It is best to clean them at night before going to sleep. Brush and floss your natural teeth with the retainer out of your mouth. Rinse the retainer to remove any obvious particles of food and saliva.
It is best to ask your orthodontist for the method that they recommend to further clean your retainer.
- Some orthodontists advise using a toothbrush and non-whitening toothpaste. Others say the toothbrush or toothpaste can cause tiny scratches on the appliance. These scratches will allow bacteria to build up and make the retainer look murky. The bacteria hiding in the scratches will make the breath unpleasant.
- Undiluted white vinegar is sometimes recommended. The retainer is soaked in the vinegar for at least an hour, brushed gently with a soft toothbrush, and then rinsed very well.
- Other orthodontists recommend brushing the retainer with dish soap using a different toothbrush from the one used on teeth. Scrub all the nooks and crannies and wash thoroughly with water.
- Use a soft toothbrush and a mixture of equal amounts of baking soda and water that forms a paste to clean your retainers.
- A mixture of half water and half hydrogen peroxide can be used to soak the retainer to kill the germs after an illness. After 15 minutes of soaking in this solution, scrub the appliance using a toothbrush and then rinse it very well. Rinse your retainers with water that is not hot.
- Soak your retainers in an ultrasonic machine with tablets or crystals and water. Tablets or cleaning crystals are placed in the water in the ultrasonic cleaner with the retainers and left for the recommended amount of time. It usually takes about 5 minutes.
- Retainers can also be gently scrubbed with Castile soaps.
Tips to Bear in Mind When Cleaning Retainers
- Never boil your retainers, and never put them in the dishwasher. High heat will distort the plastic they are made of and will change their fit.
- Try not to use denture tablets and cleaners that contain a compound called persulfate, (3) which is a common allergen. It may also discolor retainers. Try to find something without this ingredient.
- Avoid using mouthwash to soak your retainers. Most mouthwash formulations contain alcohol, which dries out and can damage the retainer. Alcohol also dries out the mouth, causing bad breath and cavities.
- Do not use harsh chemicals on your retainers.
Tips to Store a Retainer Properly
This is how you should store a retainer to keep it clean and durable:
- It is important to keep your retainers in a case when they are not being worn.
- Pets love to chew on retainers and dentures. If you have pets at home, store the case where it cannot be reached. It can also be put away in a closed drawer or medicine cabinet.
- Make sure your retainer is clean and dry before placing it in the case. If it is moist, bacteria will grow in it.
- Do not store your retainers in a paper towel. They should be in a case that is easy to find and difficult to be thrown out mistakenly.
- Do not leave your retainers in their case in a hot place, such as in the car or near a hot stove. Heat can warp the retainers, and they will not fit properly.
- Be sure to clean the case that holds the retainers, or else bacteria and mold can be transferred back and forth.
How Often Should Retainers Be Cleaned?
Dental retainers should be cleaned at least once a day. If sugary foods or drinks are consumed during the day, it is a good idea to clean the retainers immediately after.
It may not always be possible to stop what you are doing and clean a retainer. Rinsing with water after consuming sugary foods and drinks would be helpful. If you notice a bad taste or unpleasant odor in your mouth, clean your retainers. If the retainers have white spots or hard deposits on them, clean them.
Can Soaking Retainers Be of Any Use?
In a recent study, retainer material was tested by placing it in human saliva for a week.
The retainer material was then soaked in a variety of commercially available retainer crystal or tablet cleaners, according to the manufacturer’s directions. Then, the material was checked for the number of bacteria left after the soaking.
The study found that 69%–86% of bacteria were removed by soaking the retainer material in these agents. (4)
When to See a Doctor
See your orthodontist if:
- Your retainers start to feel uncomfortable.
- Your retainers break, or your mouth becomes irritated.
- Hard deposits form on your retainers that you are unable to remove on your own.
Dental retainers are generally used to secure your teeth in their proper position after undergoing some orthodontic procedure, and they have to be worn for a considerable amount of time at a stretch.
This foreign object, if not cleaned properly, can introduce germs and dirt inside your oral cavity and pave the way for disease. Moreover, unclean retainers can also undo the positive results of your orthodontic treatment.
Thus, you must follow your dentist’s instructions about post-procedure oral and retainer hygiene to preserve your oral health and obtain the desired effects of your treatment.