Once the stuff of middle school nightmares, today retainers are more common than ever before. As more adults seek out braces later in life, the number of people wearing retainers, most often at night, has increased greatly. Approximately four million people in the United States are wearing braces at any one time, according to the Pennsylvania Dental Association. And you can bet that almost all of those people will end up with a retainer following the completion of their treatment. But how should they care for their precious retainers? How to clean a retainer is a critical part of keeping straight teeth, well, straight and beautiful.
How to clean a retainer
“Most retainers, Invisalign, and mouth guards are acrylic,” says Dr. Wells Kurt Labberton, a dentist in Washington state (and, full disclosure, this author’s father). This is good news as acrylic is a very durable material which should last for a few years. But Dr. Labberton says maintaining and extending the lifespan of a retainer starts with good hygiene. “Remember, a retainer can be a petri dish for bacteria when not properly cared for.”
“When it comes to how to clean a retainer, you want to clean it daily. You can do this by rinsing and brushing it and then rinsing it again before putting it in your mouth,” says Dr. Labberton. Another option is to soak your retainer in a product like Retainer Brite, suggests Dr. Labberton. ‘It comes in tablets and promises to kill up to 99% of bacteria a mouth guard could collect.
What you shouldn’t do is put your retainer in the dishwasher. While some polymers can likely withstand a dishwasher cycle, “if you’re not certain, you’re not going to enjoy finding a melted pile of goo when you unload,” says Dr. Labberton.
What if a retainer changes color?
Discoloration is to be expected in a retainer, says Dr. Labberton.
“Everyone’s mouth biology is different and unique bacterial flora,” he says. “And depending on if you’re a heavy coffee drinker or smoker, the retainer can change color.”
But just because a retainer looks a little different doesn’t mean it’s not clean, provided you’re following the proper steps of how to clean a retainer.
When is it time to get a new retainer?
That said, regardless of which methods you follow to clean your retainer, wear and tear and years of usage will take a toll. “You can expect to have to get a new one eventually,” says Dr. Labberton. The timeline of how long a retainer will last is different for each individual patient, but if you’re seeing significant changes or tears, bring it in to your dentist.
In fact, Dr. Labberton says you should bring your retainer or mouth guard in every time you visit the dentist so the staff can check to see if it’s still working properly of if you're due for a new mold.
How do you know if your retainer isn’t clean?
Worried that your cleaning efforts aren’t working? If you have any concerns that there’s something wrong with your retainer, “or if you see sudden discoloration or anything on the surface of it that looks suspicious,” says Dr. Labberton, don’t put it in your mouth. Call your dentist instead and make an appointment for your dental team to take a look.
Remember, a brilliant smile starts with good oral hygiene and that goes for the tools that keep your teeth straight as much as your teeth themselves.
Dr. Wells Kurt Labberton, DDS, Labberton Dental