Retainers: What They Are & How They Work

After months (or years!) of hard work and dedication, the time has finally come to reveal your beautiful new smile. The team here at Embrace Orthodontics is proud of you for making it through your orthodontic journey, and we’re almost as excited as you are to see the final results! Your braces will be coming off or you’ll be down to your last aligner now that the active phase of treatment is nearly complete. There’s still one phase ahead, however—retention!

Retention is the second step in the treatment process, and it’s just as important as the first. The retention phase is what rounds things out, giving you long-lasting results you’ll love. Regular use of a retainer is what will keep your newly straightened teeth in place for years to come, so it’s essential to understand how these orthodontic tools work and why they’re such a critical component of your treatment plan! We’ve put together an overview of retainers to prepare you for this transition, so keep reading below to learn more. 

What are retainers? How do they work?

One thing to know about your teeth is this: they’re stubborn! Although we can move them into more desirable positions during treatment, they’re always trying to get back to where they used to be. In the first year after active treatment, your teeth are especially susceptible to shifting. In fact, they can begin drifting back towards their original positions in as little as a few days if there’s nothing there to stop them! 

Throughout the treatment process, your teeth are constantly supported by orthodontic appliances like braces or clear aligners. Once that support is removed, the risk for relapse increases. Relapse is a term we use to describe how our teeth naturally shift as we get older. It can happen to anyone, even if you’ve had orthodontic treatment. The good news is, there’s a simple solution to keep newly straightened teeth where they’re meant to be—retainers!

To understand how retainers work, it helps to know a bit about what happens during treatment. Your teeth aren’t set in your jaw like posts surrounded by concrete; each tooth is held in its socket by elastic ligaments that attach the roots to the bone. These ligaments are living tissue affected by tooth movements, and this attachment allows us to create a more aligned smile. When we put tension on and around your teeth with orthodontic appliances, new ligaments and even bone are formed. This is what’s known as the remodeling phase of treatment. 

Once this phase is complete, the tissues, ligaments, and bone involved in the process will need some time to stabilize. This is where retainers come in! It can take several months to a few years for the new position of your teeth to become more permanent. When you wear your retainer exactly as directed by our doctors, it will help hold your teeth in place as this process occurs. Without the support of a retainer, your teeth will have trouble stabilizing. They’ll almost always revert to their pretreatment positions at some point, undoing all your hard work.

Retainers: What They Are & How They Work

What are the different types of retainers available?

There are two types of retainers available to patients: fixed and removable. When deciding which type is best for your smile, Dr. Sievers and Dr. Van Vooren will consider your specific needs, your preference, and the overall compliance they expect from you.

Fixed retainers

Fixed retainers are also known as permanent or bonded retainers. They consist of a thin wire that’s bonded behind the bottom and top teeth. Because this bonded wire can hold your teeth in the ideal alignment over a long time, fixed retainers often have excellent and lasting outcomes!

If you have a fixed retainer, you’ll need to brush and floss carefully to ensure it stays clean. Since the wire stretches across several teeth, dental hygiene is similar to what a patient in braces experiences. Tartar can build up around the wire, so you must make sure to follow up with your dentist regularly.

Removable retainers

There are a couple of different options available when it comes to removable retainers. The Hawley and Essix models are both custom-designed to fit your mouth for the best results.

Hawley retainers

Hawley retainers are one of the oldest retainers. They’re made of stainless steel and kept in place by wrapping a wire around your teeth. That wire has been combined with an acrylic arch that rests against the roof of your mouth, and it can be adjusted to continue minor movement of the front teeth if needed. Although many orthodontists are moving away from using this type of retainer, it can still be helpful in some instances.

Essix retainers

Essix retainers look very similar to the clear aligners used with the Invisalign system. The trays are made of transparent plastic and molded to the unique shape of the patient’s mouth. Essix retainers may cover the entire arch of the teeth or only go from canine to canine. This type of retainer is very subtle and should last as long as you need it, provided you care for it properly.

Cleaning your teeth is more manageable with removable retainers, but you will have to remember to wear them daily. When you aren’t wearing your retainer, be sure to place it in a secure case to keep it safe! They can also be easy to misplace or damage, so you’ll also need to be mindful of where it is at all times and be careful when handling it.

How long will a retainer need to be worn once treatment is complete? 

The latest orthodontic research suggests that some type of retainer will need to be worn at least part-time indefinitely to achieve the best results. That may sound overwhelming at first, but don’t worry—you’ll be used to wearing your retainer in no time. With practice, it will become just one more part of your daily routine! After a while, wearing it a few nights each week will likely be all you need to keep your teeth from shifting.

Retainers: What They Are & How They Work

Keep your smile at its straightest with Embrace Orthodontics

You’re so close to the smile you’ve worked so hard for! The last thing you want is for your teeth to start shifting once treatment is complete. Once we remove your braces or you use your last aligner, you can keep your teeth where they belong by wearing your retainer as directed by our doctors.


Embrace Orthodontics has successfully treated many families throughout the Cambridge, Lindstrom, and Pine City communities. We’re committed to meeting all your orthodontic needs through every phase of treatment, including retention! If you’re looking for more information on the role retainers play after active treatment, get in touch with our expert team! We’ll be happy to answer any questions or concerns you may have about keeping your smile at its straightest.