How to Clean Retainers

Dr. Erica Aand
Written by
Dr. Erica Aand
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Evidence Based
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Why is it Important to Clean Your Retainer?

Cleaning your teeth is crucial for good oral health. But it is also recommended to clean any appliance that goes into your mouth.

Orthodontic appliances like retainers can easily collect bacteria and become a magnet for plaque and food debris. 

Unsanitary retainers can cause bad breath and an overall uncomfortable feeling in your mouth. 

How to Clean Retainers (By Type)

The type of retainer will change the way you care for it. Some dentists recommend retainers that are fixed into place. However, removable options are also available. 

Regardless of the type of retainer you have, speak with your dentist about the proper way to care for it. Doing so ensures the appliance stays in good condition and doesn’t get damaged. 

1. Fixed retainers

Fixed retainers, or bonded retainers, get cemented to your teeth. They are great options for people that are not compliant with wearing removable ones. 

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A fixed retainer should be cleaned by:

  1. Brushing your teeth regularly with fluoride toothpaste
  2. Use a long piece of floss with a floss threader to clean between the teeth
  3. You can also use Super Floss that is designed for orthodontic appliances
  4. Hold the floss between the teeth and under the retainer wire below your gum to remove any debris
  5. Slide the floss to the next tooth you want to clean
  6. Repeat

You can also use a water flosser (oral irrigator) as an adjunct tool to help keep your fixed retainer clean. 

2. Clear plastic retainers

Clear plastic retainers look like clear aligners, but are usually thicker. They are discreet and removable.

To clean a clear plastic retainer:

  1. Remove your clear retainer before each meal and brush your teeth after each meal
  2. Soak your plastic retainer in lukewarm water and very mild dish soap
  3. Avoid using toothpaste or any abrasive cleaning product that can damage it
  4. Brush the clear retainer with mild dish soap and rinse when done
  5. Speak with your dentist about soaking it in a denture cleaner

3. Hawley retainers

A Hawley retainer is custom-made to fit your mouth. It is made with acrylic and metal to help prevent your teeth from shifting. It is a removable appliance. 

A Hawley retainer will often accumulate plaque and food debris on the acrylic palate portion of the retainer. It is important to keep it clean to avoid damage over time and prevent bad breath. 

To keep a Hawley retainer clean:

  1. Remove your retainer before eating
  2. Brush the Hawley retainer with a soft-bristled toothbrush
  3. You can use a denture cleaner, mild baking soda mix, or retainer cleaner to carefully clean it
  4. Keep the retainer moist (when it is out of your mouth) to avoid breakage
  5. Soak your Hawley retainer in denture cleaner overnight if you need a deeper clean

4. Clear aligner trays

Clear aligner trays are similar to clear plastic retainers. They are designed to fit around your teeth and are removable appliances.

It is essential to keep them clean so they can do what they’re made for: keeping your teeth in the correct position while looking nearly invisible. 

Unsanitary aligner trays will make your teeth look dirty and can affect the quality of your oral health.

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To keep your clear aligner trays clean:

  1. Remove your clear aligner trays when eating
  2. Rinse them thoroughly with lukewarm water
  3. Clean them daily with a soft-bristled toothbrush and mild soap detergent
  4. You may soak them for a short period in a denture cleaner or retainer cleaner
  5. Rinse again with water and insert aligners

Signs it’s Time to Clean Your Retainer

If you notice your retainer looks a bit different than when you first got it, this is a sign to give it a good clean. Here are some other signs: 

  • A bad smell from your retainer
  • A sour or bad taste when the retainer is in your mouth
  • The retainer looks cloudy or has a film of bacteria
  • You haven’t cleaned your retainer in several days

How Often Should You Clean a Retainer?

Ideally, you should be cleaning your retainer daily. 

If you brush your teeth twice a day, try to clean your retainer at the same time. This makes the process more convenient.

Best Retainer Cleaning Products

Some products are great for cleaning retainers, while others can cause significant damage.

The best retainer cleaning products are ones that are mild and non-abrasive. Recommended cleaning products include:

Baking soda mix

Baking soda is a good disinfectant for retainers and can help whiten retainers that become discolored. 

Denture cleaner

Denture cleaner is a popular option for cleaning retainers because it is designed for oral appliances. You should soak your retainer in a denture cleaner for a minimum of 20 minutes and then rinse thoroughly after with warm water and a soft toothbrush. 

Vinegar

White vinegar is an option for cleaning retainers because it is a disinfectant that can help remove odors and stains. Dilute vinegar with water in a small bowl and soak your retainer. After you remove it, rinse and brush your retainer off with water. 

Retainer Cleaning Myths & What to Avoid 

In order to learn how to clean your retainer and what products are safe, speak with your dentist. 

There are always some common misconceptions about retainers and you want to avoid them to prevent damage.

Some retainer cleaning myths include:

  • You can use water to keep your retainer clean: Water is great, but you need to use some type of disinfectant to remove harmful bacteria and food debris.
  • You don’t need to clean your retainer daily: Leaving food and plaque debris is harmful to your retainer and your oral health. Harmful bacteria can build up, leading to infection and fungal infections.
  • Retainer cleaning products are damaging: Retainer-made products are deemed safe as long as they are non-abrasive and designed for oral appliances. Speak with your dentist if one is good for your retainer type. 

You should avoid certain types of cleaning products or methods to avoid damage and distortion.

Do not use microwaves, dishwashers, or boiling water to clean your retainers. The high heat can cause the retainer to warp and not fit properly. 

Do not soak your retainer for too long in solution as it can damage the metal in a Hawley retainer. 

If you choose to soak your retainer in mouthwash, opt for an alcohol-free mouthrinse as alcohol is harmful to plastic retainers or aligners. 

Resources

“How to clean retainers” https://www.colgate.com/en-us/oral-health/adult-orthodontics/how-to-clean-retainers

How to clean retainers & invisalign aligners http://www.dentakit.com/howtoclyorea.html

Buzatta, L. N. et al. (2016, September 13). Gingival condition associated with two types of orthodontic fixed retainers: A meta-analysis [Abstract]. The European Journal of Orthodontics https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27629261

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