To begin, there are two types of retainers, a fixed retainer and a removable retainer. The difference between the two retainers is that a fixed retainer is a metal wire that’s glued onto the back surfaces of your front teeth and it cannot be taken out of the mouth. Whereas, a removable retainer needs to be taken out of your mouth before every meal and cleaned daily. Retainers have multiple purposes, they can prevent your teeth from shifting, improve your bite, and even straighten your teeth. But what they can’t do…is keep themselves clean, without your help. Thus, this article will discuss ways you can clean your fixed or removable retainer at home.
Why Should You Clean your Retainer?
It’s important to clean your retainer because it prevents:
Food will often get trapped between your teeth, and sometimes under the metal wire. Leaving the food untouched for a long time can cause tooth decay.
2) Tartar build-up & Gum Disease
If you’re not flossing, then plaque can build up under the metal wire and eventually calcify and turn into calculus (tartar). Calculus is hard to remove with a toothbrush, thus you will need a professional clean. Unfortunately, if the tartar build-up is not removed, it can cause gum disease. This can lead to bleeding of the gums, gingival recession and even bone loss. All of these things can eventually cause cosmetic issues and tooth sensitivity in the long run.
3) Bad breath
Your retainers will attract debris and bacteria. If you don’t clean your retainer, then the bacteria will release odours that won’t be easy to mask – sometimes, chewing gum won’t even help your case of bad breath.
4) Infections & Bone Loss
Bacteria can get trapped between your teeth and under your retainer wire. That bacteria can proliferate and lead to severe gum disease (periodontal disease), which can result in bone loss around your teeth, making your teeth wobbly.
How to Clean your Fixed Retainer
1) Floss Threaders
- The loop design can fit into the smallest spaces between teeth. The plastic loops are reusable and easy to rinse/clean. They are not painful and they are travel-friendly. Many people don’t know about these floss threaders, but this is my personal favourite technique. You can even use this loop to thread floss between teeth that have tight contacts, but no metal wire at the back.
- TIP: When you’re putting the floss through the loop, keep one end always longer than the other.
- They are called “Eez-Thru Floss Threaders” by the company GUM, however, they are not always found in local pharmacies or supermarkets. Thus, give your dentist or orthodontist a call and see if they can give you a pack for free! Alternatively, you can purchase them on Amazon, or directly from the company GUM.
- The technique of using floss threaders is a bit confusing at first, but hopefully, the 1-minute video below will give you a better visualization.
2) Oral B Super floss
- A lot of patients use Superfloss because it’s well known, easy to use and easy to find at supermarkets.
- How to use Super Floss: The floss is already pre-cut with a very thin plastic portion attached to one end. You will stick the plastic end of the floss in between your teeth, and then pull it out from the other end (ensure it’s coming out from the other end, but from under your metal wire). It’s kind of like threading a needle. Once the floss is successfully threaded in between your teeth, then you can use is like a traditional floss by wrapping your fingers around each end.
- Sometimes, patients aren’t very fond of the thickness of the Super floss. It’s slightly thicker and has a fluffier texture compared to the normal floss. But it’s quite effective at cleaning your teeth if you have a retainer.
- You can purchase Superfloss at many local pharmacies or Amazon.
3) Small Brushes, aka “Piksters” or “TePe brushes”
- Piksters or TePe brushes are travel-friends, and they are great for cleaning under your metal-wire retainer in between meals.
- Sometimes patients find that little fluffy brushes are too big to fit under the wire, but that could be because they are using the wrong size. These brushes come in various sizes, and if you’re struggling to find your perfect size, then it’s best to ask your dentist or orthodontist for some guidance. Often, your dentist or hygienist will have a variety pack of Piksters or TePe brushes in their clinic, be sure to ask for this pack. It’s basically a sampler pack, so you can experiment with a few different sizes and see which one you’re comfortable using.
- TIP: Do not use wooden toothpicks, they can damage your gums.
4) Water Flosser (WaterPik)
- Water jet flossers can remove large food debris and reduce gingivitis to some extent. However, flossing with the traditional string floss has proven to be more effective and viewed as the gold standard according to scientific journal articles.
- Personally, I don’t recommend WaterPiks to everyone, unless you’re really struggling with thread flossers due to an arm injury, poor hand-eye coordination, arthritis, or other medical conditions.
How to Clean your Removable Retainer
Removable retainers and aligners are easy to clean because you can take them out of your mouth. But the best way to prevent them from smelling bad or collecting debris in the first place is to ensure you only wear them after cleaning or brushing your teeth. Below are ways you can safely clean your removable retainers and aligners at home.
1) Toothbrush and Water
- Immediately after removing the retainer or aligner from your mouth, rinse it under lukewarm water.
- You want to make sure the water isn’t too hot, or you risk distorting the shape of your retainer or aligner.
- After rinsing, use a soft toothbrush and gently remove the debris. Do NOT put toothpaste on the toothbrush. Toothpaste is quite abrasive, and it can scratch your retainer and aligners.
- Tip: Don’t forget to also rinse your retainer box/case regularly.
- This technique is cheap, and it’s a great way to keep everything clean and smelling nice.
2) Dish Soap & Water
- I suggest you do a deep clean at least once a week. In this case, soak your retainer or aligners in lukewarm water with a bit of dish soap.
- Only soak it for 15 to 30 minutes.
- Once removed from the soapy water, give it a gentle scrub with a toothbrush and rinse it under lukewarm water.
3) Vinegar & Water
- If you’re not a fan of dish soap and water, then try diluting equal amounts of white vinegar in lukewarm water.
- Soak your retainer or aligner in this mixture for 10 to 20 minutes. Then scrub it gently with a toothbrush and rinse it with water.
- This technique may remove white plaque build-up. However, if there’s heavy build-up on your retainer and aligners, then it’s best to take them to your dentist or hygienist. They might have better cleaning tools in the clinic, alternatively it might be time for a replacement.
4) Use Cotton Swabs (Q-tips)
Sometimes, I find that aligners can be difficult to clean with a toothbrush because the toothbrush bristles don’t always reach the deep grooves or corners. This is when I recommend using a wet cotton swab (aka Q-tips that you use to clean your ears).
It is recommended that you clean your retainers and aligners every day, especially if you want to save money in the long run. Keeping your retainers clean can prevent cavities, gum disease, bone loss, tooth sensitivity and bad breath.
However, I have to admit the truth. For a huge chunk of my life, I didn’t clean the metal wire behind my teeth! After becoming a dentist, I realized its importance, but I still couldn’t motivate myself enough. So I started very gradually. I flossed 2 to 3 times a week, till I got to the point where I genuinely enjoyed flossing…and now I floss every day! 😄
One of the tips I give my patients is to put the floss IN THE SHOWER! That’s right, FLOSS IN THE SHOWER! Everyone wants an excuse to stay in the shower for an extra few minutes, so you might as well make it a productive shower and include flossing. Try this tip, I promise you, it will be life-changing.
Now that you know how to clean your retainers, click here, if you’re interested in learning which toothbrush is better for cleaning your teeth – an electric or manual toothbrush.
Written by: Dr. Sanya Arora (Doctor of Dental Surgery)