What Is the Difference between Permanent And Removable Retainers?

Smiling woman holding removable retainers

From the moment the braces are put on, an orthodontic patient can imagine the day that they come off. Getting that perfectly straight smile is an exciting event—and ultimately worth the wait.

However, it is important to realize that this milestone is not the end of the process. In fact, where braces end is where the most important part of the journey begins.

The next phase is called retention, and it is a critical follow-through stage that holds your teeth in their new position—and even continues to provide minor corrections in some cases.

One of the main causes of relapse (teeth shifting partially or fully back to their original positions) is not following the retention treatment plan. Teeth can take a year or more to stabilize after braces, meaning they are highly susceptible to movement.

Once your braces come off, your orthodontist will fit you for retainers (either removable or permanent). Your removable retainer is custom-made to fit your teeth to prevent them from shifting. Your permanent retainer is bonded to the tongue side of the teeth (so it remains unseen!).

Without a retainer, all the improvement you see from your past couple years in braces will undo itself relatively quickly.

Like braces, your retainers might initially cause a sensation of discomfort or pressure, which will resolve as your mouth adjusts to the appliance.

There are two basic options when it comes to choosing the type of retainer that will best suit your needs—and your orthodontist will likely have a recommendation based on your specific case.

There are two categories of retainers: permanent retainers that the orthodontist secures to your teeth with a bonding agent, and removable retainers.

Permanent lingual retainerPermanent Retainers

Permanent retainers are sometimes options for patients who just completed significant orthodontic work, and need extra security while the teeth settle into their new locations. As the name implies, these retainers stay on your teeth at all times.

The orthodontist will glue a wire to the back of them. There are different types of bonded wire retainers, and which your orthodontist suggests will depend on the condition of your bite and alignment, as well as comfort preferences.

Permanent Retainer Pros

Set and Forget

Once your orthodontist places your permanent retainer, you don’t have to worry about it anymore (although practicing excellent dental hygiene will continue to be important). Much like brackets, the retainer will be fixed to your teeth. You will not have to remove it during meal times or for cleaning.

Sight Unseen

Because the permanent retainer is glued to the back of your teeth, it is not visible from the outside. Chances are that no one will notice you have it unless you tell them.

Limit Errors

As the retainer is worn 100% of the time, there is no chance for human error leading to the relapse of teeth. For parents of children or teenagers wearing the retainer, this can give you some peace of mind knowing that the money you invested won’t be wasted.

Permanent Retainer Cons

Keep It Clean

Permanent retainers are can be somewhat of a nuisance to clean, because you cannot remove them from your mouth and must learn to carefully brush on and around them.

Not Floss-friendly

Floss threaderFlossing was difficult during braces because of the wire in front of the teeth, and it will be much the same with a wire behind them. You will still have to maneuver the floss around the wire in order to clean the teeth properly. A floss threader is a great tool in helping for flossing with a permanent retainer.

Microbes Welcome

Because they are in your mouth at all times, permanent retainers will attract plaque and bacteria. If you don’t develop regimented hygiene habits, you might end of trading straight teeth for cavities.

Removable Retainers

Picture of Hawley and Essix removable retainersRemovable retainers are appliances that you wear in your mouth during treatment hours and remove to eat, brush your teeth or during other times that your orthodontist instructs.

Unlike permanent retainers, which work behind the scenes all the time, removable retainers only affect your teeth when you wear them. The orthodontist will probably ask you to wear your retainer every day and night for several months, and subsequently during sleep.

There are two basic categories of removable retainers: Hawley and Essix.

A Hawley retainer is made of a plastic shell that coats the roof of your mouth, and a wire that runs over the front of your teeth. Hawleys are available in a number of customs and styles, so you can have some fun accessorizing your smile. This type of retainer is adjustable, so the orthodontist can make minor changes to your alignment after braces. It also is long-lasting and easy to care for.

The Essix retainer is made of molded clear plastic that easily slides over your teeth to maintain your alignment. This is a popular retainer because it is virtually unnoticeable. However, it does not allow your teeth to touch in a natural way and wears out faster than other retainers. In fact, of the types of retainers, it is the most difficult to clean and can trap liquid against the teeth.

No matter which retainer best suits your needs, following directions on use and hygiene is very important. Because it is small (and potentially clear), a removable retainer can be easily misplaced. When you are not wearing it, make sure you secure it in the case your orthodontist supplies.

Removable Retainer Pros

Easy In, Easy Out

Removable retainers are easy to use. They will be custom molded for you, so they should fit relatively comfortably and slide easily over the teeth. Placing them in the mouth or taking them out is a simple, one-step process.

Brace-free Dining

You are free to remove the retainer when you are eating, drinking or brushing your teeth. One perk of not having braces is being able to enjoy meals and clean your teeth without having to worry about appliances.

Extra Protection

If you are using retainers that fit over the top of your teeth, they can protect your teeth from grinding, essentially serving as a night guard. They also can protect dental work such as crowns and fillings.

Removable Retainer Cons


Some retainers, especially the Hawley, can be very noticeable. And in addition to the potential visibility, wearing a retainer can cause slight alterations in your speech. (This is simply because you are talking with something in your mouth and is nothing to worry about.)

It’s On You

Removable retainers require self-discipline. It is easy to decide to make an occasional “exception” to your treatment plan, which can be a slippery slope. One exception leads to the next, and before you know it you are not wearing the retainers as prescribed, and therefore your teeth might shift again—meaning that you might need braces once more to correct that movement.

Going, Gone

Retainer casesRemovable retainers can get lost. And because they are custom designed, there aren’t a handy stock of them sitting at your orthodontist’s office. A new retainer will need to be created, usually at a cost, and it will take a few days to weeks to replace.

At Orthodontic Associates, we have nine offices offering a full range of orthodontic state-of-the-art appliances and revolutionary services to ensure all of our patients get the

straight teeth, proper bite and perfect smile of which they have always dreamed. We also offer a retainer replacement plan that is unique to our office. Ask about it at your complimentary consult.


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