How to Clean an Orthodontic Retainer


Orthodontic retainers are the devices that minimize the movement of their teeth after the braces have been removed. As I have discussed in other articles about retention, retainers are forever! There is no part of the human body that does not sag or wrinkle with age, and the teeth are no exception. Since you’re going to need a retainer from now on, let’s talk about how to keep it clean.

Your retainer will attract plaque and tartar
First of all, realize that all retainers get dirty and wear out with use. Like contact lenses or shoes that are worn daily, your retainer will change in appearance, fit, and will get dirty. No matter how well you brush and floss your teeth, there are always bacteria in your mouth. Bacteria are a primary component of plaque and are part of what scientists call your “normal flora.” Bacterial plaque colonizes on your teeth and your retainer. They can make it look, taste, and smell bad. Additionally, if you are a patient that forms tartar or “calculus” (hard mineral deposits) on your teeth, you may also notice white calcium deposits on your retainers.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"
The key to a clean retainer is preventing it from getting dirty in the first place. Knowing there are bacteria, plaque, and tartar that attach themselves to your retainer every time it is in your mouth is the first step. It is critical to clean your retainer immediately after removing it from your mouth while it is still wet. Letting debris harden on your retainer will complicate its removal. Even if you can’t see anything on your retainer, you may notice that it has developed an odor over time. This is most often due to invisible plaque. Although brushing your retainer can remove bacteria, there are areas that are not easily accessible on certain designs. For this reason, I recommend that patients soak their retainer in some form of denture or retainer cleaner daily. Common trade names include Efferdent and Polident, but in my experience the brand isn’t important. What is important is that it is anti-bacterial. After removing your retainer from your mouth, drop it into a cup of lukewarm water with one of the “fizzing” tablets and your retainer will taste and smell better the next time you put it in.

Use a brush to remove visible plaque
If you notice visible plaque or debris on your retainer, you should remove it with a soft brush (like a tooth brush, denture brush, vegetable brush, etc.). Use only water or mild dish soap and never use abrasives (like toothpaste) or the finish will become scratched. If you wear clear plastic retainers, you may need to use a cotton swab (“Q-Tip”) to clean down into the deepest parts. Again, avoid using any cleaning agent which might scratch your retainer.

Some deposits on your retainer may need professional help
If you notice calcium deposits on your retainer that do not come off with brushing or denture cleaner, you may need to enlist the help of your orthodontist. There are tartar removing solutions that he can use to professionally clean your retainer in his office. If the calcium has become incorporated into the plastic over time however, even he may not be able to get it off. In that case, you may have to live with a discolored retainer or buy a new one. Discoloration won’t affect its function.

You may have noticed that the steps for keeping your retainer clean are very similar to keeping your teeth clean. You must physically remove the plaque (brushing), chemically treat the bacteria and bad breath (toothpaste), and sometimes go to your dentist to get tartar removed. If you take care of your retainers, they will look better and last longer.

NOTE: The author, Dr. Greg Jorgensen, is a board-certified orthodontist who is in the private practice of orthodontics in Rio Rancho, New Mexico (a suburb on the Westside of Albuquerque). He was trained at BYU, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Iowa in the United States. Dr. Jorgensen’s 25 years of specialty practice and nearly 10,000 finished cases qualify him an expert in two-phase treatment, extraction and non-extraction therapy, functional orthodontics, clear aligners (Invisalign), and multiple bracket systems (including conventional braces, Damon and other self-ligating brackets, Suresmile, and lingual braces). This blog is for informational purposes only and is designed to help consumers understand currently accepted orthodontic concepts. It is not a venue for debating alternative treatment theories. Dr. Jorgensen is licensed to diagnose and treat patients only in the state of New Mexico. He cannot diagnose cases described in comments nor can he select treatment plans for readers. Because he has over 35,000 readers each month, it is impossible for him respond to all questions. Please read all of the comments associated with each article as most of the questions he receives each week have been asked and answered previously. The opinions expressed here are protected by copyright laws and can only be used with written permission from the author.