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What’s the Difference Between Clear Aligners and Retainers?

By Adrienne Keller
Clear aligners and retainers are sometimes confused with one another. Learn more about how these two types of devices differ.

Clear dental aligners offer an effective treatment approach to achieve straight teeth without braces. Teeth retainers may also resolve minor alignment issues, but they are better reserved for maintaining alignment after a full orthodontic treatment course or making small adjustments to teeth that have shifted out of place over time.

What Are Clear Aligners?

Clear aligners are orthodontic appliances used to realign the teeth and create a healthy and beautiful smile, the American Association of Orthodontics explains.

“Clear aligners are a system for moving teeth,” Charles Sutera, DMD at Aesthetic Smile Reconstruction, tells WebMD Connect to Care. The process begins with a professional taking molds or scans of your teeth. Then, software is used to create a series of aligners that will bring your teeth into proper dental alignment. Each of these aligners move the teeth a little bit at a time. 

Sutera explains that “treatment typically boils down to two keys for success: Wearing the aligners the recommended amount of time, which is typically 20-22 hours per day, and maintaining good oral hygiene during the treatment.”

As long as you follow your professional provider’s instructions, clear aligners offer a great teeth straightening alternative to traditional braces—they are nearly invisible, can be removed, and are often more comfortable than braces.

What Are Retainers?

A retainer is a piece of orthodontic equipment that is custom-made to fit inside your mouth. Removable retainers come in both wire-and-plastic and clear plastic tray forms, while fixed retainers attach to the back sides of your upper or lower teeth.

Retainers are ocassionally recommended to adjust slightly crooked teeth. For most people, however, retainers are an important piece of post-braces care.

Retainers are usually prescribed once braces come off in order to hold your teeth in their new position until the bones, gums, and muscles in your mouth adjust to the new positioning. They're also commonly used after an aligner treatment, and the time required to wear a retainer post-braces varies from person to person.

Retainers can also be used to provide touch-up alignment following an orthodontic relapse, or when your teeth gradually move back into their old positions over time. For slight adjustments of natural movement of your teeth, a retainer may be all you need to regain your straight smile.

What’s the Difference?

Clear dental aligners and plastic tray retainers are sometimes mistaken for one another because they are similar in appearance. However, while clear dental aligners and retainers are both important forms of orthodontic care, they serve different purposes.

Dental aligners offer a discreet and effective way to achieve proper tooth alignment and to support your overall dental health. Aligners can provide start-to-finish treatment of a variety of alignment issues, while retainers are better reserved for post-braces or post-aligner maintenance and adjusting slight misalignments that occur over time.

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