The Best Way to Properly Clean Your Retainer

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Table of Contents

  1. Step-by-Step Cleaning List
  2. How to Clean a Hawley Retainer
  3. Proper Cleaning of Retainers
  4. How to Clean a Plastic Retainer
  5. Water Cleaning
  6. Toothpaste, Mouthwash & Dental Floss
  7. Baking Soda
  8. Retainer Cleaner
  9. Best Retainer Cleaner
  10. White Vinegar
  11. Brushing Retainers
  12. Deep Cleaning
  13. What Cleaning Methods are Dangerous?
  14. When to Get a New Retainer?
  15. When You Don't Clean Your Retainer
  16. Frequently Asked Questions
  17. Denture Cleaners

The best way to properly clean your retainer is to immediately rinse it with water after you take it out of your mouth. You can then gently brush the retainer with a soft-bristled toothbrush to free any debris.

Because retainers must be in place for several hours at a time to do their job (usually overnight), it’s essential that they be cleaned well and cleaned regularly.

Proper Cleaning of Retainers

The first thing you should know about caring for your retainer is that you should clean it daily. You don’t want to let chunks and bits of food collect on it. Doing so causes bacteria to build up, which can lead to bad breath or even infection if you have a sore inside your mouth.

There are a number of ways you can clean your retainer.

Step-by-Step Cleaning List

The best approaches to cleaning your retainer depend on the type of retainer you have.

For example, bonded retainers are attached to your teeth. You’ll simply brush your teeth as normal, making sure to gently brush along the retainer to reduce plaque. Removable retainers, like Hawley or clear plastic retainers, benefit from being cleaned while they are not in your mouth.

How to Clean a Hawley Retainer

These are the steps for how to clean a Hawley retainer:

  • Clean your retainer as soon as you take it out of your mouth. Delaying allows food to become dried and stuck to the retainer.

  • Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and lukewarm water to brush plaque and food off the retainer. You can use the same brush you use for your teeth or have a separate brush specifically for your retainer.

  • If your retainer is not immediately going into your mouth, you can mix a small amount of mild dish soap with warm water and brush your retainer with this. Do not use toothpaste, which has some abrasive ingredients that can damage the retainer.

  • Examine your retainer for trapped food. Use a soft cotton swab or denture brush to get into these tough-to-clean areas.

  • Ask about dedicated retainer cleaner options that your dentist recommends, as soaking in these concoctions can thoroughly clean the retainer. You might also be able to use some denture cleaners, but ask about options first.

Although Hawley retainers can take slightly harsher treatment than other types of retainers, they are not a great option for many people. They are visible, compared to clear plastic. The wire can come undone or become misshapen in a way you would not notice until your dentist points it out. They can be less comfortable since they require more space in your mouth. 

If your dentist recommends a retainer, ask about which option might work best after your orthodontic treatment.

how to clean a plastic retainer

How to Clean a Plastic Retainer

These are the steps for how to clean your clear plastic retainer:

  • Take the retainer out when you eat or drink, especially if the food or drink might stain the retainer.

  • Immediately rinse the retainer in cool water, not hot or warm.

  • Brush your teeth before putting the retainer back in.

  • Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to clean the inside of the retainer, but not every day, as this can scratch the retainer. Avoid using toothpaste on it.

  • Ask about retainer cleaner to safely soak your retainer.

  • Never use chemicals, including many soaps, as these can warp or soak into the retainer.

The best regular cleaning method for any kind of retainer is to clean it with cool or lukewarm water with a gentle brush. Although you might accidentally warp a Hawley retainer, clear plastic retainers are at higher risk of being warped or stained from food, drink, or warmth.

Try to avoid anything that will scratch the surface of the plastic since this can allow bacteria into the crevices. Avoid anything that might warp the retainer, as this can shift your teeth out of proper alignment.

Water Cleaning

For the 58 percent of people who use removable retainers, the best way to clean it is to remove it from your mouth and soak it in warm water for a few minutes.

Remove it from the water and brush the surface with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Take care not to use hot water, which can cause the retainer, which is made of acrylic, to warp and become brittle. Also, avoid the following:

  • Soaking retainers for long periods

  • Using abrasive cleaning materials

  • Scrubbing too hard with toothbrushes

When you’re cleaning your retainer, you should never use ordinary soap and water. You could use Castile soap because it’s less toxic.

Another method for water-cleaning is to keep the retainer in your mouth. Fill your mouth with lukewarm water. Let the retainer soak for a minute, then swish the water around and spit it out.

Using a syringe filled with water, squirt the water out and then blow it out using air pressure. This will help get rid of any food particles that are stuck between the wires.

After you’ve cleaned the retainer, remove it, and let it dry naturally. You can also dry it with a clean cloth.

Toothpaste, Mouthwash & Dental Floss

Orthodontists recommend brushing your teeth with toothpaste and rinsing them with mouthwash before removing your retainer. Put the retainer on a soft cloth or towel and brush gently with a regular toothbrush to remove plaque and food particles.

You can use dental floss to clean the grooves of the retainer but not on the wire framework.

To dry the retainer, use another soft cloth or towel and wipe it dry carefully. Rinse out all of the toothpaste and mouthwash residue from your retainer before reinserting it.

People should clean their retainer by lightly brushing using a soft-bristled toothbrush every time they brush their teeth and should do a more thorough cleaning once a week.

Baking Soda

You can clean your retainer by soaking it for at least 15 minutes in a pre-mixed solution of baking soda and lukewarm water. Remove and clean using a toothbrush and rinse thoroughly.

A saline solution or salt water can be used to rinse the baking soda grit. The salt in the saline solution will help draw out any trapped food particles from inside the retainers. It does not matter what brand of saline solution you use.

Make sure you remove all the baking soda from your retainer before reinserting it.

Be careful with the baking soda. It can damage the soldered metal parts in Hawley, or fixed, lingual wire and bonded retainers. Use this method sparingly, and don’t soak the retainer in this solution daily.

However, this is a good method for cleaning polyurethane or plastic retainers. They don’t contain metal solder, and they’ll have no chemical reaction to the baking soda mix.

Retainer Cleaner

While some retainer manufacturers offer cleaners, you can purchase your own if you don’t trust your saline solution-making skills.

Like any other product, follow the instructions to the tee since some will require overnight retainer soaking or sonic cleaning to complement the cleaner. Further, some cleaners may not be suitable for people with gum disease or sensitive teeth.

Best Retainer Cleaner

You should choose a retainer cleaner that’s clearly intended for retainers and the specific type of retainer you have (plastic or metal). 

These are some top-rated retainer cleaners:

  • Retainer Brite Tablets: These are about $20 for a box of 120. These dissolvable tablets are safe for metal or clear retainers and intended for daily use. After dropping a tablet in a cup of warm water, your retainer soaks for 15 minutes. After a thorough rinse, it’s clean and ready to be used again.

  • EverSmile AlignerFresh On the Go Retainer Cleaner: These cost about $35 for a two-pack of 50 ml bottles. This unique white foam cleaner is designed to be applied to retainers while you wear them and has whitening and breath-freshening properties.

  • OAP Orthodontic Cleaner: This is about $25 for a 60 ml bottle. For those looking for a more natural retainer cleaner, this gentle mint-scented gel formula is paraben, sulfate, and triclosan free, and it only requires a 60-second cleanse.

White Vinegar

White vinegar is a gentle disinfectant with the added advantage of clearing residues and odors. Create a solution of equal part water and white vinegar, and soak the retainer for 20 minutes. If approved by your retainer provider, use a soft brush to scrub away any mineral deposits.

While vinegar is a safe and convenient choice for cleaning your retainer, it may not be as effective at removing all germs and bacteria as some specialized formulas. It may also leave a faint vinegar smell or taste, even after rinsing. Consider cleaning with a retainer cleaner at least once a week to get a more thorough cleaning and to remove any vinegar odors.

Caution: Vinegar has a strong smell, so you should consider using a disposable dish if the lingering odor bothers you. Clean the retainer in a well-ventilated room.

Some denture cleaners can be used if you’re in a pinch for a retainer cleaner. Be sure to check the label to see if the denture cleaner you’re thinking about using is safe for the type of retainer you have. For example, if you have a clear retainer, be sure that your denture cleaner clearly indicates it’s safe to use on clear appliances.

Denture cleaner should only be used as a temporary solution, as repeated use may turn the retainer yellow. With so many retainer cleaners on the market, there is really no need to risk the possibility of staining your retainer by using a denture cleaner.

If you do need to use a denture cleaner on a one-time or short-term basis, the cleaning process is similar to most soaking retainer cleaners. Rinse the retainer in plain water, then soak it in the denture solution for approximately 20 minutes. Take it out and (if safe for your retainer) use a soft toothbrush to scrub gently. Rinse thoroughly before use.

Which Is Better? Homemade or Commercial

Should you make your own retainer cleaner or a product designed specifically for the trays you use every day? Comparing the pros and cons of each option can help you make a smart choice.

Homemade cleaners are relatively inexpensive, as the ingredients are typically sitting in your kitchen. They’re easy to make, once you get the hang of them, and they are very natural. However, their effectiveness may vary depending on the type you use and your ability to mix them properly.

Commercial products can be more expensive, and you must keep them on hand for regular cleansing. However, they are very easy to use, as they often come in pre-measured doses. They are also generally effective, as professionals have tested them. These products can contain chemicals, including ingredients that might irritate your mouth, so they may not be right for everyone.

In general, use homemade cleaners if you’re on a budget and feel comfortable with making your own products. Use commercial cleaners if you’re short on time and want something that’s very easy to use and proven effective.

Brushing Retainers

Brushing your retainer with a cleanser and toothbrush has long been considered an acceptable method of cleaning a retainer. However, this technique may be too abrasive for some retainers, especially clear retainers, and it could cause damage and scratching.

Check with your orthodontist or retainer provider before using a specialized brush or toothbrush to clean your retainer. 

If you do brush your retainer, make sure you are using a very soft toothbrush, gentle strokes, and plenty of liquid cleanser.

How to Deep Clean Your Retainer

While daily care is an important part of caring for your retainer, you should also deep clean your device regularly to ensure it’s clean and free of odors. The steps you’ll take depend on the type of retainer you have.

Hawley Retainer

Once per week, follow these steps to deep-clean your Hawley retainer:

  1. Make a paste of baking soda with a small amount of water, and grab a soft-bristled toothbrush.

  2. Soak your retainer in distilled water for 15 minutes to remove caked-on food and debris.

  3. Brush your retainer with the paste to remove all debris.

  4. Rinse the retainer with lukewarm water.

  5. Allow it to dry on a clean paper towel.

Plastic Retainer

Once per week, follow these steps to deep-clean your clear plastic retainer:

  1. Submerge your trays in lukewarm water with a drop of mild, unscented, clear dish soap.

  2. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to remove debris from your trays.

  3. Rinse the trays thoroughly in lukewarm water to ensure all soap debris is removed.

  4. Allow your trays to dry on a clean paper towel.

How to Clean Retainers That Smell

With regular cleansing, your retainers should be clean and free of odors. However, if you’ve skipped a cleaning session or two, your device could pick up odors from your mouth or the meals you’ve eaten.

If your retainers have an unpleasant scent, take one of the two following steps:

  • Try baking soda. Mix a small amount of baking soda with water until it makes a paste. Apply it to your retainer with your fingers, and use a soft-bristled brush to scrape away debris and associated odors. Rinse the paste thoroughly with lukewarm water.

  • Use commercial cleaning tablets. The products we’ve listed above are safe for retainers, and they contain effective ingredients that can remove odors. Use them per the package instructions.

What Materials Aren’t Safe for Retainers?

While retainers are sturdy and long-lasting, they can break down when they’re exposed to harsh chemicals and tools that aren’t designed for dental devices.

Don’t use these cleansing agents on your retainers:

  • Regular toothpaste, as it can be too harsh and abrasive for delicate trays

  • Mouthwash, as the alcohol and dyes in them can damage the plastic in your trays

  • Hot water, as it can warp your retainers and ruin their effectiveness

  • Harsh soaps that include bleach, scents, and dyes, as they can damage the plastic or stain it

  • Strong denture cleaners, as they could damage the plastic

Instead of these unsafe materials, stick with the following cleansing options:

  • Distilled water

  • Baking soda

  • Mild, unscented dish soap

  • Products specifically formulated for retainer cleaning

How Often Should You Get a New Retainer?

The average lifespan of a retainer is two to three years, although it’s not uncommon for them to last longer. Prevention and proper care can keep them from breaking down prematurely.

What Happens if You Don't Clean Your Retainer?

If you develop bad cleaning habits with your retainer or don’t clean it at all, its lifespan will be short, and you are likely to enjoy the experience of wearing one even less than you already might.

Food and bacteria will accumulate in the grooves of the retainer bands, irritating or cutting the gums and causing recession. Retainers that are not cleaned regularly become more difficult to clean each time because eventually everything gets stuck in them, including hardened plaque.

Retainer Cleaning Frequently Asked Questions

If you’re out of retainer cleaner (or DIY cleaner solution), mouthwash can be helpful as an in-a-pinch amicrobial and freshening cleanser. After putting a few drops of mouthwash in a cup of water, you can quickly dip and swirl your retainer in the mixture. Rinse thoroughly before wearing the retainer again. 

Soaking your retainer in mouthwash is not recommended, as it may be too abrasive and could also cause staining.

Most commonly, a retainer smells bad because it needs to be washed. Food particles and bacteria can build up on the surface of retainers or in small crevices, and it can put off an undesirable odor.

If you’ve eaten strong-smelling foods, like onions, garlic, or fish, any leftover food debris may be especially noticeable or unpleasant.

You may also be sensitive to the type of cleaner you’re using on your retainer. If you’re using vinegar, for example, the smell and taste of vinegar might stick around even after you wash it off.

Retainer cleaning tablets or solutions may also leave a chemical smell that you find unappealing. In these cases, consider switching the type of cleaner you’re using.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.