Invisalign vs. Braces: Costs, Benefits & Downsides
Clinical content featured by Byte is reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to help ensure clinical accuracy.
We follow strict sourcing guidelines and each page contains a full list of sources for complete transparency.
Table of Contents
- Treatment Basics
- Customer Compliance
- During Treatment
- Oral Health
- Critical Cases
Some people are born with beautiful, shining, straight teeth. The rest of us need a little help to get the smiles we deserve. Visit an orthodontist to get that assistance, and you'll often be faced with a choice: Invisalign vs. braces.
Both Invisalign and braces are proven medical devices that can improve smiles. But they come with significant differences.
In general, if you have a mild smile issue and a strong will to change the way your teeth look, Invisalign could be right for you.
But if your teeth need significant help, you hope to save money, and you're willing to put up with a bit of added pain during treatment, braces could be a better choice.
Treatment Basics: How Do They Work?
Both braces and Invisalign put pressure on the tops of your teeth. Deep below the surface of your gums, tissues holding your teeth in place begin to shift and change. In time, your teeth move in response to that pressure. The underlying theory is the same, but braces and Invisalign treatment plans differ dramatically.
A braces treatment plan involves these steps:
- Orthodontist or Dentist visit: Dentists and orthodontists can put braces on your teeth and monitor your progress. During your first visit, your doctor will take molds of your teeth and explain what things will look like when you're done.
- Hardware application: Brackets are glued to your teeth, and wires connect them. This process takes an hour or two.
- Monthly checkups: You'll visit your doctor to tighten or replace the wires. If your teeth aren't moving quickly enough or you need more help, your doctor may use other appliances, including rubber bands. They attach directly to your braces.
- Braces removal: You can't take braces off yourself. Instead, you'll visit your doctor for another long appointment. Glue is removed, and your braces come right off.
- Ongoing aftercare: You'll wear a retainer regularly to keep your teeth in place.
An Invisalign treatment plan involves these steps:
- Dentist or orthodontist visit: Some orthodontists offer Invisalign treatment, but trained dentists can supervise your care too. Together, you'll create molds of your teeth, and you'll sit for scans. The data helps your doctor develop a model of your teeth, including an image of what your finished smile might look like.
- Tray creation: With an approved plan, your doctor creates plastic trays. Each one moves your teeth closer to your perfected smile. Most dentists send their customers home with two or three trays.
- At-home work: Every two weeks, you'll change out your trays for new versions. You'll see your doctor every four to six weeks, but you'll do the majority of your work at home.
- Aftercare: When your smile is perfected, you'll use a different device, retainer trays, to keep your teeth from shifting back to their old positions.
Invisalign is a clear winner for people who want to skip frequent appointments and plenty of poking. But for those who like more interaction, braces may be more optimal.
Customer Compliance: Which Treatment Plan Is Easier to Follow?
Your doctor develops your smile plan, and that professional either creates or applies dental hardware. But those bits and pieces live inside your mouth, and you're responsible for their effectiveness. Sometimes, people find that it's too difficult to follow all the guidelines their doctors suggest.
For people worried about compliance, braces seem like a natural fit. They're impossible to remove, so you're not tempted to skip steps or take breaks. But researchers say people with braces need many more dental visits, and they spend more time in the chair during each appointment.
If your schedule is hectic and you skip your visits, your treatment plan could take longer. Aligners require a less significant time investment.
Aligners are removable, however, and plenty of people are tempted to take out the devices. You might start by taking out your trays for important meetings or dates. But soon, you find you're not wearing them at all.
Invisalign now includes a so-called "compliance indicator." Bring your aligners to your appointment, and your doctor will know if you've been following your plan. But if shaming won't keep you on track, this indicator may not help.
Life During Treatment: Which Is Easier?
Invisalign trays and braces brackets sit on your teeth for months or even years. Neither is exactly comfortable, and both have specific rules you must follow.
Which is right for you? Consider a few scenarios:
You Enjoy Chewy, Gooey Foods
Gum, caramels, and other sticky foods get caught in brackets and wires. If you choose braces, you can't eat these items at all.
If you choose Invisalign, you can eat them, as long as you remove your trays. You’ll need to brush thoroughly after eating them to ensure no residue remains on your teeth when you slip your aligners back in.
You Play Contact Sports
Standard braces are almost impossible to ignore. Anyone standing close to you will see them. And if you choose an innovative bracket option (like lingual braces), people will hear the difference when you talk.
Aligners are harder to spot, and you can take them out if you need to. If you have an important meeting, you can pop them out for the hour. Just make sure this doesn’t turn into extended periods of time without them in your mouth.
Pricing: Which Is a Better Value?
Both aligners and braces can be expensive. People often choose aligners because they offer significant cost savings over braces. But the cost of Invisalign can vary significantly depending on your dentist, location and needs - it can be cheaper or more expensive than braces.
For a general idea, consumers can expect these kinds of fees without insurance coverage:
- Metal braces: $4,500
- Invisalign: $5,500 (but this can vary widely)
- Ceramic braces: $6,000
- Lingual braces: $9,000
Some insurance plans cover orthodontic treatment. Delta Dental offers coverage for standard braces, for example, but only some plans will cover Invisalign. Other companies, including Cigna, may not cover orthodontics. But the company forms partnerships with dentists and orthodontists, and those agreements can mean savings.
People with significant financial concerns can save money with standard braces. But choosing an unusual type of braces can mean paying more than you would with Invisalign.
Timelines: Which Moves Your Teeth Faster?
Gentle movements are critical for dental health. Bones and ligaments that support your teeth need time to rebuild and remodel. Shifting things too quickly can mean undermining oral stability. Few significant timeline differences separate Invisalign and braces.
Your treatment length depends on:
- Care required. The more your teeth need to move, the longer treatment will take.
- Compliance. People who follow their plans and keep their appointments move through the process faster than those who don't.
- Predictability. Some people have unusual teeth that move faster or slower than expected.
Your doctor can estimate how long your treatment plan will take. But know that you'll play a role in keeping things moving.
Oral Health: Which Protects Your Mouth?
Straightening your teeth can protect your mouth. Aligned teeth are easier to keep clean, and optimal wear patterns reduce the risk of chips and cracks. But braces can damage your teeth and mouth.
Brackets and wires are rough, and they come into contact with your tongue and gums during treatment. You may have raw, sore, sensitive tissues throughout your treatment plan. Aligners are smooth, and they don't tend to damage your mouth in the same manner.
Braces can also attract bacteria, which leads to cavity formation. And it's hard to brush and floss properly with wires and brackets in the way. Some people develop cavities, gingivitis, or both during their journey with braces.
Aligners are a clear winner in terms of protecting oral health during treatment. You can slip off the trays to completely clean all around your teeth. Keeping the trays clean can also keep bacteria from building up.
Smile Severity: Which Is Best for Critical Cases?
People with straight teeth obviously don't need aligners or braces. But misalignment comes in many forms. Some people have significant problems, and when that happens, their treatment choices are limited.
In general, experts say that aligners work best on mild or moderate orthodontic cases. People who need significant help moving their teeth, or those who have teeth that need rotation in addition to movement, are often encouraged to get braces instead.
Some experts disagree and say Invisalign can work on significant cases. But the treatment is relatively new, compared to braces, and it isn't always recommended. If your case is severe, talk to your orthodontist about what will work best for you.
Are You Too Old for Braces? Harvard Medical School.
How Invisalign Works. Invisalign.
Comparative Time Efficiency of Aligner Therapy and Conventional Edgewise Braces. (2014). The Angle Orthodontist.
Effectiveness of a Compliance Indicator for Clear Aligners. (2009). Journal of Clinical Orthodontics.
Lessons from Telemedicine and Teledentistry and Tele-Orthodontics. (July 2020). Ideate Labs.
Orthodontic Coverage. Delta Dental.
Orthodontic Coverage: What Dental Insurance Plans Cover Braces? (July 2018). Cigna.
Orthodontic Sports Injuries. (January 2019). Medical University of South Carolina.
Orthodontic Treatment Time: Can It Be Shortened? (November 2018). Dental Press Journal of Orthodontics.
Are Clear Aligners As Effective as Conventional Fixed Appliances? (March 2020). Evidence Based Dentistry.
Adverse Effects of Orthodontic Treatment: A Clinical Perspective. (April 2011). The Saudi Dental Journal.
Esthetic Orthodontic Treatment Using the Invisalign Appliance for Moderate to Complex Malocclusions. (August 2008). Journal of Dental Education.