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Retainers vs. Braces: Key Differences and Functions

juin 27, 2024

Orthodontic treatments like braces and retainers are fundamental to achieving and maintaining a straight, healthy smile. While both devices play crucial roles in dental care, they serve different purposes and are used at different stages of the treatment process. Understanding the key differences between retainers and braces can help you make informed decisions about your orthodontic care and ensure lasting results.

What Are Braces?

Braces are orthodontic devices designed to correct misaligned teeth and jaws. They consist of brackets attached to the teeth, connected by wires that apply pressure to move the teeth into desired positions. Braces are commonly used to address a variety of dental issues, including crowding, spacing, and bite problems.

Functions of Braces:

  1. Aligning Teeth: Braces apply continuous pressure to move teeth into proper alignment over time.
  2. Correcting Bite: They help correct bite issues such as overbite, underbite, crossbite, and open bite.
  3. Improving Aesthetics and Function: Properly aligned teeth enhance the appearance and function of the smile.

Types of Braces:

  • Traditional Metal Braces: Made from high-grade stainless steel, these are the most common type.
  • Ceramic Braces: Less visible than metal braces, these use tooth-colored brackets.
  • Lingual Braces: Placed on the back of the teeth, making them invisible from the front.
  • Clear Aligners: Removable trays that fit over the teeth and are clear, such as Invisalign.

What Are Retainers?

Retainers are custom-made devices worn after braces are removed to keep teeth in their new positions. They prevent teeth from shifting back to their original misaligned positions, a process known as relapse. Retainers are essential for maintaining the results achieved by braces.

Functions of Retainers:

  1. Maintaining Alignment: Retainers hold teeth in their corrected positions while the surrounding bone and tissues stabilize.
  2. Preventing Relapse: They prevent teeth from moving back to their pre-treatment alignment.
  3. Stabilizing Teeth: They provide the necessary support during the post-treatment phase to ensure teeth remain properly aligned.

Types of Retainers:

  • Hawley Retainers: Made of metal wires and an acrylic base, these are adjustable and durable.
  • Clear Plastic Retainers: Also known as Essix retainers, they are clear and fit over the teeth.
  • Fixed Retainers: Thin wires bonded to the back of the teeth, not removable by the patient.

Key Differences Between Braces and Retainers


  • Braces: Used during the active phase of orthodontic treatment to move teeth into desired positions and correct alignment and bite issues.
  • Retainers: Used during the retention phase to maintain the new positions of the teeth and prevent them from shifting back.

Timing of Use

  • Braces: Worn for a specific period, typically ranging from several months to a few years, depending on the treatment plan.
  • Retainers: Worn after braces are removed, usually full-time initially, then part-time as prescribed by the orthodontist.

Mechanism of Action

  • Braces: Apply continuous pressure to gradually shift teeth into alignment.
  • Retainers: Hold teeth in their new positions, allowing the bone and tissues to adapt and stabilize.


  • Braces: Require regular adjustments by an orthodontist to guide teeth into the correct positions.
  • Retainers: Typically not adjusted, although some, like Hawley retainers, can be slightly modified if needed.


  • Braces: Often visible on the teeth, though some options like ceramic braces and clear aligners are less noticeable.
  • Retainers: Clear plastic retainers are nearly invisible, while Hawley retainers have visible wires. Fixed retainers are hidden behind the teeth.

How Braces and Retainers Work Together

Orthodontic treatment generally involves two phases:

  1. Active Treatment Phase: Braces or aligners are used to move teeth into the desired positions. This phase focuses on correcting misalignments and bite issues.

  2. Retention Phase: After the active treatment, retainers are used to keep the teeth in their new positions and prevent relapse. This phase is crucial for maintaining the results achieved with braces.

Both braces and retainers are essential for a successful orthodontic outcome. Skipping the retention phase or not wearing the retainer as prescribed can lead to teeth shifting back to their original positions, undoing the progress made with braces.

Braces and retainers serve distinct yet complementary roles in orthodontic treatment. Braces are used to move teeth into alignment, while retainers maintain the new positions and prevent relapse. Understanding the differences between these appliances helps ensure effective and lasting results from your orthodontic care. Following your orthodontist’s instructions for both braces and retainers is key to achieving and maintaining a healthy, beautiful smile.