Cleaning your retainer — it should be simple, but so many people get it wrong. Many dentists and orthodontists don’t even know how to properly clean a retainer at home (they can use a medical autoclave or ultrasonic machine in their office — but you don’t have those at home)!
Before we get into the “how,” let’s explore the “why:”
- Why does your retainer smell bad? That bad odor is from a buildup of bacteria. If you get a lot of bacterial buildup on your retainer, it can make you sick. If your retainer smells bad, it means that it is not being cleaned properly.
- Why does your retainer accumulate a buildup of white material? Is that normal? This white material is dental plaque — the same stuff that builds up on your teeth if you don’t brush them, and turns into hard tartar (the stuff that the dental hygienist needs to scrape off your teeth two or three times per year). It is not normal to have a buildup of white plaque on your retainer. That is a sign that you are not cleaning it properly.
It’s easy to prevent these two problems: just clean your retainer properly every single day with a product that disinfects and keeps the plaque from building up! Fortunately, there are many products on the market that do a great job of keeping your retainer clean. If you don’t have the money for special retainer cleaning products, there are also several “home remedies” that work pretty well.
When is the best time to clean your retainer? That depends on your life and your schedule. If you wear your retainer only at night, then cleaning it after taking it out of your mouth in the morning is a good idea. Most retainer cleaning products only need 15 to 20 minutes to do the job, so if you don’t have time in the morning, you can easily do it later in the day.
No matter what product you use, it is important to thoroughly clean your retainer daily. If you wear it 24/7, you should rinse it with fresh running water every time you go to put it back in your mouth (after meals, snacks, or beverages for instance). If you don’t have access to fresh running water, there are retainer wipes that can do the trick. Do not use antibacterial hand or surface wipes, or antibacterial hand gel on your retainer — those products are not meant to go into your mouth and can make you ill.
Bargain and Fake Retainer Cleaners on Amazon and eBay
If you shop online for a retainer cleaning product, beware of “new” brands with strange-sounding names that you might find on Amazon, eBay, or other “marketplace” websites. In the past few years, many foreign third-party sellers have been creating so many inferior quickie brands that it has become a game of “whack-a-mole” for the FDA. Many of these products are made overseas from inferior chemicals and ingredients. They are not registered with the FDA or approved by the ADA. Their hundreds of glowing five-star reviews are fake, and some of these products are merely repackaged foreign-made denture cleaning tablets (which are not recommended for cleaning retainers). Remember that there was a scare several years ago when toothpaste imported from China was found to contain harmful chemicals? Well, the same thing can very easily happen with these bargain retainer cleaners. Buyer beware — choose a retainer cleaner that is made by a reputable company (with an easily found real mailing address and real phone number). Can’t find them elsewhere on the web? Does their website look thrown-together, generic, or include bad grammar and spelling? If so, that’s all a big red flag.
Even if you buy what “seems like” a reputable product from websites like Amazon, you are still taking your chances. There have been many fakes found on Amazon and eBay in recent years that have had to be removed. These fakes look like the real thing, the listing names the manufacturer as the seller, but they are in fact cunning imposters. As soon as one company is removed, another one seems to take its place, selling a similar (or in some cases, the same) fake. Buying these products from websites like Amazon, eBay, and other “marketplaces” may seem convenient and inexpensive, but be warned that you could be putting yourself at risk by using them.
Reputable Retainer Cleaning Products
There are several good retainer cleaning products on the market. Use one of these products every day, and your retainer will remain fresh and clean. Please note that if you have a Hawley retainer that contains metal solder, you should not soak your retainer. Soaking will cause the solder to turn black and crumble off over time.
- SonicBrite is a powder that comes with a battery-operated sonic cleaner bath. It works very well at getting white calculus build-up off of many types of dental appliances. It is very strong recommended mainly for Hawley retainers.
- Dentibrite Cleaning Crystals come in convenient individual single use packets. Dentibrite uses a patented formula that kills 99.99% of germs and odor causing bacteria in 5 minutes. It removes stains and plaque build-up, and it’s persulfate-free and dye-free. And, it’s made right here in the USA!
- Retainer Brite comes in tablet form and can be used with our without a portable sonic cleaner. The advantage of this system is that the tablets are individually foil wrapped, which makes it easy for traveling.
- DentaSoak is a Persulfate-free soaking solution that you mix once and use for an entire week. Just mix the pre-measured packets with cold water. DentaSoak comes with a special soaking bath that includes a handy lift-out tray. The advantage of this product is that it does not contain the chemical Persulfate (which causes an allergic reaction in some people), and it does not need to be mixed fresh every day.
- Cleanse. Freshen. Go. is a convenient new concept in retainer and aligner cleaning. The Persulfate-free product comes in two forms: an individually wrapped retainer wipe, and a spray. You can use the wipe anywhere you need to instantly clean your retainer. The spray cleans your retainer in just a couple of minutes (afterward, rinse with cold water).
- Steraligner is a liquid that works immediately to clean and sanitize your aligners in just 3 to 5 minutes. With daily use, Steraligner can help reduce yellowing, staining, and bad breath caused by dirty aligners. It leaves your dental appliance sparkling clean and minty fresh.
- OAP Cleaner was specially designed for busy people who want clean retainers or aligners but don’t have the time for soaking, or who have Hawley retainers with metal solder. The product comes in two forms: A gel which kills 99.9% of germs and bacteria, and freshens your retainer in 60 seconds (better for Hawley retainers), and a foam which spreads quickly into cracks and crevices (better for Invisalign and Essix retainers). OAP kills 99.9% of germs and bacteria, and freshens your retainer in 60 seconds.
- Invisalign Cleaning Crystals are made by same company that makes Invisalign. They are a bit expensive, but they work well to keep your Invisalign trays clean and odor-free.
All of these retainer cleaning systems work very well at keeping your retainer smelling fresh and preventing white build-up. Most can be used for either plastic and wire Hawley retainers, or Essix (clear plastic) retainers and Invisalign type aligner trays. Your orthodontist may also have samples of these products, so be sure to ask! You can buy them at DentaKit.com, or from the manufacturers’ own websites.
Home Remedy Methods for Cleaning Aligners and Retainers
First, let’s discuss what you should NOT do:
- Don’t boil your retainers or aligners, or clean them with extremely hot water. Doing so could warp or distort them.
- Don’t soak them in undiluted mouthwash. The alcohol in mouthwash can distort and discolor your retainers or aligners. The same goes for pure alcohol.
- Don’t soak your retainers or aligners in undiluted bleach. Bleach is a very powerful chemical and can warp and distort your aligners or retainers. If you feel that you want to use bleach, use one tablespoon per gallon of water, and only soak them for 15 to 20 minutes, then rinse thoroughly in fresh running water.
Here are some tried and true home methods for cleaning your aligners or retainers:
- Vinegar and Water Soak – Mix equal amounts of white distilled vinegar and warm tap water in a cup and soak your retainer for 15 to 30 minutes. Then brush your retainer gently with a soft bristle toothbrush, and rinse it thoroughly in warm water. Vinegar has some bacteria-killing capabilities, but the disadvantage of this method is that your retainer will not taste or smell very good afterwards. Vinegar also will not prevent white plaque buildup.
- Hydrogen Peroxide and Water Soak – Mix equal amounts of warm tap water and 3% hydrogen peroxide, and soak your retainer for at least 30 minutes. Then rinse thoroughly with warm water. Hydrogen peroxide kills some germs, but it will not be very effective in removing white plaque buildup.
- Mouthwash and Water Soak – You can dilute equal parts of mouthwash and water to temporarily make your retainer smell fresh and kill some of the bacteria. However, mouthwash usually contains some amount of alcohol, which can be harmful to the plastic of your retainer. It’s OK to soak your retainers in mouthwash occasionally, but regular soaking in mouthwash could harm your retainer. Also, mouthwash will not prevent the white plaque buildup.
- Antibacterial Soap and Soft Toothbrush – It is not recommended to use a toothbrush to clean clear aligners or clear Essix retainers, because even soft bristles can scratch them. But if you have a Hawley retainer, you can use some antibacterial hand soap and a soft toothbrush to clean it. Just be sure to rinse the retainer well in fresh running water afterwards.
- Antibacterial Soap and a Q-Tip (Cotton Swab) – If you have clear aligners or clear Essix retainers, you can use antibacterial hand soap and a cotton swab to clean them. Just be sure to rinse the retainer well in fresh running water afterwards.
- Denture Cleaning Tablets – These are not recommended for cleaning a retainer or clear aligner trays, but in a pinch, you can use denture cleaning tablets once in a while. Look for a brand that kills 99.9% of bacteria. If you use denture cleaning tablets on a regular basis, your retainer may turn yellow or discolor.
A Word About Persulfate
Several years ago, the FDA issued a warning about the chemical Persulfate. It also ruled that all products containing Persulfate must be labeled with an allergy warning. Truthfully, only a very small percentage of people are actually allergic to Persulfate, and most of the chemical is washed off your retainer when you rinse it in clean water after soaking. Most of the reported illnesses occurred when people ingested denture cleaning tablets. (Yes, they put denture cleaning tablets in their mouths or swallowed them). That being said — if you are sensitive to certain chemicals or tend to be allergic to many compounds, it may be wise to stay away from retainer cleaning products that contain Persulfate.