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The odds are pretty good that you already know what an active retainer does.

You just don’t know that you know it!

What we’re trying to say is that an “active retainer” is probably just a term you haven’t heard before but it refers to something you’re already familiar with.

What is an Active Retainer?

Orthodontics is the study and practice of moving teeth. Teeth have long roots that grow beneath the surface of your gums and jaw bone. Those roots are stronger than the surrounding bone tissue. When an orthodontist applies pressure to your teeth, they will in turn put pressure on the bone and break it down. This allows your teeth to move through your jaw into a new position.

There are two main actions in orthodontic treatment:

“Active” orthodontics means applying pressure to the teeth to progressively move them. “Passive” refers to pressure applied to teeth simply to maintain their current positions.

So an active retainer is just an orthodontic retainer that helps move teeth into optimum alignment.

Were you thinking that an active retainer was something else? If so, you’re not alone.

A lot of people mix up the terms “active retainer” and “clear aligner”.
Although orthodontic aligners are not retainers, aligners “actively” move teeth. Some people mistakenly call aligners retainers.

For example, Invisalign makes both clear aligners and clear retainers to maintain the progress made with their aligners. Those two items are quite different, but it’s not uncommon to hear people call the aligners “retainers.”

It is easy to interchange the terms because some aligner trays closely resemble a transparent, removable retainer called Essix.

Let’s talk about the differences between aligners and retainers.

How Does an Active Retainer Work?

The main purpose of a retainer is to keep teeth in their current positions. It isn’t supposed to actively move teeth the way braces do.

If you need to straighten your teeth, then you need to use an active orthodontic method such as permanent retainers or teeth aligners.

moving teeth active retainer

There are times, however, when some patients experience relapse after having their teeth straightened with braces. Orthodontic relapse happens when a retainer is not worn as recommended to preserve the progress made. As a result, teeth can shift out of optimum alignment. Relapse is common among adult patients who had braces for adults, but stopped wearing their retainer. This could even happen years after the treatment is complete.

If you think you’ve also experienced relapse, then you might be a candidate for an actual active retainer—a retainer that helps gently nudge your relapsed teeth back into healthy positions. What are your options and what will it look like?

active retainer spring retainer

A spring retainer is one very common type of active retainer. It gently moves only the front teeth into better alignment, particularly after orthodontic relapse. Relapse is a common problem among adults who stopped wearing their retainer years after having braces.

hawley retainer active retainer

Another option is a Hawley retainer. This kind of retainer is usually passive, meaning that it’s only worn after braces to maintain alignment. But a Hawley retainer can be modified to put active pressure on some teeth to subtly move them into more ideal alignment. Relapse is a common problem among adults who stopped wearing their retainer years after having braces.

Active Retainer Cost

One of the most common asked questions is, “how much do retainers cost?”

Well, the cost of an active retainer depends mainly on what kind of orthodontic treatment you need after getting braces. Your orthodontist will let you know what your best dental retainer options are.

Hawley retainers are generally quite affordable. They cost anywhere from $150-$340 for one (top or bottom) and $300-$600 for both top and bottom. This can vary depending upon where you live. Spring retainers cost a similar amount since they are made from metal and acrylic, just like Hawley retainers.

You could save a lot of money by just straightening your teeth with an active retainer. Keep in mind that these retainers only move the teeth by a few millimeters. If you are looking for dramatic results, consult an orthodontist about more active treatment. So, the first thing to do: google “the best orthodontist near me“.

'The fastest and most thorough tooth straightening methods will involve either braces or clear aligners.'

Those active orthodontic treatments cost more than active retainers. Traditional braces, for example, cost anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000. Invisalign is a popular brand of clear aligners that costs $3,000 and up.

If you’re interested in cheap clear aligners, there are plenty of cost-effective alternatives such as Byte, Uniform Teeth, and SmileLove

Active Retainers Before and After: What to Expect?

Active retainers don’t work miracles. At best, they can move front teeth by only one or two millimeters, so they’re best for adjusting teeth that have slightly relapsed after braces. If your orthodontist fits you for an active retainer, you should see your teeth start to shift back into healthy alignment over the course of a few months. And, keep always this in mind: if you’ve lost your retainer, don’t start using a new without asking your orthodontist!

If you’re looking for a removable retainer-like alternative to traditional braces for teeth straightening, then you should consider clear aligner trays. A clear aligner is a more effective orthodontic solution than an active retainer and can get you great results in a short amount of time.

active retainer before and after
before and after active retainer

Will My Active Retainer Fit Again?

What if you get an active retainer but forget to wear it for a while?

The same thing holds true no matter what kind of orthodontic retainer you have: you must wear it daily to keep your teeth in alignment. If you go weeks or months without wearing your retainer, your teeth will start to relapse back to their old positions.

After orthodontic relapse, a retainer probably won’t fit the way it used to. You can, however, try to put it in and see how it feels. If it’s a bit snug but not too uncomfortable, then your retainer just might help your teeth shift back into place.

If you’ve had braces in the past but didn’t wear the passive retainer your orthodontist gave you, then you might now need an active retainer. An active retainer is more likely to move your teeth back into the positions they reached when your braces came off. But if an orthodontist determines that your teeth have relapsed too far for even an active retainer to help, then you’ll have to consider getting braces again.

Active Retainer vs Passive Retainer

What, ultimately, is the difference between an active and a passive retainer?

Let’s review what we’ve learned.

Passive retainers are appliances (usually removable) that keep your teeth from shifting after you complete a course of orthodontic treatment. The most common passive types of retainers are:

There are also fixed passive retainers. These are stainless steel metal wires that the orthodontist bonds to the back of your teeth to help hold them in their new positions.

And, what about how to clean retainers? Well, a removable retainer is often more convenient since it’s easier to clean than one that’s cemented to your teeth. The bonded retainers, however, do a better job at maintaining your tooth alignment since you can’t forget to wear them.

Fixed or removable, passive retainers strictly maintain the progress you’ve made with braces.

Active, retainers, on the other hand, don’t just keep your teeth in their current positions; active retainers help teeth to move. They can’t move teeth very far, however. These retainers are best for adjusting only the very front teeth and by just one or two millimeters, at that.

There are two main kinds of active retainers:

So when it comes to active vs. passive retainers, keep these three summary points in mind:

'Which kind of retainer is right for you?'

An active retainer is ideal if you’ve had braces before but your teeth have relapsed a bit. You’ll need a passive retainer if you just finished a course of orthodontic treatment and don’t want to risk losing all the time and money you invested in your smile. If you’re interested in straightening your teeth for the first time, however, then you might need to go with clear orthodontic aligners or traditional braces.

Visiting your local orthodontist or dentist is a good way to get started. You’ll find out exactly which orthodontic solution will get you the results you want.

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Medically reviewed by Kandice Swarthout

Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dental Hygienist. She is a full-time dental hygiene educator in Texas. Kandice is the owner of Inspired Education & Wellness where she is a speaker and writer and combines her clinical dental and mental health experience to help other healthcare professionals have a fulfilling work-life experience. Read Kandice’s column, Counselor’s Corner, in Dentistry IQ and her blog on Facebook titled Fearless Compassion: Stories of Personal Triumph.

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