Who among us still actually wears their retainer? Wearing a retainer as an adult is sort of like the dental version of doing a face mask: Set it, forget it, and wake up feeling fresh.
For some people, it's a bragging right that their retainer from middle school still fits, but we can't all be such orthodontic overachievers. For the rest of us, retainers go from a watermelon-printed acrylic accessory that won you lunch table credit to a relic that sits in your childhood bathroom. But is it bad for your teeth if you just stop wearing a retainer?
It can be, says Christine Hong, DMD, MS, assistant professor of orthodontics at UCLA School of Dentistry. The whole point of wearing a retainer is to, ahem, retain the new position of the ligaments and bone around your teeth that your braces worked hard to set. "It takes about a year for our body to finish remodeling," Dr. Hong says. That's why your orthodontist makes you wear a retainer full time for a year after you get your braces off, she says. Then, after that year, it's up to you to make sure you wear it "part time," she says. This is true even if you got your braces off over a decade ago.
What's the worst that could happen? If you don't wear your retainer, your teeth will shift and crowd, Dr. Hong says. Your teeth will "relapse" and move toward the middle of your mouth, particularly your bottom teeth, she says, adding, "Retainers will stop further teeth movement into crowding."
Once you're a grown adult, it doesn't mean that your mouth just stops shifting. "Teeth constantly move from aging and function," Dr. Hong says. The only real way to make sure your teeth stay straight, and all that money from orthodontics goes to good use, is to wear your retainer at least sometimes. If your one from childhood just straight up doesn't fit, don't force it. You can ask your orthodontist about getting a new one, or you could consider getting a permanent retainer that an orthodontist installs in the back of your teeth (which means it's totally invisible), Dr. Hong says.
All of this being said, it's important to be clear that having straight teeth isn't all about cosmetics. Dr. Hong says having crooked teeth can be a health risk, because it makes it harder to floss and clean your teeth. Crooked teeth can also lead to gum disease, bleeding, and recession (when your gums get low), she says. "Every case is different, but there are definitely health risks to having crooked teeth, gum problems and cavities being the most common."
Also, there's absolutely no reason to be ashamed if you have less-than-straight teeth. And whether or not you wear your retainer, it's still a good idea to go to the dentist at least once a year, just so your doctor can make sure your mouth actually is healthy — and possibly scold you for not flossing, or whatever.