Bad smells, gross white build up and bacteria - if you wear a retainer you have faced one or all of these conditions at some point. You have also, more than likely, tried various types of retainer cases as well. Here are my opinions on what works best and why.
Cleaning retainers is a hotly debated topic. Opinions are all over the place. From brushing with toothpaste to soaking in mouthwash and creating your own bleach and water solution to soak them in. There are a number of products out there that are marketed as retainer cleansers as well.
Let's start with brushing. This is often the advice from orthodontists. For years I ran a company that manufactured the plastics and other materials that are used to build retainers. We found that brushing retainers with toothpaste is the worst method you could possibly use. Toothpaste works, in part, as an abrasive agent to help remove stubborn plaque and surface stains from your teeth. This abrasive quality to toothpaste will actually scratch the plastic and/or acrylic your retainer is made with. These scratches will weaken the retainer over time and create a rough surface that will help plaque and stains stick to your retainer. Brushing your retainer with toothpaste is by far the worst way to keep a retainer clean.
Using bleach to clean your retainer is also a bad idea in my opinion. Chlorine bleach used for household cleaning and laundry applications is a pretty caustic product. Think about what happens when bleach is splashed on your clothes, it will "bleach" out the color and in some cases even "burn" holes right through the fabric. Using diluted bleach in a water solution to clean your retainer will eventually destroy the plastics and/or acrylics your retainer is made with.
Soaking retainers in mouthwash is another bad idea. Most mouthwashes are primarily made from alcohol. At the company I worked for that made the materials your retainer is built with we found that alcohol, over time, would ruin the plastics and/or acrylics. A chemical reaction occurs between alcohol and the material your retainer is made from causing those materials to become brittle and weak. This leads to premature cracking and breakage.
I would avoid brushing, bleaching, and soaking your retainers in mouthwash.
There are several products on the market that are touted as retainer cleaners or cleansers. A search in Google or Yahoo! will yield four or five of them. There are three categories; tablets, liquid, and powder.
The company I worked for that I keep talking about also marketed a tablet product. The not so big secret is that ALL the tablet products are really just denture cleaning tablets marketed under a different name. That is not necessarily a negative, but dentures and retainers are vastly different devices. What is negative about tablets, however, is that you have to wait for them to dissolve for the active ingredients in them to begin cleaning your retainer. I have tried almost every tablet out there, again they are all identical, and I have found that they leave a film on the retainers I have cleaned. At Evertain we make mountains of retainers which has allowed us to test cleaning methods extensively. Retainer cleaning tablets take too long to dissolve and don't rinse cleanly. Furthermore, most tablets suggest you use "warm" water, but not "hot" water for soaking. When plastics are heated and cooled, even slightly, over and over again they will eventually break. I would not recommend using warm water and I am not a fan of any of the tablets out there.
There is a liquid retainer cleaner or two out there as well. These products are better than the tablets, but also have their issues. I like the fact that, with one of them, you don't have to mix anything. I don't like the fact that it can spill easily when shipping and traveling with a liquid product. Overall the cleaning results were average, nothing special - nothing really negative. I would recommend the liquid cleaners, without alcohol, over the tablets.
Now I will disclose to you that I am biased about all of this because I own and operate a company called Evertain that manufactures a powdered cleaner called RetainerFresh!. However, that bias isn't just because I would love it if you purchased RetainerFresh!, but that bias also comes from the pride I have in how the product was developed and how well it cleans retainers.
RetainerFresh! was designed for us by an actual dentist to clean retainers and other similar dental products. We make it in the USA and package it in the USA in small batches and we are crazy about the quality of RetainerFresh!. We designed it to clean really well and really fast - 5 minutes soak time! We made sure it worked in cold water, hard water, soft water, tap water, bottled water, you name it. We designed it to rinse super clean. We also formulated it without a compound called sodium laurel sulfate or SLS. SLS has been linked to the formation of oral canker sores in some studies - we thought that was a pretty dumb thing to put in a product that cleans something that goes in your mouth. We are really proud of the performance and quality of the cleaner we came up with and have tested it up against all the other products and methods above. RetainerFresh! is available online at www.retainerfresh.com but not available in stores.
Please carefully consider how you chose to clean your retainer - you'll need to wear it for as long as you want to have a straight smile!
Storing retainers is a much easier decision to make - if it isn't in your mouth or being cleaned it needs to be in a good case. There are many, many styles of cases. In my opinion, the best design is a hard-sided clam shell case. Holes or vents for air circulation are crucial as they help prohibit anything really gross from growing on your retainer. You should always store your retainer as dry as possible for the same reason - a wet retainer in a plastic box will encourage all sorts of things to start growing on it. Ideally you should clean your retainer, rinse it with clean water, pat it dry with paper towels, and store it dry in a case if you are not going to wear it right away. Do not wrap it in a napkin and place it on your tray in the school cafeteria or restaurant - it will get tossed out! See the post about that on here.
Dogs are obsessed with retainers! Keep your retainer out of reach or it will get gobbled up by a dog. We hear about this all the time at Evertain. One mother enrolled her son in the Evertain retainer program after their dogs had eaten at least three retainers. Evertain has replaced two sets to date for her for the same reason.
Heat is a big enemy of retainers. Keep retainers out of hot cars, away from radiator grills and heaters in homes. Don't store them in direct sunlight either. Heat will cause the plastics to expand and contract and will eventually lead to breakage.
Retainers are the only thing that will keep your teeth straight after braces. You have to wear your retainers precisely as instructed by your doctor for as long as he/she tells you to. If you don't your teeth will slowly creep back into their old positions and all your hard work in braces and the expense incurred with your treatment will be a big waste! Properly cleaning and caring for your retainers is a critical component to making them last and ensuring you can follow through with the most important phase of treatment - Life Retained!