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10 Tips For Cleaning Your Oral Appliance

The DOs & DON’Ts of Caring for Dentures, Mouthguards, Nightguards, Clear Orthodontic Aligners, and Retainers

by Daniel M. Carlson, CDT

Cleaning oral appliance.

Are you one of the millions of people who wear an oral appliance? If so, please take a moment to review these tips for keeping it clean, undamaged and bacteria-free. As someone who has spent decades making these devices, I can assure you that your appliance will last longer and serve you better if you take proper care of it. This is true whether you wear full or partial dentures for replacing teeth; clear orthodontic aligners or a retainer for orthodontic treatment; a nightguard to prevent nighttime teeth grinding; or a mouthguard to protect you from injury during athletics.

1) Don’t use toothpaste on your appliance

If you remember just one item from this list, remember this one. Teeth and oral appliances are made of different materials, so they must be cleaned differently. Toothpaste is actually an abrasive cleanser — it has grainy particles to help scrub bacterial biofilm (plaque) and food debris off the teeth. Because teeth are covered by enamel, the hardest substance in the human body, they can stand up to this abrasive action. Your plastic appliance, which is much softer, cannot. Toothpaste creates micro scratches in the material, which collect bacteria. This may eventually cause unpleasant odors and discoloration.

2) Do use a liquid dish detergent or hand soap and warm water

These ordinary household soaps are much milder and do a very good job, particularly if you use one with an antibacterial agent. You only need to use a little bit on a soft brush. You could also use denture pastes and cleansers, which are non-abrasive, but they are more expensive than plain old liquid soap, which is just as good. After brushing your appliance, rinse it well.

3) Do get a brush just for the appliance

You will be putting soap on this brush, so you won’t want to use the same brush for your teeth. However, you can use a soft toothbrush for this purpose, or a nailbrush. You can also buy a brush especially made for cleaning dentures, which is just slightly bigger than a toothbrush and has two different brush heads. They are very inexpensive, available in any drug store, and can be used to clean not just dentures but any oral appliance.

4) Don’t ever boil your appliance to clean it — or even use very hot water

True, boiling will kill bacteria. It will also destroy your appliance because heat distorts plastic. The reason your dentist took a mold of your mouth before having your device made was to ensure a precise fit. If you lose that fit, you lose the comfort and function your appliance should offer you. In the case of clear plastic aligners, which are fabricated to move your teeth little by little in a carefully controlled manner, you could even find your teeth moving out of alignment instead of into it. Since they are designed to be worn around the clock (except when eating), keeping them clean all the time is vital.

5) Don’t use bleach

Just as some are tempted to boil their appliances to freshen them up, others feel bleaching will be a good way to kill bacteria. But this, too, will break down the materials of which they are made. It will also blanch (whiten) the areas of your appliance that are colored to mimic real gum tissue. That type of artistry is exactly what you paid for. There’s no point in wearing a denture that has beautifully realistic teeth… and whitish gums. Your appliance can also absorb the strong odors of bleach, which is not a substance that belongs in your mouth.

6) Do put a towel down in the sink basin while cleaning your appliance

Dentures in particular have parts that can break if dropped in a porcelain sink, and that’s an expensive mishap. A towel in the sink can cushion the blow if this happens. If your hand is not quite as steady as it used to be, you can provide some insurance this way.

7) Do consider investing in an ultrasonic cleaner

Scientific studies have shown that the best way to clean an oral appliance is with an ultrasonic cleaner — a small, countertop device that costs about $45-$60 and is sold in many housewares stores. It cleans by emitting high frequency sound vibrations, which get into all the little crevices that a brush can’t fit into. We call these little crevices “lunch boxes.” You don’t want to find out why!

8) Do use appropriate oral hygiene products to freshen your breath

Keep in mind that cleaning your mouth and cleaning your appliance are two entirely different yet important tasks. If you are bothered by mouth odors, you need to consider not only the cleanliness of your appliance but also if your daily oral hygiene routine is up to par. Even if you don’t have any natural teeth left, you may still need to brush your tongue and/or gum ridges, and you may want to use a mouthwash for fresh breath. Natural teeth and implant-supported teeth need to be brushed and flossed daily.

9) Don’t leave your appliance out on your nightstand or anywhere else

Pets find oral appliances surprisingly appealing — especially those that have become a bit pungent from lack of cleaning. You wouldn’t want your young grandchild to get a hold of it either. So when it’s not in your mouth or being cleaned, the device belongs in its case, or soaking overnight in water or a cleaning solution… or safely stored according to your dentist’s instructions.

10) Don’t wear dentures 24 hours a day, which is like leaving your socks on all the time

Leave them out overnight so that the natural antibacterial elements and cleansing action of saliva can do its job. And don’t ignore signs of infection. If unpleasant mouth odors are a persistent problem, or you notice a white film on the appliance or on the palate (roof of the mouth) that contacts that part of your appliance, or your palate is red and looks inflamed, please consult with your dentist. These are signs of a possible oral infection, usually a consequence of prolonged denture use, which may require treatment. Again, keep in mind that your mouth and your device are two separate entities, both of which need separate and appropriate care.

Your oral appliance serves a very important function. It also represents a significant investment in your health, appearance and well-being. Protect that investment and get the most out of it by treating your oral appliance with care and using it as directed by your dentist.