What is Invisalign, Clear Aligners, or Invisible Braces?

A Conversation with Orthodontist Dr. Rebecca Chen

Orthodontists call them clear aligners.  Consumers call them “Invisalign” (a brand name that’s become a generic term, like Kleenex, even though several companies make clear aligners).  Aligners are one of many technological advancements that have made orthodontic treatment less conspicuous, and one of many appliances orthodontists use to move teeth and align jaws to create a healthy, beautiful smile.  The goal is a healthy “bite” – top and bottom teeth that fit together properly.

How does Invisalign work?  How long does the treatment take?

Like traditional braces, aligners are designed to move teeth a little at a time.  Before treatment begins, the orthodontist will examine the patient, take diagnostic records including x-rays, photographs, and impressions or digital scans of the teeth.  From that information, the orthodontist can arrive at a diagnosis, and then use the aligner software to design your smile and plan your treatment and start guiding your teeth into healthy positions.   

Moving teeth is a complex biological process and needs start-to-finish supervision by an orthodontist.  Most people see their orthodontist for a check-up about every six-to-ten weeks.  With the end goal in mind, a series of plastic aligners are created using the patient’s initial impressions or digital scans as the starting point.  Wearing them puts gentle pressure on the teeth, ever-so-slightly repositioning them.  Each set of aligners is worn for a week or two before going to the next set.  Over time, teeth reach their ideal places, according to the orthodontist’s plan.  The total number of aligners will vary by the needs of each patient.  As with traditional braces, patients will need to wear retainers after their teeth reach their new positions.

Pros and Cons of Invisalign

Besides being next-to-invisible, many patients appreciate that aligners are removable.  Take them out to eat, to brush and floss, or for short periods for work or social situations. With clear aligners, tooth-colored attachments will be placed on the teeth to help the aligners move the teeth.  These attachments are removed once treatment is complete.  Care needs to be taken regarding drinks when aligners are in, and anything but tap water should be avoided.  Liquid can seep into the aligners, and it stays there, in contact with the teeth, until aligners are removed.  This can lead to staining of the aligner and the teeth, and if the liquid contains sugar and/or acid, as found in regular and diet soda pop, cavities can develop.  So avoid soda pop, along with flavored water, fruit drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks.  Even some bottled water can be acidic!  If you drink something sugary or acidic (a pH below 7.0), be sure to brush thoroughly before putting your aligners back in.  And use fluoride toothpaste – it strengthens teeth.  Because aligners are removable, patients might be tempted to remove them if they experience some discomfort.  Aligners can’t work unless they are in the mouth and they can be lost or misplaced when out of the mouth.

Can I do it myself?  Direct-to-Customer Aligners and DIY Orthodontics

Online orthodontic companies make their treatment sound very easy.  Take a selfie and maybe an impression of your teeth or get your teeth scanned.  Next, you receive aligners in the mail and after a few months – straight teeth!  Right?  What else is there to think about?  Before proceeding with a direct-to-consumer orthodontic company, the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) warns of a number of risk factors to consider.  For example, many direct-to-consumer orthodontic companies do not involve in-person evaluation and supervision of your treatment by an orthodontist.  An in-person evaluation and supervision with an orthodontist throughout your treatment is imperative.  Orthodontic treatment involves the movement of biological material, which if not done properly under the supervision of an orthodontist may lead to irreversible and expensive damages such as tooth and gum loss, bone loss, nerve damage, jaw joint dysfunction (TMD), and other complications.  Consider this question: What other transforming medical treatment would you undergo without an in-person, evaluation and supervision from a medical professional?  Your doctor should be your gatekeeper in improving and safeguarding your oral health not a business that sells you products. 

Should I get Invisalign?  Who should I get it from?  Find an Orthodontist

Orthodontist is a specialist in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of orthodontic problems.  While there is some orthodontic instructions in dental school, it is minimal.  It is in the post-dental school orthodontic program that orthodontists receive many years of intense training in proper, safe tooth movement and the guidance of dental, jaw and facial development (dentofacial orthopedics).  These extra years of school make the orthodontist the specialist in moving teeth and aligning jaws and this is the only focus of their practice.  While general dentists and pediatric dentists offer orthodontic treatments, orthodontists are uniquely qualified, by virtue of extra years of education and scope of practice, as experts who have the skills and experience to give you a healthy and beautiful smile.

Information Source: American Association of Orthodontics