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How Does Invisalign Work: A Complete Guide to Invisible Braces

BY: Editors | Aug 22, 2017

For anyone who remembers what it was like to go through middle school with a mouth full of metal braces, Invisalign seems like a modern orthodontic miracle. But can the clear, virtually-invisible aligners really straighten teeth as well as people claim? And exactly how does Invisalign work, anyway? Follow along as we attempt to answer all your pressing Invisalign questions, so you can decide if the treatment is right for you or your child.

What is Invisalign?

Invisalign is a branded teeth-straightening system that uses clear, removable aligners instead of metal braces. The aligners are virtually imperceptible to the naked eye, which can be intriguing to people who are self-conscious about how metal braces may impact their appearance.

How does Invisalign work?

After a checkup and consultation to ensure you're a good candidate for Invisalign, the dentist or orthodontist will custom fit you for a series of clear, BPA-free plastic aligners that are designed to be worn 20–22 hours per day. The aligners are swapped out for a new set every 2 weeks, gradually shifting your teeth into their new straighter position over time.

Although aligners alone are sufficient in most cases, some treatment plans may also involve attaching raised "buttons" to the teeth to give them more traction—an alteration that makes them slightly more noticeable, at least close up.

How long does Invisalign take to straighten teeth?

The duration it takes for teeth to reach their final position is unique for everyone, but on average, Invisalign can straighten teeth in about 9 to 12 months. After this period, most patients will wear only a nighttime retainer to maintain their results.

What's the day-to-day maintenance like with Invisalign?

As stated above, your Invisalign retainers must be worn for 20–22 hours each day. They are to be removed only when eating, brushing your teeth, or drinking hot beverages such as tea or coffee. (Heat can cause the plastic to soften and lose its shape.) Because the aligners completely cover your teeth, it's important to brush you teeth after eating to avoid getting food trapped under the aligner.

In addition to holding yourself accountable for wearing your aligners all day, you'll also have to return to the dentist's office roughly every 4–6 weeks to check how things are progressing and receive the new sets of aligners you'll use until your next appointment.

How much does Invisalign cost?

The cost of Invisalign varies depending on how long you are in treatment, how difficult your case is, and who is treating you, though typically it's comparable to the cost of traditional braces. Some sources put the average price tag in the $5,000 range, though simple cases could cost significantly less. It's also possible your dental insurance will pay for all or part of your treatment.

If cost is a concern, search our site for deals on Invisalign near you.

What are Invisalign results like?

As you might expect, the expected outcome of Invisalign treatment depends largely on how crooked your smile was to begin with, as well as how diligent you are about wearing your aligners when you're supposed to.

In addition to shifting teeth into a more even position, Invisalign can help correct a number of issues such as gaps in the teeth, overbites and underbites, overcrowding, and crossbites. In the past, metal braces worked better for these more complex issues, however as Invisalign technology improves, so does its ability to deliver results that are comparable to metal braces.

Invisalign vs braces: which is better? Which is cheaper?

Invisalign and metal braces deliver comparable results and come at a comparable cost (the average cost for metal braces is about $5,000 for the entire treatment). There are some real differences in how you live with and care for them, though, and this difference might mean one is better for you than the other.

Learning to brush and floss with braces, for example, can be difficult. But while Invisalign aligners can be easily removed for the task, you have to be diligent and remember to put them back in afterward. If you're naturally forgetful, then the permanence of metal braces might be better suited to your lifestyle.

Here's a helpful breakdown and comparison of the timeline for each type of treatment:

  INVISALIGN METAL BRACES
PRE-TREATMENT At your first appointment, the orthodontist digitally maps your mouth and determines your eligibility for Invisalign. The first appointment for braces also involves digital mapping and takes about 45 minutes. You’ll learn exactly what your treatment will entail.
MONTH ONE You receive your first sets of aligners, which are swapped out every two weeks. Each set is made specifically for your teeth, based on the computer-assisted program of treatment. The appointment during which your braces are put on takes about 1–2 hours, and then you’re on your way to a straighter smile. It might feel strange at first, but you should be used to them by the end of the month.
MONTH THREE You’ve grown accustomed to wearing your aligners up to 24 hours a day, except when eating or brushing your teeth. You’ve mastered the delicate art of brushing and flossing with braces on, and you’ve had three appointments with your dentist so far—it’s time to start considering if they are going to get a holiday card.
MONTH SIX You may well be ending your treatment time soon, and if not, you’re certainly seeing some major changes in your mouth. After six adjustments, you are well on your way to Straightsville. Large gaps are closing and crooked teeth are improving their posture. You’ve likely still got a ways to go, however.
YEAR ONE You almost certainly don’t have much longer to go, though some patients require an 18-month treatment. Either way, you’ve definitely acquired an enviable collection of transparent molds of your teeth. Most braces treatments take about two years, so you’re probably only halfway done. Still, you’ve learned to work your braces into your overall style, either by choosing colors that suit you or opting for camouflaged ceramic brackets.
POST-TREATMENT Once the main part of the treatment is completed, you may have some fine adjustments to take care of using more specialized, precise trays. You’ll likely have to wear a retainer to fortify the changes made inside your mouth, and some of these may actually resemble Invisalign trays. Other than that, your total dental transformation is complete!


Want to learn more? Check out these related reads:

How Do Braces Work? How Do Braces Work?

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The Different Types of Braces The Different Types of Braces

Metal? Ceramic? Invisible? We compare each teeth-straightening method.