Although the concept of using some type of corrective device to alter the alignment of teeth has been around since ancient Egypt, the type of metal braces we all know—with wires and rubber bands—did not surface in the US until the 1970s. This was due to the advent of several innovations including stainless steel and special adhesives that can stay attached to teeth for long periods of time. Invisible braces didn’t arrive on the scene until 1997, when Invisalign was invented at Stanford University by Zia Chishti and Kelsey Wirth.
There are significant differences between the two systems, but the overwhelming differentiator for users is appearance. Traditional braces consist of stainless steel or titanium brackets that are glued directly to the teeth and threaded through with metal wires, which, depending on the type, are sometimes held in place with elastic bands. As such, they are not at all inconspicuous. Invisible braces consist of a series of virtually undetectable, see-through medical-grade plastic trays that are popped in the mouth like a retainer. Invisible braces must not be confused with clear braces, which are the same as traditional metal braces only made of different materials.
Invisible Braces vs. Clear Braces
Clear braces arose as a cosmetic alternative to metal braces and were first introduced in 1987. Prior to invisible braces, clear braces offered the highest degree of inconspicuousness on the market. The brackets themselves are made of a material called translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA), which was originally developed by NASA scientists in national defense research. There are also brackets made of porcelain, which blend in with the color of the teeth, but are also more susceptible to staining if the patient doesn't brush their teeth after every meal.
Aside from the non-metal brackets, the mechanism of clear braces is essentially identical to metal braces. There are still the same metal wires and elastic bands. So, while there’s no question clear braces are a lot more discreet than metal braces, neither offered the level of invisibility provided by Invisalign when it hit the market in 1997.
Invisible Braces vs. Traditional Braces in General
While it’s obvious the main difference between old-style braces (clear or metal) and invisible braces is detectability, it isn’t the only thing to consider. There are pros and cons to both.
Removability – Invisible braces can and must be removed when eating or drinking anything other than water. While this is an advantage over metal braces, considering their propensity to trap food particles, it is also a drawback because the wearer of invisible braces must have the self-discipline to keep the alignment trays in 22+ hours a day.
Timeframe – By and large, invisible braces have a shorter treatment time than traditional braces. Most invisible braces will require anywhere from 6-18 months. Metal or ceramic braces usually require a minimum of 2 years.
Cost – The price of traditional braces usually tops out at around $5,000. While many invisible braces treatments are comparable, more extensive treatments requiring longer times can start costing significantly more than metal braces... up to $8,000 if you require the full 18-month span.
Cleaning – Traditional braces don’t require much in the way of extra cleaning. You can generally take care of them while brushing your teeth as you customarily do. A water pick can also be helpful, though it is not required. Invisible braces must be taken out and cleaned separately from your regular tooth brushing routine.
Irritation – Metal or ceramic braces can rub against the cheeks and inner lips. What’s more, they can even injure the inner mouth of someone engaging in strenuous activities like contact sports.
Invisible Braces Can’t Treat all Orthodontic Issues – Invisible braces are great at treating some of the more common alignment problems people have. This includes crooked or crowded teeth, overbites, and gapped teeth. They cannot do it all, though. There are many more complex issues that can only be treated by traditional metal or ceramic braces. These include back teeth issues, rotating premolars and canine teeth, teeth that must be moved vertically, malocclusions (teeth improperly places with mouth closed), and crossbites (when a tooth is closer to the tongue or cheek than the upper or lower tooth opposite it).
The invisible option is ideal for those with standard alignment issues who don't want to broadcast the fact they are wearing braces to the world. They typically can be worn for less time than traditional braces, but can be on the more expensive side. Invisible braces also require self-discipline, as they are removable. If you can’t routinely commit to the 22+ hours a day, then there’s no point in getting them. Finally, those with certain, more serious orthodontic issues cannot use invisible braces and must opt for either the metal or ceramic routes.
If you think you’re a good candidate for invisible braces, take a look at our top ten providers.