Straighten up: Do at-home aligner braces actually work?

clear aligners on the teeth
Invisible braces which effectively straighten your teeth? It sounds too good to be true. Photo credit: Getty.

Throughout my teenage years, my teeth were always a hang-up. I lost my baby teeth so late in the game - including a couple at university-  that I missed the period where all of my friends were sporting Christmas-themed or cute pink sparkly braces.

By the time I was eligible, I was 20 and it didn't seem quite so chic.

Then the clear aligner movement began, and those of us in our adult years longing for straight smiles had light at the end of the tunnel. Aligners that fitted to your teeth without a glimpse of metal wire or bright pink in sight? Innovation!

A clear teeth aligner is a removable plastic tray that's almost completely invisible when worn. It's custom-tailored and 3D printed to fit your teeth. It almost seems too good to be true, and has saved the smiles of many celebrities. 

clear aligners
The clear aligners are 3d printed to fit your mouth, and are almost invisible when inserted. Photo credit: Getty.

Cost is the big issue. Invisalign, the original and probably most well-known of the aligners, can clock in at around a whopping $8500-$10,500 - for a good reason. They are reputable and known to work. But if, like me, you're a millennial struggling to pay rent in Auckland, over $10,000 doesn't seem like something you can part with for a straighter grin. 

But the aligner scene has some newcomers which are disrupting the status quo.

Smile Direct Club, a brand you've probably seen on your social media feed with its distinctive purple branding, is one of those. It launched in New Zealand last year in a move aiming to make straight teeth less of a luxury to the average Kiwi - coming in around a much less eye-watering $3250 (if you pay upfront). 

At Smile Direct you can choose between aligners you wear all day and those you just don at night - which obviously leads to longer treatment time. 

The controversy 

But with cutting costs comes natural worries around quality control. If you've looked into DIY aligner companies, you may have seen some of the negative feedback circulating online from those feeling unsatisfied with their service and results, and orthodontists unhappy with people taking health into their own hands. 

One of those professionals, Birmingham dentist Dr Saaqib Ali, told the Daily Mail he's "increasingly seeing patients reporting problems with loose teeth, bleeding gums and difficulty getting advice from a clinician after undergoing DIY braces treatment". 

"I rejected a patient for braces two years ago, because he had ongoing gum disease and bone loss," he revealed. 

"He was then treated by an online aligner company - I was amazed. When he came back to see me afterwards, he had bleeding gums and had lost further bone from around his teeth."

But SDC's chief clinical officer Dr Jeffrey Sulitzer told Newshub as long as the recipient gets the recommended regular dental care throughout the treatment, they should have no more issues than with regular braces.

"Through regular virtual check-ins and capabilities like video chat, our dentists and orthodontists, whom are registered with the Dental Council, are able to offer the same level of care through teledentistry as they do with their patients in their traditional bricks and mortar practices," he said.

"Plus, our dental care team is available 24/7 to answer any questions along the way."

Dr Sulitzer says it's thanks to modern technology the company is able to offer such an affordable price for the treatment. 

"We utilise state-of-the-art teledentistry technology solutions which eliminate all the waste present in the traditional bricks and mortar setting. SmileDirectClub is the largest 3D printer in the United States, and we manufacture our clear aligners using BPA-free plastic in our own FDA-registered manufacturing facilities." 

My experience 

Upon its arrival in New Zealand, I was offered an opportunity to try the at-home aligner system. 

It's been six months of wearing my aligners every day - although I definitely haven't been as strict as required. At times I would be at my desk or sitting on the couch at home and suddenly realise I hadn't been wearing them for hours and quickly rush to get them in. A major benefit of these over Invisalign is there aren't attachments for the aligners to click onto - instead they pop onto the shape of your teeth. 

Was there pain? A little - nothing I couldn't handle but untwisting years of twisted teeth was never going to be a walk in the park. A delightful surprise in the shape of an impacted wisdom tooth meant I had to take a break from the aligner system altogether, and restart.

But now I'm on my last set of aligners, and to say I've been blown away is a bit of an understatement. My teeth have straightened into a smile that isn't perfect, but as good as I possibly could have hoped for - I've been shocked by my new smile. It wasn't until around month four that I really started seeing results, so hang in there if you're on the same journey. 

Now I just have my retainer to wear, in an effort to stop my teeth moving back into position. But it's been a mostly painless, basically invisible experience - the worst part was the slight lisp I developed, which isn't ideal when your name is Sarah. 

It's a small price to pay for being able to beam.