The Impression

What are braces?

You've seen orthodontic braces on people's teeth a million times — but here's what they actually are.

Jeff Craven
Contributing Writer

Emma Louise, a YouTuber from Perth, Australia, is busting myths about braces for her more than 250,000 subscribers. Within the first minute of her video, “25 Things I Wish I Knew Before Getting Braces,” she hits at something every person who is about to get braces wonders about.

 “No guys or girls are going to care that you have braces,” she says, smiling to show her clear braces that match the color of her teeth. “Your braces look fine. It looks normal.”

 As someone who had braces in their teens—the very visible kind made of stainless steel—this was a constant fear. Fear of looking weird, of being made fun of by classmates. Since tooth development and teeth shifting appear to be genetic [1], my younger brother eventually got braces as well, and so I had someone close to share my teeth straightening adventure with.

 (My advice to anyone looking at getting braces? Find your people.)

 But during the two years I had braces, adults took every opportunity to remind me that my metal mouth was temporary, and the only way to have a nice smile.

 You might have heard the same thing as a kid. It’s just something you have to go through, right?

 I have to wonder, though. Is that still true? Technology is getting better all the time. We’ve got robots now that can tell you if you have skin cancer. Things must have changed a little in the decade since I’ve had my braces taken off.

 What types of braces are available now? And how are some of the options—like clear braces—different than other teeth straightening options like Invisalign and clear aligners?

 Let’s take a note from Emma Louise and bust some myths ourselves, starting with what braces are and what they aren’t.


 Okay, but what actually are braces?

 Braces are the device an orthodontist uses to fix teeth that are out of alignment. (An orthodontist is a dentist specifically trained in how to fix a person’s incorrectly positioned teeth, their bite, and gaps between their teeth.)

 Most orthodontic braces are made of the following parts: [2][3]

 Brackets. These are the little squares an orthodontist attaches to your teeth. They can come with handles that anchors the rest of the braces to your teeth, but can also have curved hooks and hooks with a small ball at the end to attach rubber bands, which we’ll get to in a moment.

 Bonding material. This is just the adhesive attached that attaches the bracket to your teeth. It’s also called a composite resin, it’s colorless, and very hard to remove—so don’t worry about it accidentally coming apart.

 Archwire. A wire that attaches to all your brackets. It is an important part of how braces work, creating force on your teeth to get them to move into place. Some types of braces do not need an archwire, which we’ll talk about below.

 Ligature. These are elastic ties or rubbed bands, also called o-rings, that wrap around each bracket, and hold the archwire in place. Typically replaced at every orthodontic visit because they lose their ability to hold things together over time.

 Rubber bands. Some people may need rubber bands attached to different brackets in their mouth to provide extra force on the teeth. These are where the curved and ball hooks on the bracket come in—they are anchor points to connect rubber bands and move those teeth.


 You mentioned that some braces don’t need an archwire. Are there different kinds of braces?

 There are. The braces you’re used to seeing people wear are known as “traditional braces,” but there are other options out there.


Self-ligating braces. Also called Damon braces, these are braces that do not need o-rings to hold the archwire in place. They actually come in two types, with either active and passive brackets. Active brackets use a spring clip to store energy to move the archwire, while passive brackets  have a slide mechanism that creates less force on the archwire [4]. Advocates of self-ligating braces say they are better than traditional braces, but studies have shown little difference between the two, other than maybe reducing the amount of time spent in an orthodontist’s office for check-ups [5].

 Lingual braces. Braces that attach to the back of your teeth, instead of the front. Dr. Craven Kurz developed these in the 1970s in response to his patients—namely, actors, television personalities, and even a Playboy model—desiring braces that don’t show metal from the front. If you ever have lingual braces, you can thank a Playboy model who made an orthodontist come up with a new way to straighten teeth [6].

 Invisible braces. Confusingly, lingual braces were actually referred to as “invisible braces” when they first came to market. Many people now use that phrase to refer to removable clear aligners provided by companies like Invisalign and Candid. If you’ve heard someone talk about invisible braces, they probably mean removable clear aligners like the ones provided by Invisalign or Candid. While braces and clear aligners move teeth in a similar way, they are not the same thing. (We’ve explored the differences in Invisalign vs. braces in another article at The Impression on teeth straightening options.)


Even among the same type of braces, there can be differences the materials.

 For example, traditional braces are usually made of stainless steel. But if you just want clear brackets like Emma Louise above, you can opt for clear braces, also known as ceramic braces. Another cool benefit of clear braces, besides being less noticeable: if you ever go to the doctor for an MRI, you don’t need to worry about your braces interfering with the machine’s signal [7].

 Traditional braces also come plated in gold as well if you want to look fabulous, or if you’re allergic to the nickel that used to make stainless steel.


 I’m an adult. Can I still get braces?

 Absolutely. As we’ve written about here before, braces for adults are totally a thing. Up to a quarter of adults in the U.S. has sought out orthodontic treatment, according to latest estimates by the American Association of Orthodontists. You’re never too old to straighten your teeth.

Let’s get things straight.

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