What is a Dental Retractor?

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  • Written By: Kay Paddock
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 08 February 2019
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A retractor is any piece of examination or surgical equipment that is used to move organs or tissue aside. A dental retractor is used by dentists and oral surgeons to move the cheeks, lips, and tongue out of the way so the mouth and teeth are fully exposed. There are a few different types of retractors that dental professionals use to hold specific parts of the mouth aside. They can choose between handheld or hands-free models as well. They can also opt for disposable retractors or those made from steel and plastic that can be sterilized and used again.

There are several different kinds of dental retractors. For example, a dental retractor can be designed to primarily hold the lips back from the front teeth. A different kind can pull the sides of the mouth and cheeks aside. When a retractor is used as surgical equipment during oral surgery, it will also sometimes serve as a tongue retractor; some styles have a small bar or shield that holds the tongue down. This keeps the patient's tongue from getting in the dentist's way and can help prevent accidental injury to the tongue.


Lip retractors are most often used when the front teeth need to be exposed for examination or procedures such as bleaching. Cheek retractors, which typically hold the cheeks and lips back, are often used as orthodontic equipment to reveal all the teeth at once. They can also be used to make it easier for dentists to work on back teeth. The most convenient type of retracting medical instrument is one that can be hooked over the lips and sides of the mouth. These are often held in place by gentle outward pressure from springs or flexible plastic. Handheld models are also an option.

A handheld dental retractor must be held by a dental assistant. These retractors are typically one long piece, unlike the hands-free models that have separate pieces to place inside the lips and cheeks. They resemble small models of larger retractors that are often used for surgery on other parts of the body. A Deaver retractor or a Richardson retractor, for instance, is a long piece of metal or plastic that is held at one end and hooked at the other. Small retractors made like this can be used by the assistant to hook inside the lip or cheek to pull it back, or press down on the tongue.

A hands-free dental retractor is often best for procedures that require more time and access to the patient's teeth. Many dentists use these, but also have an assistant use a handheld dental retractor when the lip or cheek only needs to be pulled out of the way briefly. Retractors made from metal and some types of plastic can be reused after proper sterilization in an autoclave. They can also be made from plastic and designed to be disposable after one use.


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