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Dental hygienists are healthcare professionals focused on dental hygiene and oral care. Most work in dental offices and act as the first line of care for patients of all ages.
When you visit the dentist for a regular check-up, you’ll see your dental hygienist first. A hygienist will perform a professional cleaning, assess your mouth for decay and disease, and report any findings to the dentist.
Dental hygienists are licensed according to state law. They must attend an accredited dental hygiene program to apply for licensure. Most have a minimum of an associate’s degree, while others have a bachelor's or master's degree in dental hygiene.
The fees for dental hygienist training depend on the degree and school you choose.
The American Dental Education suggests that tuition for an associate program in dental hygiene costs approximately $22,692. Tuition for a bachelor's degree costs around $36,382.5
Students may find lower fees at community colleges instead of four-year colleges and universities.
Dental hygienists spend most of their time cleaning and polishing patients’ teeth using dental equipment. They also perform a preliminary oral exam to check for oral health issues like gingivitis and oral cancer.
The major services provided by a dental hygienist include:
Dental hygienists are experts at cleaning and polishing teeth. They use special tools, including ultrasonic devices, to remove tartar, plaque, and stains or discoloration.
During a routine dental cleaning, they will floss and brush your teeth at a level you can’t achieve at home. They might also apply an oral irrigant to treat or prevent gum disease.
Dental hygienists are at the forefront of preventive oral health care. They are trained to perform several preventative services, including:
A licensed dental hygienist will report their assessments to their supervising dentist to inform their diagnosis and treatment recommendations.
A major part of dental hygiene practice is instructing patients on oral care, especially brushing and flossing.
Dental hygienists will devote part of an appointment to educating patients on good oral hygiene. They’ll teach you how to use any new dental health products your dentist recommends. They can also explain how diet and lifestyle affect oral health.
Most dental hygienists work in a dental office supervised by a dentist. They spend more time with patients than the dentist and communicate their findings to inform patient management.
They also assist dentists during procedures, administering local anesthesia and numbing medications.
Dental hygienists typically work full-time or part-time in a dental office. Part-time work is relatively common for hygienists.
Hygienists often work in a general dentistry office. They can also work in a specialist office, such as a pediatric or periodontal practice. Most dental offices have multiple dental hygienists, depending on the size and number of dentists who work there.
Besides private dental offices, dental hygienists can be found in:
Some dental hygienists may also teach in dental hygiene programs.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts dental hygiene jobs should grow about 9 percent over the next 10 years, faster than average.1
A career in dental hygiene can offer financial stability and a great deal of flexibility. It’s common for hygienists to work part-time. There are also opportunities to advance in their career for those who pursue higher education.
Dental hygienists must have certain qualities and a strong set of qualifications that sets them apart from other job candidates.
Some important qualities and skills a dental hygienist should have include:
Candidates should also have relevant work experience, including:
Working as a dental hygienist is a safe career choice. Repeated exposure to dental X-rays is one of the primary health risks.6 However, protective measures are in place to significantly reduce this risk.
Hygienists are regularly exposed to infectious diseases. They must take appropriate precautions and use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for protection.
A dental hygienist can become a dentist if they pursue further education. Dental hygienists have a head-start on becoming dentists due to their education, training, and experience.
Transitioning from a registered dental hygienist to a dentist starts with obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Once their four-year degree is complete, they can apply to enter into a program to pursue a:
Dentists also need to be licensed to practice in their state. This requires sitting for the American Dental Association National Board Dental Examination.
Once licensed, a dentist has the option of working in general dentistry or pursuing a specialization like:
This is a significant difference between being a hygienist and being a dentist. Both focus on oral health, but hygienists do not specialize in any particular type of treatment and can’t perform complex procedures.
To become a registered dental hygienist, you’ll need to complete a degree in dental hygiene from an accredited program. The most common degree in dental hygiene is an associate degree, but you can also receive your bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene.
You’ll need to receive your degree from an accredited dental hygienist program to be eligible for licensure. The following establishments offer dental hygiene programs:
An accredited dental hygiene program usually takes three years to complete. Students must complete general education courses and all dental hygienist requirements for education. This includes a significant amount of hands-on clinical time.
Prospective dental hygienists must obtain their dental hygienist license. Licensure is required to work as a hygienist, according to state laws.
Obtaining the license includes passing the NBDHE clinical examination. It also involves paying any fees associated with testing and licensing.
Some hygienists work in the field and continue at that same dental practice once licensed.
Some hygienists go on to obtain their bachelor’s or master’s degree to further their careers. This allows hygienists to work in public or school health programs, conduct research, or pursue other career paths.
Many states now allow dental hygienists to train and become expanded-function hygienists. This gives them more responsibilities and enables them to perform more extensive treatments.
Dental hygienists must obtain continuing education credits, even if they decide not to pursue further education. This ensures they are up-to-date with developments and best practices in the industry.
The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) sets standards for continuing education and other accreditation issues.
CODA serves the public and dental profession by:
The median salary for dental hygienists in 2021 was $77,810 yearly or $37.41 an hour.1 A dental hygienist’s salary depends on location, qualification, and workplace setting.
The best-paid dental hygienists earn around $100,200 per year. The lowest-paid earned about $60,100.
Dental hygienists are dental healthcare professionals who specialize in cleaning teeth, preventive care, and patient education. They typically work in a dental office but can also be found in schools, public health clinics, and long-term care facilities.
Becoming a dental hygienist involves pursuing a dental hygiene degree, usually an associate’s or a bachelor’s. You’ll also need to pass a clinical exam to receive licensure, which is given at the state level.
Dental hygiene is a stable career that is expected to grow over the next decade. It also offers flexibility and the potential for growth.
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