How to Become a Dental Hygienist

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What is a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists are healthcare professionals focused exclusively on dental health. They provide preventative dental services and examinations for dental patients.

Hygienists conduct cleanings and examine patients for diseases, including gingivitis and oral cancer. They promote good oral hygiene and preventative care.

dental hygenist

Most work in a dentist’s office and serve as the first line of care for patients. Dental hygienists are licensed according to state law, and most have a minimum of an associate’s degree level of education.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Primarily, dental hygienists clean and polish patient’s teeth with dental tools and ultrasonic devices. Specific treatments provided by a hygienist include:

  • Cleaning teeth with special tools to remove tartar and plaque
  • Polishing teeth to remove surface stains
  • Applying oral irrigants and medications for patients with periodontal disease
  • Administer local anesthesia to avoid discomfort
  • Taking x-rays that help to identify tooth and jaw problems
  • Applying sealants and fluoride treatment
  • Tracking patient care and treatment plans
  • Instructing patients on oral care, especially brushing and flossing
  • Operating complex machinery, including dental instruments and x-ray machines
  • Educating patients on dental care
  • Providing information about how diet and lifestyle affect dental health

A dental hygienist’s primary goal is to help patients prevent dental problems and identify issues as early as possible if they do arise. Their mission is to promote good dental care, prevent serious oral diseases, and help patients feel empowered about their oral health.

In addition to oral care instruction, dental hygienists also help patients through any anxiety they have regarding their dental visits. 

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Hygienists work full-time or part-time in a dental office. Part-time work is relatively common for hygienists. Offices vary in size and could staff as few as one hygienist and one dentist or many of each profession. Hygienists will often work in a general dental office or a specialist office such as a pediatric or periodontal practice.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist 

Most dental hygienists follow the same career path. For example:

They complete an associate’s level program. Technical colleges, community colleges, dental schools, and four-year universities offer this dental program. An accredited program usually takes three years to complete, including a significant amount of hands-on clinical time.

They obtain their dental hygienist license. Licensure is required to work as a hygienist according to state laws. Obtaining their license includes passing the NBDHE clinical examination and paying any fees associated with testing and licensing. Some hygienists work in the field and continue at that same dental practice once they are licensed.

Some hygienists go on to obtain their bachelor’s or master’s degree to further their career. This allows hygienists to work in public health programs, conduct research, or pursue other career paths.

Many states now allow a dental hygienist to train and become expanded function hygienists, which give them more responsibilities and allow them to perform more extensive treatments. This type of hygienist is considered advanced in training, similarly to a physician assistant or nurse practitioner in the dental community. Even if a hygienist does not decide to pursue further education to advance their career, they must obtain continuing education credits. 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 developing and implementing standards promoting and monitoring dental education programs’ continuous quality and improvement. CODA also offers resources for patients and professionals in dentistry.

Can a Dental Hygienist Become a Dentist?

Yes. In many ways, dental hygienists have a head-start on being a dentist because of their education, training, and experience. 

Transitioning from hygienist to dentist requires a bachelor’s degree. Once their four-year degree is complete, they enter into a program to pursue a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD).

Dentists also need to be licensed to practice in their state. This requires sitting for the American Dental Association’s National Board Dental Examination. 

There are some instances in which someone pursuing their DDS or DMD qualifications work as hygienists while they study. These programs usually take about six years to complete, which is less time than the eight years it takes to earn a bachelor’s and then a doctorate. 

You might consider this type of dental hygiene program if you enter the field of dentistry knowing you want to obtain a doctorate, but you want to do so as efficiently as possible.

Once licensed, a dentist has the option of working in general dentistry or pursuing a specialization, such as:

  • Pediatrics
  • Endodontics
  • Periodontics
  • Orthodontics
  • Prosthodontics
  • Oral & maxillofacial

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. 

How Much Does a Dental Hygienist Make? 

The field of dentistry is very lucrative for dental hygienists and dentists. Jobs are relatively easy to find, and work is steady.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a healthy job outlook for hygienists will grow about 6 percent faster than the average over the next ten years or so. There are also opportunities to advance in the career for those who pursue higher education. Dental hygienists have a great deal of flexibility, and it’s common for hygienists to work part-time.

According to US News and World Report, the median salary for dental hygienists in 2018 was just under $75,000 or about $36 an hour. The best-paid dental hygienists earn around $89,000 per year. The lowest-paid earned about $62,000. Salaries vary based on geographic region and qualifications of the specific hygienist, and the size of the dental clinic.

Working as a dental hygienist is a safe career choice. Repeated exposure to dental x-rays is one of the primary health risks. But protective measures are in place to significantly reduce this risk. Hygienists are regularly exposed to infectious diseases and must take appropriate precautions and use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for protection.

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Resources

“Dental Hygienists: Occupational Outlook Handbook: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Bls.Gov, 13 Apr. 2018, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm.

“How Much Can a Dental Hygienist Expect to Get Paid?” Usnews.Com, 2017, https://www.money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/dental-hygienist/salary.

“Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).” Ada.Org, 2020, www.ada.org/en/coda. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

“Dental Hygienists : Occupational Outlook Handbook : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Bls.Gov, 27 Aug. 2019, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/mobile/dental-hygienists.htm.

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Updated on: November 3, 2020
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