Updated on February 7, 2024
7 min read

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

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What is a Dental Hygienist?

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.

How Much Does Dental Hygiene School Cost?

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.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

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 Cleanings

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.

Preventive Care

Dental hygienists are at the forefront of preventive oral health care. They are trained to perform several preventative services, including:

  • Taking X-rays of your mouth to help identify tooth and jaw problems
  • Applying sealants and fluoride treatment
  • Performing oral exams to screen for oral health issues
  • Tracking patient care and treatment plans

A licensed dental hygienist will report their assessments to their supervising dentist to inform their diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Patient Education

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.

Assisting the Dentist

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.

Where Do Dental Hygienists Work?

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:

  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Public health clinics
  • Long-term care facilities

Some dental hygienists may also teach in dental hygiene programs.

Is Becoming a Dental Hygienist a Good Idea?

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.

What Qualities Do You Need to Become a Dental Hygienist?

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:

  • Compassion
  • Patience
  • Strong communication and interpersonal skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Hand-eye coordination

Candidates should also have relevant work experience, including:

  • On-the-job training
  • Supervised clinical experience
  • Entry-level job experience

What are the Risks of Becoming a Dental Hygienist?

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.

Can a Dental Hygienist Become a Dentist?

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:

  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)

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.

How Do You Become a Dental Hygienist? 

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.

Accredited Dental Hygiene Programs

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:

  • Technical colleges
  • Community colleges
  • Dental schools
  • Four-year universities

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.

Dental Hygiene Licensure

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.

Advanced Dental Hygiene Practice

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:

  • Developing and implementing standards in the industry
  • Promoting and monitoring dental education programs
  • Offering resources for patients and professionals in dentistry

How Much Does a Dental Hygienist Make? 

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.

Summary

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.

Last updated on February 7, 2024
6 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 7, 2024
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Dental Hygienists.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, 2023.
  2. Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).” American Dental Association, 2023.
  3. Farmer, J. et al. “Exploring the role of the dental hygienist in reducing oral health disparities in Canada: A qualitative study.” International Journal of Dental Hygiene, National Library of Medicine, 2018.
  4. Ohrn, K. “The role of dental hygienists in oral health prevention.” Oral Health & Preventive Dentistry, National Library of Medicine, 2004.
  5. Program Costs.” American Dental Education Association, 2023.
  6. Ayatollahi, J. et al. “Occupational hazards to dental staff.” Dental Research Journal, National Library of Medicine, 2012.
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