How to Become a Dental Hygienist

What is a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists are healthcare professionals focused on dental health. They provide preventative dental services to patients of all ages.

Hygienists conduct cleanings and examine the mouth for disease. For example, they can help diagnose gingivitis and oral cancer.

Dental hygienists promote good oral hygiene and preventative care. Most work in a dentist’s office and serve as the first line of care for patients.2

Dental hygienists are licensed according to state law. Most have a minimum of an associate’s degree, while others have a bachelor's or master's in the profession.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Primarily, dental hygienists clean and polish patients’ teeth. They use dental tools and ultrasonic devices to do this.

Specific treatments provided by a hygienist include:2

  • Cleaning teeth with special tools to remove tartar and plaque
  • Polishing teeth to remove surface stains
  • Applying oral irrigants to treat periodontal disease
  • Administering local anesthesia and numbing medications
  • Taking x-rays that help 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 mission is to:

  • Promote good dental care
  • Prevent serious oral diseases
  • Help patients feel empowered about their oral health

Dental hygienists also help patients through any anxiety they have regarding dental visits. 

Hygienists 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.

Offices vary in size. They could staff as few as one hygienist and one dentist (or many of each profession).

How Do You Become a Dental Hygienist? 

Most dental hygienists follow the same career path. They usually complete an associate’s level program.

The following establishments offer this dental program:

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

An accredited program usually takes three years to complete. This includes a significant amount of hands-on clinical time.

Students go on to 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 they are 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 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.

This type of hygienist is considered advanced. The work they perform is similar to a physician assistant or nurse practitioner — but in the dental community.

A hygienist 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 School Cost?

The fees of dental hygienist training depend on the degree and school you choose.

The ADHA suggests that tuition for an associate program in dental hygiene costs approximately $22,690. Tuition for a bachelor's costs around $36,380.7

Students may find lower fees at community colleges instead of four-year colleges and universities.

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 median salary for dental hygienists in 2018 was just under $75,000 or about $36 an hour.2

The best-paid dental hygienists earn around $89,000 per year. The lowest-paid earned about $62,000.

Salaries vary based on:

  • Location
  • Qualifications
  • Size of the dental clinic

How Do You Find a Job as a Dental Hygienist?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a healthy job outlook for hygienists. Opportunities should grow about 6 percent faster over the next ten years or so.1

There are also opportunities to advance in the career for those who pursue higher education. Dental hygienists have a great deal of flexibility. It’s common for hygienists to work part-time.

Dental hygienists must have a strong set of qualifications that sets them apart from other job candidates.

Some important skills a dental hygienist should have include:

  • Dentistry expertise
  • Patience
  • Strong communication and interpersonal skills
  • Attention to detail,
  • The ability to use your hands skillfully

Candidates should also have relevant work experience, including:

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

Working as a dental hygienist is a safe career choice.

Repeated exposure to dental x-rays is one of the primary health risks. 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?

Yes. In many ways, dental hygienists have a head-start on being a dentist.

This is due to their:

  • Education
  • Training
  • 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 either 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’s National Board Dental Examination. 

In some cases, someone pursuing a DDS or DMD degree may work as a hygienist during school. These programs usually take about six years to complete. This is less time than the eight years it takes to earn a bachelor’s and then a doctorate. 

This type of dental hygiene program is attractive if you want to obtain a doctorate as efficiently as possible.

Once licensed, a dentist has the option of working in general dentistry or pursuing a specialization. For example:

  • 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. 

Resources

(1) “Dental Hygienists: Occupational Outlook Handbook: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Bls.Gov, 13 Apr. 2018

(2) “How Much Can a Dental Hygienist Expect to Get Paid?” Usnews.Com, 2017

(3) “Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).” Ada.Org, 2020

(4) “Dental Hygienists : Occupational Outlook Handbook : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Bls.Gov, 27 Aug. 2019

(5) 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 vol. 16,2 (2018): e1-e9.

(6) Ohrn, Kerstin. “The role of dental hygienists in oral health prevention.” Oral health & preventive dentistry vol. 2 Suppl 1 (2004): 277-81.

(7) Dental hygiene education, American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), October 2014

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