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Key Takeaways

  • Dentists and orthodontists are licensed practitioners who provide oral care services.
  • Both dentists and orthodontists must complete dental school and receive extensive training.
  • Orthodontists are dentists who specialize in the field of orthodontics.
  • Visit the dentist for standard dental issues like tooth decay, tooth pain, and tooth repair.
  • Orthodontists perform special treatments for cases such as jaw alignment, tooth crowding, and palate expansion.

What’s the Difference Between Dentists and Orthodontists?

When you think about getting your oral health checked, dentists and orthodontists likely come to mind. Because they sound extremely similar, some people think they're part of the same profession.

While both dentists and orthodontists are in the same field of oral health care, their responsibilities differ. They both keep your mouth healthy, but they do so in different ways.

Similarities 

As practitioners of oral care, both dentists and orthodontists: 

  • Help you achieve your best smile
  • Keep your mouth clean and healthy
  • Perform mouth and teeth maintenance

Dentists and orthodontists partake in training and education to prepare them to treat:

  • Oral diseases
  • Dental injuries
  • Other dental issues

The key component to remember is that all orthodontists are dentists, but not all dentists are orthodontists. 

Orthodontists can have their own dental office and perform the same procedures as a general dentist. Their specialization, however, sets them apart. In fact, there are nine other types of dentists.

Differences

Both dentists and orthodontists are trained in various oral health procedures and treatments. Distinctively, there are reasons you go to the dentist over the orthodontist and vice versa. 

Dentists can help with:

  • Overall oral care
  • Tooth decay
  • Gum disease
  • Tooth extraction
  • Crowns
  • Root canals
  • Dental implants

Orthodontists, on the other hand, can help with:

  • Correcting overbites and underbites
  • Straightening teeth
  • Tooth crowding
  • Teeth alignment

It’s easiest to distinguish one from the other by the kind of treatment services they offer. To further understand what sets them apart, it's important to know other aspects of each profession. 

What is a Dentist? 

Dentists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of oral diseases and disorders. They also teach their patients about good oral hygiene and other preventive measures. 

Like all doctors, dentists undergo necessary, extensive education and training before practicing in a professional setting. 

Education, Training, & Qualifications

To become a dentist, you must go to college for a pre-dentistry, pre-medical, or other science-related degree before proceeding to a school for dentistry. 

After earning a 4-year bachelor's degree, a person takes a Dental Admissions Test (DAT). This will determine whether or not they are qualified to enter dental school

Dental school typically lasts 4 years. People who graduate dental school earn either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree.

In dental school, students engage in different levels of training each year:

  • First 2 years — dedicated to classroom study and laboratory projects.
  • Final 2 years — clinical experience under the supervision of practicing dentists. Classes may involve operative dentistry, gross anatomy, oral medicine, and histology.

To become certified practitioners, dentists must pass the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE) after graduating from dental school.

How to Become a Certified Dentist

To become a dentist, you must:

  • Obtain a 4-year bachelor's degree, usually in a science-related field
  • Take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT)
  • Apply to and enroll in dental school
  • Complete classroom study and clinical experience
  • Pass licensing exams

After completing a dental degree from an accredited school, passing the written and clinical portions of the National Board Dental Examination will secure dental licensure. You can become licensed in both general and specialized dentistry.

Services

Dentists provide the following services:

  • Conduct and interpret dental X-rays
  • Fill cavities
  • Extract teeth
  • Repair cracked teeth
  • Promote oral health and oral hygiene
  • Fill and bond teeth
  • Treat gum disease, such as gingivitis
  • Prescribe treatment, including prescription drugs, for oral health issues
  • Whiten teeth
  • Place crowns or veneers
  • Oversee the development of children’s teeth
  • Perform oral surgery

What is an Orthodontist? 

An orthodontist is a dental specialist that fixes tooth alignment. They diagnose a variety of dental issues, such as: 

Unlike a general dentist, orthodontists can provide orthodontic treatments such as:

  • Fixed and removable braces
  • Headgear
  • Functional appliances

Both dentists and orthodontists can provide clear aligner treatment. Orthodontists tend to have more experience, but with good continuing education, dentists can treat aligner cases too.

Education & Training

Orthodontists usually major in pre-dental or pre-medical studies in college before enrolling in dental school. They also typically go through a similar process to become a dentist.

As dental specialists, orthodontists are required to undergo additional specialty education. 

Depending on the curriculum, you must complete orthodontic residency for at least 2 to 3 years after graduating from dental school. 

Aspiring orthodontists must master many procedures and typical orthodontic practices during this education. This is because they are pursuing a dental specialty.

Orthodontics are trained in:

  • Application of corrective treatment
  • Understanding facial surgery
  • Understanding how teeth move

Qualifications

To qualify as an orthodontist, you must complete the following programs:

  • High school
  • Undergraduate university
  • Dental school
  • Orthodontics specialty education (2 to 3 years)

After completing the orthodontic program, you will receive a master's degree or an orthodontics certificate. 

After residency, you must also pass the American Board of Orthodontics (AOB) exam. Once you pass, you’ll earn a certificate and the ability to perform orthodontic services. 

Services

Orthodontist services include:

  • Supervision of facial growth (jawline and bite) in children
  • Diagnosis and treatment of misaligned teeth and jaws (malocclusion)
  • Creating treatment plans that include braces, aligners, and retainers
  • Performing teeth-straightening surgery
  • Installing dental appliances, such as braces, palatal expanders, or orthodontic headgear

Who Should You See? 

Knowing how dentists and orthodontists differ is essential to get the right treatment and care for your needs. Think of a dentist as a general practitioner and an orthodontist as a specialist.

When Should You See A Dentist?

A dentist can address most standard dental issues. Visit your dentist if you need treatment or services for:

  • Tooth pain
  • Tooth decay
  • Tooth repair
  • Tooth extraction
  • Gum disease
  • Oral inflammation
  • Oral infections

When Should You See An Orthodontist?

An orthodontist provides treatments more related to the structure of your mouth and teeth. 

Visit your orthodontist for more special cases, such as: 

  • Jaw malocclusion
  • Tooth crowding
  • Palate expansion
  • Teeth straightening
Last updated on March 31, 2022
6 Sources Cited
Last updated on March 31, 2022
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. NHS. "Orthodontic Treatments." National Health Service.
  2. ADA. "Career Sources." Mouth Healthy.
  3. "What Does An Orthodontist Do?" Orthodontics Australia.
  4. "Become Certified." American Board of Orthodontics.
  5. OAO. "What's the Difference Between a Dentist and an Orthodontist?" Ontario Association of Orthodontists.
  6. Kowarski, I. "How to Get Into Dental School and Become a Dentist." U.S. News. 21 Nov 2019.
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