What Is a Dental Hygienist? And How to Become One
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Dental hygienist is an exciting and rewarding health care career. Learn what they do, their job outlook, and how to become one.
Dental hygienists work alongside dentists and other health care professionals to help patients maintain good oral health. As a dental hygienist, you'll handle routine oral cleanings and care, offer preventative options, screen for potential problems, and help dentists tackle various health issues pertaining to patients' mouths, teeth, and gums.
In this article, you'll learn more about what a dental hygienist does, how to become one, and the job outlook for this oral health care career option.
What is a dental hygienist?
A dental hygienist is a licensed health care professional who works with a dentist to help patients maintain good oral health and dental hygiene. As a dental hygienist, your goal is to prevent and treat diseases that impact the teeth and gums. On any given day, this might include cleaning teeth, examining the teeth and gums, taking X-rays, collecting medical histories, and educating patients on proper oral care.
Typical dental hygienist duties
The average dental hygienist's duties will vary from office to office and maybe even from state to state, as each state has its own unique rules and regulations regarding what a dental hygienist can and can't do. Typical dental hygienist duties include:
Using the appropriate dental instruments to perform routine cleanings(Video) How To Become a Dental Hygienist
Removing plaque, tartar, and stains from a patient's teeth
Cleaning, sterilizing, and organizing dental instruments
Reviewing and maintaining a patient's medical history
Taking dental X-rays
Inspecting the mouth for signs of oral cancer
Checking the gums for signs of gum disease
Providing any findings of symptoms of various diseases to the dentists so they can make a diagnosis
Educating patients on preventative care and good dental hygiene practices
Assisting the dentists with more complicated procedures, like administering anesthesia or removing stitches
A lecture on patient evaluation from the University of Pennsylvania's Introduction to Dental Medicine course.
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Where do dental hygienists typically work?
Most dental hygienists work in dental offices and work fairly regular hours, ranging from part-time to full-time employment. Some dental hygienists, however, work in other health care settings, such as schools, public health clinics, hospitals, managed care organizations, and nursing homes or long-term care facilities.
If you choose to earn an advanced degree and take advantage of extra training, you may have even more opportunities. Options include teaching courses at postsecondary schools, working in sales and marketing of dental equipment, administering public health programs, and managing dental offices and health care clinics.
Potential salary and job outlook
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a dental hygienist is $77,810 per year or $37.41 per hour as of May 2021. Those who work in private dental offices tend to make the most money.
Like other healthcare occupations, the BLS expects dental hygienists to grow at a faster than average rate over the next decade. Currently, there are over 206,100 registered dental hygienists in the United States. Between 2021 and 2031, though, the BLS projects that the number of job openings in the field will increase by 9 percent, adding an average of 16,300 new jobs each year throughout the decade .
An aging baby boomer population, new studies highlighting the connection between oral health and general health, and new state laws allowing dental hygienists to take on more responsibility all play a role in why this career is on the rise.Read more: Dental Hygienist Salary: Your 2022 Guide
How to become a dental hygienist
Requirements for dental hygienists vary from state to state, but most require you to earn an associate degree at minimum, pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and obtain a license issued by the state in which you'll practice. If you know you want to take this career path as early as high school, consider taking education courses in chemistry, biology, and math.
Here are some of the steps you should consider when pursuing a career in the field:
1. Earn an associate degree.
You must earn an associate degree before embarking on a career as a dental hygienist. Bachelor's and master's degrees are also available, but they aren't quite as common, and they're usually only required for careers like teaching or research.
You'll find many associate degree programs in dental hygiene at community colleges, vocational schools, and technical schools, as well as some universities. According to the American Dental Association, there are over 300 accredited programs in the United States .
It generally takes about three years to complete a dental hygiene program. Your courses will likely include classroom lectures, lab work, and clinical practice. You'll typically study anatomy, medical ethics, periodontics, nutrition, pathology, radiology, and patient management. You may also take some liberal arts courses, and you may choose to take additional courses in topics like public health or marketing, depending on your career goals.Read more: What Is an Associate Degree? Requirements, Costs, and More
2. Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination.
Once you've completed your associate degree, you'll need to take and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, offered by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE). The test is made up of 350 questions and divided into two parts, including both discipline-based and case-based items .
3. Complete any required state licensing.
Once you pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, you need to look into the type of licensing required by the state where you want to practice. What is required will vary from state to state. However, completing an accredited dental hygiene program, passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and passing a state or regional clinical board examination are almost always required.
4. Practice critical workplace skills.
As a dental hygienist, you'll spend time with patients, dentists, dental assistants, and office workers on a daily basis, so you'll need to refine your human skills if you want to excel in the job. While some days may see you calming patients fearful of dental work, others might require you to collaborate with other dental professionals to ensure patients get the care they need.
Some common human skills you can expect to use on the job include:
Critical thinking and problem-solving: Every mouth is different, so you must come up with a plan of action for each patient.
Communication skills: On any given day, you'll find yourself communicating with your patients, a dentist, office staff, dental assistants, patients' families, and more.
Detail-oriented: In order to come up with a diagnosis or plan of action for each patient, you must pay close attention to the details involved in their situation.
Dexterity: Much of your job as a dental hygienist involves working with your hands, using precision, and handling dental instruments in a small space.
5. Consider additional training.
Finally, many dental hygienists choose additional training.
As discussed, you may go on to earn a more advanced degree. If you have a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, then you may go on to work in education, other clinical settings, school health programs, or public health programs. A master's degree, meanwhile, will allow you to explore careers in education, research, health care administration, public health, and advanced clinical positions.
You may also be required to take a certain number of continuing education hours every year or every few years, once you earn your dental hygienist license. Whether they're required or optional, taking these courses can help keep you up to date on the latest practices and discoveries in the world of dental hygiene.
If you're interested in exploring a career in the dental field or health care, you might consider taking a cost-effective, online course through Coursera today. The University of Pennsylvania's Introduction to Dental Medicine course provides an overview of dental medicine to engage, educate, excite and assist you in improving the oral health of your patients and members of your community.
The University of Michigan's Dentistry 101, meanwhile, gives course takers a well-rounded introductory understanding of the field of dentistry and offers glimpses of the profession that aren't always easily available.
Introduction to Dental Medicine
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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
How do you explain what a dental hygienist does? ›
Dental hygienists examine patients for signs of oral diseases, such as gingivitis, and provide preventive care, including oral hygiene. They also educate patients about oral health.Why do you want to be a dental hygienist answer? ›
People choose to become dental hygienists because they can:
Help their patients lead healthier lives. Provide service to others. Enjoy a flexible lifestyle. Educate patients about the importance of oral health.
As licensed professionals, dental hygienists perform most of their work independently –unlike dental assistants, who must work directly under the supervision of a licensed dentist. Above all, a dental hygienist's most important duty is to advise patients on how to keep their teeth free of plaque.What kind of knowledge do dental hygienist have? ›
REQUIRED KNOWLEDGE, SKILLS, ABILITIES AND ATTRIBUTES: Good knowledge of the principles of clinical dental hygiene; good knowledge of medications related to dentistry; familiarity with dental anatomy and pathology to the extent of being able to recognize simple types of oral conditions; familiarity with the principles ...Is dental hygiene school hard? ›
Dental Hygiene and Therapy is a hard degree, and some students find the course easier than others. Unfortunately, I found it difficult. Sometimes I would just find myself crying and questioning my choice and abilities.Do you need math to be a dental hygienist? ›
What basic academic skills are needed in the Dental Hygiene program? Students who are successful in Dental Hygiene have good skills in reading, writing, mathematics and science. Students should complete science and math courses and be successful in High school algebra, chemistry, and biology.How long does it take to qualify as a hygienist? ›
The programme is studied over three years full-time. It offers a spiralled modular curriculum using a variety of inspiring evidence-based teaching and assessment methods.What are 3 duties of a dental hygienist? ›
The Dental Hygienist will clean teeth and examine oral areas, head, and neck for signs of oral disease. The position also educates patients on oral hygiene, takes and develops x-rays, and applies fluoride or sealants.What are 4 duties of dental hygienist? ›
There are several tasks that a hygienist performs. These include cleaning the teeth and applying treatments, examining the teeth and gums to check for irregularities or decay, adding to patient charts, providing education and information, and maintaining the tools and equipment used.
What is the hardest part of being a dental hygienist? ›
Dental hygiene is physically hard
Because of this many hygienists must seek chiropractic, massage therapy, and sometimes physical therapy on a regular basis to function. Carpal tunnel and ruptured discs in the spine, among other injuries, take many dental hygienists' clinical careers away from them.
You'll usually work 37.5 hours per week, 8.30am to 5.00pm. You may sometimes need to work in the evenings and at weekends, depending on your employer. If you're working in a hospital, you may have to be on call during weekends, or work shifts.
Soft skills required of dental hygienists include communication, compassion, and collaboration – among many others – that help these professionals provide excellent service and care.What are two facts about dental hygienists? ›
- They have been in the profession for quite some time. ...
- They go through a lot of education. ...
- They take national board examinations. ...
- They can inject anesthesia. ...
- They don't just work in dental offices. ...
- They can sometimes do fillings on patients. ...
- It's a physical job.
- Your work experience and achievements. You can talk about a specific accomplishment at a previous, relevant position and show the interviewer how you can achieve similar results for them.
- Your skills and qualifications. ...
- Your passion and motivation.
Show that you have skills and experience to do the job and deliver great results. You never know what other candidates offer to the company. But you know you: emphasize your key skills, strengths, talents, work experience, and professional achievements that are fundamental to getting great things done on this position.Why do you want this job? ›
“I see this opportunity as a way to contribute to an exciting/forward-thinking/fast-moving company/industry, and I feel I can do so by/with my …” “I feel my skills are particularly well-suited to this position because …” “I believe I have the type of knowledge to succeed in this role and at the company because …”What is the fastest you can become a dental hygienist? ›
You can finish all the requirements for an associate degree in dental hygiene in about two years if you're a full-time student. A part-time student can finish in about three years. In comparison, a bachelor's degree takes 4-5 years to earn, depending on if you're a full-time or part-time student.Do dental hygienists stand a lot? ›
Physical stamina– Hygienists should be comfortable carrying out physical tasks, such as standing and bending over patients for a long time. Interpersonal skills– Everyday, hygienists must work closely with patients, dentists and other dental team members.How do I become a dental hygienist without college? ›
A common question is can you become a dental hygienist without a degree? No! To become a dental hygienist, you need to have a college degree. The minimum level of education required to become a dental hygienist is an associate degree from a school accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.
Can you become a hygienist without going to university? ›
Entry requirements are as above for dental therapists and hygienists. You can also qualify as a dental technician without going to university by taking a BTEC level 3 qualification in dental technology.
How Much Does a Dental Hygienist Make? Dental Hygienists made a median salary of $77,810 in 2021. The best-paid 25% made $98,260 that year, while the lowest-paid 25% made $73,540.How to make money as a dental hygienist? ›
These positions can range from becoming business owners, consultants, product makers, developers, and designers. Some have ventured into education as adjunct faculty, examiners for clinical dental hygiene board exams, continuing education speakers, and curriculum consultants.Is it easier to become a dentist or dental hygienist? ›
How long does it take a dental hygienist to become a dentist? Four years, just like any other dentist. It's actually easier for a hygienist to become a dentist because they already have experience with patients, they know dental anatomy and have most likely completed all the prerequisites for dental school.How long does it take to become a dental nurse? ›
If you are full-time it can take between 18 and 24 months to complete the dental nursing course. While this may seem like a long time, this approach allows you to make a living while you study dental nursing. Plus, you'll get a pay rise at the end of the process along with your dental nurse diploma.What is the daily life of a dental hygienist? ›
A typical day in a dental office is seven to eight hours of patient time, and an hour break for lunch. When the patient schedule is complete, the staff still has some things to do. A final disinfecting is done, including washing the floor. All equipment is inspected and readied for the sterilizer.Do dental hygienists remove teeth? ›
The dental hygienist, however, cannot diagnose or treat any dental problems like cavities or gum disease. This is the dentist's job. Only a dentist can diagnose dental problems. The dentist performs fillings, extractions, and other treatment procedures.Is dental hygienist a stressful job? ›
Results: Job satisfaction was affected by work overload, anxiety, depression, and emotional demands. Leaving clinical dental hygiene in the next year was affected by physical stress (p < 0.05), and burnout was related to the emotional demands (p < 0.05).Do dental hygienists make 6 figures? ›
How much does a Dental Hygienist make in California? The average Dental Hygienist salary in California is $108,200 ( $52.02 per hour) as of 2021, but the range typically falls between $98,680 and $125,450.How do you explain what a dental hygienist is to kids? ›
A dental hygienist is a person who knows all about keeping teeth and gums clean and healthy. Either the dental hygienist or the dentist will check your teeth and give them a good cleaning. The dentist or hygienist will look inside your mouth to make sure your teeth are growing properly and your gums are healthy.