Everything You'll Need to Know About Dental Assisting

Your comprehensive guide to dental assisting school, certification and careers.

If you're looking for a new career, dental assisting offers great hours and benefits. You can get into the workforce easily through fast track certificate dental assisting training, or find an affordable diploma or associate's degree program that works with your schedule.

Dental assistant careers offer decent wages, a clean work environment and the ability to help others. Explore our dental assisting training resources to learn more about careers in the field.



Using the Career Guide

Click the links on the right to find everything you'll need to research careers in the dental assisting field. You'll find everything from training and certification information to scholarships and financial aid data to help you pay for your education. Read about the necessary traits that make for a successful dental assistant. This page also includes at-a-glance facts about dental assistant school and careers. 


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Steps to Becoming a Dental Assistant

The steps to becoming a dental assistant are relatively straightforward. This is great news if you're looking to get started quickly.

What you need to do:
  1. Earn a dental assistant diploma/certificate or degree from an accredited school
  1. Take and pass the Certified Dental Assistant exam (if required by your state)

Before you can enroll in a dental assisting program, you should consider your career goals and financial situation. A diploma or certificate program takes about a year to complete compared to a two-year associate's degree program.

Because you'll spend less time in school, diploma/certificate programs typically cost less and you'll be able to jump into the workforce a bit sooner. However, the benefits of spending more time and money on a degree can have payoffs. Employers may be more apt to hire someone with a two-year degree. It's also a good stepping stone if you decide to become a dental hygienist.

Expand Your Role

Once you've worked as a dental assistant for a while, you might decide it's time to expand your role. Or, maybe you already know there's a specific track you want to follow. There are three ways you can open the door to more opportunities in your dental assisting career.

Certified Dental Assistant

Become a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) by taking the Dental Assisting National Board's (DANB) exam. Note: Some states require this certification in order to work as a dental assistant.

Certified Orthodontic Assistant


Take DANB's Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA) exam.

Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant

Become a Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA). Some states limit the scope of practice for dental assistants. However, if your state allows dental assistants to apply fluoride, sealants, topical anesthetics or do coronal polishing, taking the CPFDA exam can help solidify your expertise in the workplace.


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Dental Assistant School

Do you need a degree or certification to work as a dental assistant? Find out what type of school you'll need to attend to get your career started.

Both degrees and certifications will teach the skills necessary to work in dental assisting, but an associate's degree program will also include core classes, such as English composition, math and humanities.

Here's an overview of the types of classes you'll take in dental assistant school:

Dental Radiography
  • Dental Specialties
  • Dental Anatomy
  • Dental Radiography
  • Dental Pharmacology
  • Dental Materials
  • Dental Office Administration

Equipment you'll learn to use:

Dental Forceps
  • Dental forceps
  • Orthodontic pliers
  • Molar clamps
  • Steam cleaning equipment
  • Sterilizers
  • Medical software
  • Tongue forceps

Degree or Certificate?

Here are a few quick facts on each dental assisting education option.


  • Shorter program
  • Classes are focused solely on dental assisting
  • Offered at community colleges

Associate's degree:

  • Longer program
  • Classes include liberal arts and more in-depth dental assisting topics
  • Offered at community colleges


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Dental Assistant Salaries

Read the dental assistant salary article to learn what you could make, plus find information on salary comparisons and information on job demand.

Did you know that one of the factors that affects salaries is geographic location?

Dental assistant salaries vary across the country, but here's a look at the top five highest-paying states. Do you live in one of them?

Dental Assistant Salaries

Many dental assistants go back to school to become dental hygienists. Due to additional education and added job responsibility, hygienists earn more than dental assistants. The median annual income for dental hygienists is $70,210

Wavering between dental and medical careers?

Medical assistants can earn a median income of $29,370, while physical therapist assistants and aides earn $39,430. Pharmacy technicians bring in a median income of $29,320. Surgical technologists earn a median pay of $41,790.


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Dental Assistant Job Growth

There's great news for aspiring dental assistants. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts employment is expected to grow 25 percent through 2022. This is much faster than the average for all occupations (11 percent). In plain numbers, the BLS predicts 74,400 dental assisting jobs will be added between 2012 and 2022.

There are several reasons the need for dental assistants is increasing. Federal changes in the health care insurance system have led to an increased number of patients seeing their dentist.

In order for dentists to treat more patients, they're hiring dental assistants to complete routine tasks. People are also living longer and require dental treatments as they age.

Dental assistants are needed in every state, but some locations have more jobs than others.

Top 5 states with the highest concentration of dental assistant jobs:

States with the highest concentration of dental assistant jobs

Utah's Occupational Report lists total annual openings across the state as 240. According to California's Employment Development Department, the estimated total for annual job openings is more than 1,600.


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Dental Assistant Career and Job Duties

Dental Assistant

Maybe you have an idea of what a dental assistant's job entails. Get detailed information about duties, certification and career paths.

At a Glance: What a Dental Assistant Does

  • Sterilize or disinfect dental equipment
  • Set patients up in dental chair and prepare them for treatment
  • Prepare treatment area, set up tools and materials
  • Schedule appointments
  • Under the direction of a dentist, complete lab work and process X-rays

According to the BLS, the following four tasks are regulated by each state. Dental assistants in certain places may be able to perform them.

  1. Fluoride application to prevent cavities
  2. Coronal polishing which removes plaque
  3. Sealant application, another anti-cavity mechanism
  4. Topical anesthetics application, which is used to numb an area of a patient's mouth

Although you'll likely learn these techniques in dental assistant school, your state may not permit you to perform some or all of the tasks. If it is regulated, you may be required to take an exam or prove competency.

What You Can Expect on the Job:

Dental assistants typically start their day by preparing each room and ensuring supplies are fully stocked. They set out patient charts and X-rays. Dental assistants need to be comfortable juggling several tasks at once since more than one patient is treated at a time.

It's the responsibility of the dental assistant to bring the patient into a room and set them up. During the procedure, a dental assistant may help a dentist with certain tasks and make notes on a patient's charts.

Once the appointment is over, they clean the room and set up fresh materials for the next incoming patient.

Multi-tasking can make the day feel hectic, but being on the move keeps the job exciting.


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What Else You Can Do with a Dental Assisting Certificate

Dental Pediatrics

There's a lot more you can do with a dental assisting certificate or degree than you might realize. After graduating, a general dentistry office doesn't necessarily have to be the next stop.

Public health: You might find yourself working with patients in a school or community clinic. Dental assistants who want to provide a service to a specific population should look toward public health.

Pediatrics: Good dental habits start in childhood. If you enjoy being around kids, pediatric dentistry could be your calling. You'll need a strong understanding of the transition from baby teeth to adult teeth. Your job will also entail soothing nervous children.

Dental schools: Spread your knowledge. Dental schools often hire dental assistants to help students learn dental procedures.

Oral surgery: Dental assistants are crucial to a successful oral surgery. From managing paperwork to prepping the surgery room and the patient, a dental assistant will stay busy working for an oral surgeon.

Insurance companies: Dental assistants have a solid understanding of dental insurance coverage. If you're organized and enjoy administrative duties, consider a position processing insurance claims.

Dental product sales: If building relationships comes easy and you excel at customer service, a career in dental product sales could be a good fit. Your familiarity with a variety of dental products, technology and equipment can help you make a good pitch and land a deal.


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Dental Assistant Personality Traits

Dental assistants, hygienists and technicians all play a critical role in aiding the workflow of a dental care facility.  Between these three dental assisting roles, responsibilities and duties might vary slightly, but each of them involves helping dentists efficiently keep their practices running. Here are the traits that can help you succeed.

You are...You should have...
Thorough Good concentration
Detail-oriented Excellent communication skills
Hygienic Steady hands
Health-conscious Administrative skills
Patient Strong organizational skills
Communicative A commitment to health


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