Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: What's the Difference?

Dental assistants and dental hygienists do many of the same things from day to day, such as taking and developing X-rays and teaching patients about proper oral care. But they are not different names for the same job.

Here's a breakdown of some key differences between these two fast-growing fields:

Dental Assistants Dental Hygienists
Job duties
Prepare patients for treatment, clean instruments and equipment, assist dentists during procedures, help with office management, including billing, record-keeping and insurance paperwork. Examine teeth and gums and collect information about patients' oral and medical health history, clean patients' teeth, chart patients' dental conditions for the dentist, apply preventive treatments such as fluoride, administer local anesthetics, remove sutures and dressings.
Some states require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited program with a certificate or diploma (nine months to a year). Some schools offer two-year associate's degree dental assisting programs, which include general education classes. Dental hygienists usually need an associate's degree (two years) to practice. Other less common options include certificates (a year or less), bachelor's degree (four years) and master's degrees (two years). (Years required to complete degree are based on full-time study.)
Licensing / certification
Most dental assistants who choose to become nationally certified take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam. To take the exam, you need to graduate from an accredited training program or complete two years of full-time work as a dental assistant. More about certification. Dental hygienists must be licensed by the state where they want to practice. To qualify, you need to graduate from an accredited training program and pass a regional or state clinical exam. More about licensing.
Median annual salary: $35,390 Median annual salary: $71,520
Job growth
18 percent increase through 2024 19 percent increase through 2024
Next Step?
Many dental assistants go back to school to get a dental hygienist degree. With a bachelor's or master's degree, you can move up to research, teaching or clinical practice in public or school health programs.

Dental assistant jobs are usually full-time, and include a range of benefits such as paid holidays, vacation pay and medical insurance options.

Most dental hygienists work part-time and tend to have more flexible schedules, working at different offices on different days. So if you choose the hygienist path, you may not receive benefits unless you work full-time for the same dentist.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Dental Assistants, Dental Hygienists; American Dental Hygienists Association, American Dental Assistants Association.

The salary information and job growth data listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

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