Is There a Difference Between a Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist?

They both play support roles in dental offices, but dental assistants and dental hygienists are different.

Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist?

dental assistant and dental hygienist help with patient

To those outside the dental industry, a dental assistant and a dental hygienist seem interchangable. However, there are important distinctions between the two. If you are planning to enter either career field, you should understand the differences between a dental assistant and dental hygienist before you choose. You'll find that your job duties vary, as does the required education and training you'll need to undertake.

Dental Assistants

What you'll do: Dental assistants are typically responsible for the following tasks:

  • Working closely with patients before, during and after procedures
  • Assisting the dentist during a variety of treatment procedures
  • Taking and developing x-rays
  • Preparing and sterilizing instruments and equipment
  • Taking impressions of patients' teeth for study casts (models of teeth)
  • Teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene strategies
  • Performing office management

Degree you'll need to practice: Certificate or diploma

Median annual salary: $34,500*

Dental Hygienists

What you'll do: In addition to some of the same duties as dental assistants, a dental hygienist often performs the following types of tasks:

  • Collecting information about the patient's oral and medical health history
  • Removing calculus, stains and plaque (hard and soft deposits) from all surfaces of the teeth
  • Making molds of patients' teeth used for evaluating treatment
  • Charting patients' dental conditions for the dentist
  • Applying fluorides and decay preventatives
  • Administering local anesthetics
  • Removing sutures and dressings

Degree you'll need: Associate's degree or bachelor's degree in dental hygiene

Median annual salary: $70,210*

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Dental Assistants; Dental Hygienists.

*The salary information 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.