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How to Become a Certified Dental Assistant: Requirements and Certifications

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Steps to Becoming a Dental Assistant

If you’re interested in becoming a valued member of a healthcare team and working in a people-oriented environment, you may want to consider earning your dental assistant certification.

Dental assisting is one of the top healthcare support jobs in the U.S. says the 2021 U.S. News & World Report survey, who rank it at #15 (and dental hygienist at #5). Because dental assistant training is relatively quick to complete, it’s an especially appealing choice for nontraditional students and those wishing to make a career change.

Although some dental assistants get started with on-the-job training, you can also choose to obtain formal education in order to become a certified dental assistant (CDA) and help boost your career prospects.

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:

  • Step 1: Earn a dental assistant diploma/certificate or degree from an accredited school
  • Step 2: 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.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Dental assistants can work in a variety of settings, and 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.

Keep in mind that while dental assisting and dental hygienics may appear similar to those outside the dental industry, they are actually distinct roles.

  • Dental assistants perform a variety of tasks including patient care, taking X-rays and scheduling appointments. They need on-the job training, a certificate or a diploma for the job, and they earn an average salary of $41,170 per year according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Dental hygienists examine patients, clean teeth and provide dental care. They must have an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, and they earn an average salary of $77,230 per year.

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

Want to find out more? Keep reading to get a closer look at different education options and to learn how to become a certified dental assistant.

Dental Assistant Education: Degrees and Programs

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.

Types of Classes You’ll Take

Dental Specialties

Dental Anatomy

Dental Radiography

Dental Pharmacology

Dental Materials

Dental Office Administration

Equipment You’ll Learn to Use

Dental forceps

Orthodontic pliers

Molar clamps

Steam cleaning equipment

Sterilizers

Medical software

Tongue Forceps

Dental X-ray machines

What’s the Difference Between a Degree and Certificate?

Certificate

  • 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

What Training Does It Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

Most dental assisting programs take nine to eleven months to complete and lead to a diploma or certificate. Two-year associate’s degrees in dental assisting are available, although these are less common.

The good news is there are a variety of dental assistant training programs available—including full-time, part-time, accelerated, and online options—so you can likely find a program that fits into your busy schedule. Here’s where you’re likely to find programs:

  • Community colleges
  • Technical institutes
  • Vocational schools
  • Universities
  • Dental schools

Do Dental Assistants Have to Be Certified?

State regulations vary on certification. Some states require dental assistants to be certified, while other states do not have any formal educational requirements.

However, earning a dental assistant certification can help your career in more ways than one. A certification allows dental assistants to perform more advanced duties in some states, and according to the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) Salary Survey:

  • Full-time DANB-certified dental assistants earn nearly $2 more per hour than non-certified dental assistants and often receive other employment benefits such as paid time off.
  • When applying for a job, CDAs expressed greater confidence, pride and knowledge.
  • CDAs also reported higher levels of career satisfaction and lower job turnover.

Becoming a CDA can help demonstrate to employers that you are dedicated to the career and embrace high standards of patient care.

Who Issues the Certification?

The DANB is the national certification board for dental assistants. In the U.S., more than 37,000 dental assistants are currently certified through the DANB.

Are There Advanced Certifications I Can Get?

Several different exams and certifications are offered by the DANB. Each test is outlined below along with the different components of the test:

  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA): Anatomy, morphology and physiology, infection control, and radiation health and safety.
  • Certified Dental Assistant (CDA): General chairside assisting, radiation health and safety, and infection control.
  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA): Orthodontic assisting and infection control.
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA): Coronal polish, sealants and topical fluoride.
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA): Anatomy, morphology and physiology, impressions, isolations, sealants, temporaries, and restorative functions.

Is a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) the Same as a CDA?

CDAs and RDAs are two different titles for dental assistants. CDAs hold a national certification obtained through the DANB, whereas registered dental assistants (RDAs) must pass state-specific requirements, which vary state to state.

An RDA status does not automatically transfer from one state to another, because each state has a different set of rules and regulations. For example, some states may require you to be certified in CPR, complete a specific series of dental assisting courses or pass a state dental assisting exam to earn a status as an RDA.

However, some states do not recognize an RDA status at all. In fact, there are many different titles for dental assistants in various states. In Colorado, for instance, you can be recognized as a dental assistant or expanded duties dental assistant (EDDA). In Washington, there are three official levels of dental assisting: registered dental assistant (RDA), expanded functions dental auxiliary (EFDA), and dental anesthesia assistant. All of these titles have a different set of requirements and scope of practice outlined by state regulations.

Fortunately, the DANB provides a state-by-state guide to explain the requirements and titles available in each state.

The Certification Process

There are a couple ways to meet dental assistant certification requirements through the DANB.

The first way to become eligible for the CDA test is to graduate from a dental assisting program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) and hold a CPR certification from a DANB-accepted provider.

But even if you receive on-the-job training or attend a non-accredited school, you can still qualify for the exam if you 1) hold a high school diploma or equivalent; 2) have a minimum of 3,500 hours of approved work experience; and 3) hold a current CPR certification from a DANB-accepted provider.

You can download a CDA application packet on the DANB website and take the exam on a computer at a Pearson VUE test center, which are located nationwide.

The exam consists of three components:

  • General Chairside Assisting: 120 questions, 1.5 hours of testing time.
  • Radiation Health and Safety: 100 questions, 1.25 hours of testing time.
  • Infection Control: 100 questions, 1.25 hours of testing time.

How Long Does It Take to Get Dental Assistant Certification?

As mentioned above, there are a few paths to certification that take different lengths of time.

  • On the job training: If you do not complete formal education and only receive on-the-job training, you must accumulate 3,500 hours of dental assisting work experience to be eligible for the CDA exam.
  • Certificate or diploma: If you earn a diploma or certificate from an accredited school, you will likely need about nine to eleven months as a full-time student to graduate. Then you can take the exam to become a CDA.
  • Associate’s degree: If you decide to earn an associate’s degree from an accredited school, you will need two years to complete the program before you can take the CDA exam.

Once you submit an application for the exam, it will take one to two weeks for the DANB to process it and mail you a test admission notice. Then you will have a 60-day testing window to take your exam. You will receive an official exam result and your certificate within two to three weeks of the exam date.

How Much Does Certification Cost?

The dental assistant certification test to become a CDA costs $425.

Can You Get Dental Assistant Certification Online?

You can earn a dental assisting diploma or certificate online, but you will need to take the CDA exam in person at an approved testing facility in order to earn a national certification. Programs vary in length and format, but many online programs do offer a mix of computer-based classes and hands-on training.

For the online portion of a class, you may complete coursework on your own time, and then attend class sessions at the school’s on-campus dental lab periodically to gain clinical experience. In addition, some online programs may have an internship component, where you can practice skills in a dental office under the supervision of a dental team.

Note that it’s not uncommon for online dental assisting programs to offer a hybrid format, where you take classes online and attend lab demonstrations or complete an internship to receive hands-on training in person.

Will Certification Increase My Salary as a Dental Assistant?

A certification could boost your salary.

The DANB’s 2019 salary and benefits page reported that certified dental assistants earned a median salary of $20.76 an hour, around $2 more per hour than non-certified dental assistants.

CDAs often receive other benefits such as paid time off and employer-sponsored retirement plans.

Continuing Education Requirements and Opportunities

Even after you land a job as a dental assistant, you can still benefit from continuing education opportunities in order to stay current in the field, maintain a certification or comply with state requirements.

Requirements to Maintain Certification

To maintain a national certification through the DANB, you will need to earn Continuing Dental Education (CDE) credits every year, which you can do in-person or online. You will also need to hold a current CPR certification and pay a renewal fee. The amount of the renewal fee varies, depending on the number of credentials you’re renewing.

If you decide not to become a CDA, some states still require continuing education as well. For example, in Iowa, registered dental assistants are required to complete 20 hours of Continuing Dental Education every two years, including Infection Control, Mandatory Reporter Training for Child Abuse and Dependent Adult Abuse, and CPR. Requirements vary by state, so it’s important to research the state in which you wish to work. The DALE Foundation, a DANB-affiliated provider of online dental classes, provides a chart with state-by-state continuing education requirements where you can find more information.

Applying Dental Assisting Course Credit to a Dental Hygienics Program

If you earn an associate’s degree in dental assisting, you may be able to transfer some credits to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s in dental hygiene, although this will depend on the school’s credit transfer policies.

Even if you are unable to transfer academic credits, you will still have the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of a dental office work environment before starting a career as a dental hygienist. Your previous work experience could position you as a more competitive job candidate as well.

Finding Dental Assistant Certification Programs

Once you’ve identified some nearby programs, check to see if they have the accreditation you may need in the future. CODA maintains an online database of accredited dental assisting programs by state. These programs will allow you to qualify to take the CDA exam to earn a national certification.

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.

Dental Assistant Average Annual Salary

$41,170

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, 2019

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

Dental assistant salaries vary across the country, but here are some of the highest-paying states. Do you live in one of them?

  • New Hampshire
  • Alaska
  • Minnesota
  • Massachusetts
  • North Dakota

Wavering between dental and medical careers?

Medical assistants can earn a median income of $35,720, while physical therapist assistants and aides earn $58,520. Pharmacy technicians bring in a median income of $35,250. Surgical technologists earn a median pay of $49,040.

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.

Dental Assistant Job Growth

There’s great news for aspiring dental assistants. The BLS predicts employment is expected to grow 7% through 2029. This is faster than the average for all occupations. In plain numbers, the BLS predicts over 23,000 dental assisting jobs will be added during that time.

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.

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

What Personality Traits Are Helpful?

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…


  • Thorough
  • Detail-oriented
  • Hygienic
  • Health-conscious
  • Patient
  • Communicative
  • Dependable

You should have…


  • Good concentration
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Steady hands
  • Administrative skills
  • Strong organizational skills
  • A commitment to health