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Certifications You Can Earn as a Dental Assistant

Dental assistants can earn entry-level and specialty certifications to deepen their knowledge and potentially open the door to more career opportunities and higher pay.

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Home » Dental Assisting » Certification

With several educational pathways available to become a dental assistant, earning a national certification can help you stand out in a crowded job market. Whether you earn certification as a general dental assistant or expand your skills with certification in specialty areas such as dental laboratory science, a professional credential may boost your employment options and career opportunities.

Overview

While it’s possible to complete a dental assisting program and earn a certificate upon graduation, it’s not the same as earning a certification.

Certification is a professional credential that proves you’ve demonstrated mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to work in a specific role. It’s awarded by a professional organization to candidates who have the required education and experience and pass a certification exam.

Each state sets its own educational, experience, and/or certification requirements for dental assistants. Though most states don’t require certification to work as an entry-level dental assistant, many have requirements that dental assistants must meet to perform specialized tasks such as X-rays.

Whether you earn certification as a general dental assistant or expand your skills with certification in specialty areas, a professional credential can boost your employment options and career opportunities.

The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) is the nationally recognized certification organization for dental assistants.

“Earning DANB’s Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification offers many professional and personal rewards, such as increased responsibilities, higher earnings, and greater career satisfaction,” says Hanna Aronovich, chief marketing and communications officer with the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) and the Dental Advancement through Learning and Education (DALE) Foundation. “DANB exams and certifications often meet state requirements for dental assistants to expose dental radiographs (X-rays) or perform expanded functions.”

The DANB’s 2020-2021 Dental Assistants Salary and Satisfaction Survey indicates that dental assistants who hold a CDA certification earn around $2 more per hour than the national median rate, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Attending a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) of the American Dental Association can make you eligible to take the CDA examination upon completion of the program and give you a potential edge in your job search.

“A certified/licensed educated dental assistant is usually preferred to the ‘on-the-job trained’ (OJT) dental assistant because they have basic dental knowledge,” says Susan D. Bentley- Camizzi, CDA, BSDH, MSEd, president-elect of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA).

Certifications

Dental assistants can choose from several types of certifications, ranging from entry-level to specialty care. 

Entry-Level Certifications

National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)

Exam overview: Certification for dental assistants who don’t qualify for DANB’s Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification. The NELDA has three component exams that must be passed together or separately within three years:

  • Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)—100 multiple-choice questions
  • Infection Control (ICE)—100 multiple-choice questions
  • Anatomy, Morphology, and Physiology (AMP)—105 multiple-choice questions

Certifying body: DANB

Prerequisites: Candidates earn eligibility to take the NELDA certification exam through one of four pathways.

Pathway 1

  • High school graduation or equivalent
  • Graduation from a dental assisting program within a post-secondary institution that is accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education but is not CODA-accredited
  • Current hands-on CPR, basic life support (BLS), or advanced cardio life support (ACLS) from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 2 

  • Graduation from a U.S. Department of Labor Job Corps dental assisting program
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 3 

  • Successful completion of a DANB-accepted dental assisting program located within a high school that is recognized by a state or federal agency in the U.S. education system
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 4 

  • High school graduation or equivalent
  • 300 to 3,000 hours of work experience as a dental assistant, accrued over at least two months and no more than three years; employment must be verified by a licensed dentist
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Preparing for the exam:

  • Review the DANB exam outline
  • Obtain textbooks and other reference materials suggested in DANB exam materials
  • Complete review courses, practice tests, and other study aids available through the DALE Foundation, the only official DANB affiliate

Can the exam be taken online? While most DANB exams are administered in person at Pearson VUE testing centers, the RHS, ICE, and AMP exams offer an online option.

What does the NELDA prepare you for? Entry-level dental assisting positions.

Who should seek this certification? Dental assistants who do not qualify for DANB’s CDA certification but plan to work toward earning one of DANB’s other certifications (CDA, COA, CPFDA, or CRFDA).

Fees and renewals:

Exam fee: $400 for the three components of NELDA at one time, or

  • $245 for AMP stand-alone exam
  • $270 for RHS stand-alone exam
  • $270 for ICE stand-alone exam

Renewal fee: $50

To qualify for annual renewal of NELDA:

  • Maintain current CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider
  • Earn six continuing dental education (CDE) credits, including two credits in infection control and one credit in OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard

Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)

Exam overview: National certification for dental assistants who want to demonstrate that they are prepared and competent to assist in dental care. There are three component exams, which must be passed together or separately within five years:

  • General Chairside Assisting (GC)—120 multiple-choice questions
  • Infection Control (ICE)—100 multiple-choice questions
  • Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)—100 multiple-choice questions

Certifying body: DANB

Prerequisites: Candidates must meet eligibility requirements for the CDA certification exam or the GC component if taking the exams separately, through one of three pathways.

Pathway 1

  • Graduation from a CODA-accredited dental assisting or dental hygiene program
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 2 

  • High school graduation or equivalent
  • Minimum of 3,500 hours of approved work experience
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 3 

  • Former DANB CDA status, or
    • Graduation from or enrollment in a CODA-accredited program, or
    • Graduation from a dental degree program outside the U.S. or Canada, or
    • Graduation from or enrollment in a DANB-approved post-baccalaureate program affiliated with a U.S. or Canadian dental school
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Preparing for the exam:

  • Review the DANB exam outline
  • Obtain textbooks and other reference materials suggested in DANB exam materials
  • Complete review courses and study aids available through the DALE Foundation, the only official DANB affiliate

Can the exam be taken online? While most DANB exams are administered in person at Pearson VUE testing centers, the GC, ICE, and RHS exams offer online options.

What does a CDA prepare you for? Positions as a general dental assistant.

Who should seek this certification? Dental assistants who want a credential that proves they’ve demonstrated their knowledge and skills by passing a national certification examination.

Fees and renewals:

Exam fee: $450 for three components of CDA at one time, or

  • $270 for GC stand-alone exam
  • $375 for RHS/GC stand-alone exam
  • $375 for ICE/GC stand-alone exam

Renewal fee: $75 for one DANB certification

To qualify for annual CDA renewal:

  • Maintain current CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider
  • Earn two credits in infection control and one credit in OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard
  • Earn 12 CDE credits

Specialty Certifications

Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)

Exam overview: National certification for dental assistants who want to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to specialize in orthodontics, earned via two component exams that must be passed together or separately within five years:

  • Orthodontic Assisting (OA)—120 multiple-choice question
  • Infection Control (ICE)—100 multiple-choice questions

Certifying body: DANB

Prerequisites: Candidates must meet eligibility requirements for the COA certification exam, or the OA component if taking the exams separately, through one of four pathways.

Pathway 1

  • Minimum of 3,500 hours of approved work experience
  • Current or former CDA certification
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 2 

  • High school graduation or equivalent
  • Minimum of 3,500 hours of approved work experience
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 3 

  • Completion of an orthodontic assisting preparation course from a CODA-accredited dental assisting program
  • Current CDA certification
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 4

  • Former DANB COA status or
    • Graduation from a CODA-accredited dental or medical program in the U.S. or Canada or
    • Graduation from a dental degree program outside the U.S. or Canada
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Preparing for the exam:

  • Review the DANB exam outline
  • Obtain textbooks and other reference materials suggested in DANB exam materials
  • Complete review courses, practice tests, and other study aids available through the DALE Foundation, the only official DANB affiliate

Can the exam be taken online? While most DANB exams are administered in person at Pearson VUE testing centers, the ICE exam offers online options.

What does the COA prepare you for? Dental assisting positions that involve assisting in the delivery of orthodontic care.

Who should seek this certification? Dental assistants who want to specialize in orthodontic care and want a credential that proves they’ve demonstrated their knowledge and skills by passing a national certification examination.

Fees and renewals:

Exam fee: $450 for two components of COA at one time, or

  • $320 for OA stand-alone exam
  • $270 for ICE stand-alone exam

Renewal fee: $75 for one DANB certification

To qualify for annual COA renewal:

  • Maintain current CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider
  • Earn two credits in infection control and one credit in OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard
  • Earn 12 CDE credits

Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)

Exam overview: National certification for dental assistants who want to specialize in preventive dentistry, earned through three component exams that must be passed together or separately within three years:

  • Coronal Polishing (CP)—100 multiple-choice questions
  • Sealants (SE)—80 multiple-choice questions
  • Topical Fluoride (TF)—80 multiple-choice questions

Certifying body: DANB

Prerequisites: Candidates must meet eligibility requirements for the CPFDA certification exam, or the OA component if taking the exams separately, through one of four pathways.

Pathway 1

  • Current DANB CDA certification
  • Verification of knowledge- or performance-based competency in each of the three CPFDA functions, verified individually through one of the following options:
    • Successful completion of a course on the CPFDA functions offered by a CODA-accredited dental assisting, dental hygiene, or dental program
    • Successful completion of a state dental board-approved course on the CPFDA functions
    • Dentist verification of knowledge or performance of the CPFDA function
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 2 

  • Graduation from a CODA-accredited dental assisting, dental hygiene, or dental program
  • Verification of knowledge- or performance-based competency in each of the three CPFDA functions, verified individually through one of the following options:
    • Successful completion of a course on the CPFDA functions offered by a CODA-accredited dental assisting, dental hygiene, or dental program
    • Successful completion of a state dental board-approved course on the CPFDA functions
    • Dentist verification of knowledge or performance of the CPFDA function
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 3 

  • Former DANB CDA whose certification lapsed no more than two years ago
  • Minimum of 3,500 hours of work experience as a dental assistant, accrued over the previous four years
  • Verification of knowledge- or performance-based competency in each of the three CPFDA functions, verified individually through one of the following options:
    • Successful completion of a course on the CPFDA functions offered by a CODA-accredited dental assisting, dental hygiene, or dental program
    • Successful completion of a state dental board-approved course on the CPFDA functions
    • Dentist verification of knowledge or performance of the CPFDA function
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 4

  • Current Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) license*
  • Minimum of 3,500 hours work experience as a dental assistant, accrued over the previous four years (employment must be verified by a licensed dentist); and
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

*If RDH license is issued in Alabama and the candidate is not a graduate of a CODA-accredited dental hygiene program, the candidate must meet the requirements of Pathway I, II, or III.

Preparing for the exam:

  • Review the DANB exam outline
  • Obtain textbooks and other reference materials suggested in DANB exam materials
  • Complete review courses, practice tests, and other study aids available through the DALE Foundation, the only official DANB affiliate

Can the exam be taken online? All CPFDA credentials are administered in person at Pearson VUE testing centers.

What does the CFDPA prepare you for? Dental assisting in preventive dentistry, which involves maintaining good dental health through brushing, flossing, regular checkups, and other methods.

Who should seek this certification? Dental assistants who want to specialize in care related to preventive dentistry and want a credential that proves they’ve demonstrated their knowledge and skills.

Fees and renewals:

Exam fee: $450 for three components of CPFDA at one time or if taken separately:

  • $245 for the CP exam
  • $175 for the SE exam
  • $175 for the TF exam

Renewal fee: $75 for one DANB certification

To qualify for annual COA renewal:

  • Maintain current CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider
  • Earn two credits in infection control and one credit in OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard
  • Earn 12 CDE credits

Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)

Exam overview: Certification for dental assistants who want to specialize in restorative dentistry, earned via four component exams that must be passed together or separately within three years:

  • Impressions (IM)—80 multiple-choice questions
  • Temporaries (TMP)—80 multiple-choice questions
  • Sealants (SE)—80 multiple-choice questions
  • Restorative Functions (RF)—105 multiple-choice questions

Certifying body: DANB

Prerequisites: Candidates must meet eligibility requirements for the CRFDA certification exam, or the RF component if taking the exams separately, through one of three pathways.

Pathway 1

  • Current or former CDA certification that lapsed no more than two years prior
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 2 

  • Graduation from a CODA-accredited dental assisting or hygiene program or Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) status from any state except Alabama
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Pathway 3 

  • Completion of an Expanded Functions Dental Auxiliary (EFDA) or restorative course/program offered by an institution with a CODA-accredited dental assisting, dental hygiene, or dental program
  • Minimum of 3,500 hours work experience as a dental assistant, accrued during the previous two to four years; employment must be verified by a licensed dentist
  • Current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider

Preparing for the exam:

  • Review the DANB exam outline
  • Obtain textbooks and other reference materials suggested in DANB exam materials
  • Complete review courses, practice tests, and other study aids available through the DALE Foundation, the only official DANB affiliate

Can the exam be taken online? None of the CRFDA exams are offered online.

What does the CRFDA prepare you for? Dental assisting in restorative dentistry, which involves repairing and replacing teeth.

Who should seek this certification? Dental assistants who want to specialize in care related to restorative dentistry and want a credential that proves they’ve demonstrated their knowledge and skills in this specialty.

Fees and renewals:

Exam fee: $450 if all four components of the CRFDA are taken at the same time, or if taken separately:

  • $275 for the RF exam
  • $125 for the IM exam
  • $125 for the TMP exam
  • $175 for the SE exam

Renewal fee: $75 for one DANB certification

To qualify for annual CRFDA renewal:

  • Maintain current CPR, BLS, or ACLS from a DANB-accepted provider
  • Earn two credits in infection control and one credit in OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard
  • Earn 12 CDE credits

Registered Dental Assistant vs. Certified Dental Assistant


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

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

However, some states do not recognize RDA status at all, and many have their own titles with specific requirements. In Colorado, for instance, you can be recognized as a dental assistant or an expanded duties dental assistant (EDDA). In Washington, there are three official levels of dental assisting, and all of them have a different set of requirements.

Certifications that Are Most in Demand

If you’re just starting in dental assisting, earning a general dental assisting certification may boost your earning potential and prove your commitment to the profession. And specialty certifications can expand your career opportunities and job responsibilities in areas in which you prefer working.

“It’s common for dental assistants to begin with earning DANB’s NELDA or CDA certification before continuing on to earning COA, CPFDA, or CRFDA certification,” Aronovich says.

More specialty certifications for dental assistants are coming. Aronovich says that in 2022, DANB and the Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention (OSAP) will offer two new certifications:

  • Certified in Dental Infection Prevention and Control (CDIPC)
  • Dental Industry Specialist in Infection Prevention and Control (DISIPC)

If you’re just starting in dental assisting, earning a general dental assisting certification can boost your earning potential and prove your commitment to the profession.

Demand for certified dental assistants can vary by geographic location based on the need for dental assistants and the demand for specialized skills.

As the senior population increases with the aging of baby boomers, the demand for more complicated restorative and cosmetic dental work is likely to increase, according to the BLS. The need for preventive care is also likely to grow as more scientific data links a person’s oral health to their overall health.

Earning a national certification in any area can provide professional benefits that you can use throughout your career.

“DANB exams and certifications are recognized by or required in 37 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Air Force, and the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Aronovich says. “Dental assistants who are considering working in another state in the future may be more likely to meet their new state’s requirements if they hold DANB certification.”

Picking the Best Certification for You

Earning any professional certification is an investment of time and money, so it’s wise to consider the demand and opportunities available for a certification you’re considering. Depending on your state, you may also find that certain certifications make you eligible for advanced job titles.

“A dental assistant should investigate and research what professional certification to pursue by visiting the individual state agency that recognizes “certified, licensed, registered, expanded function” dental assistant,” Bentley-Camizzi says. “The state agency will provide the acceptable, education, experience, and testing that is required to practice dental assisting.”

anna giorgi

Written and reported by:
Anna Giorgi
Contributing writer

susan camizzi

With professional insight from:
Susan D. Bentley-Camizzi, CDA, BSDH, MSEd
American Dental Assistants Association, President-Elect
Infection Control Monitor, School of Dental Medicine, University at Buffalo
Dental Assisting Program Director, Retired

hanna aronovich


Hanna Aronovich
Chief Marketing and Communications Officer
Dental Assisting Board and the DALE Foundation