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

two female dental workers discussing office procedure
women dental workers talking in dentist office

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 dental assistants vs. dental hygienists:

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: $36,940 Median annual salary: $72,910
Job growth
19 percent increase through 2026 20 percent increase through 2026
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.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics’ 2018-19 Occupational Outlook Handbook

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