Dental Assistant / Hygienist Education and Career Guide
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How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Education & Licensing
Never before have dental hygienists had so many opportunities for their education and careers. With training that can be found in person and online, as well as work settings that go beyond the traditional clinic, there are more options than ever for launching your career. If you’re interested in joining this rapidly growing field, read on to learn the steps you need to take to become a licensed dental hygienist.
In This Article
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
Working side-by-side with a dentist, a dental hygienist’s primary concern is with the preventative oral healthcare of their patients. They clean teeth, examine gums, collect medical history, and educate their patients on oral care techniques.
Dental hygienist duties
Specific job responsibilities of dental hygienists include:
- Using tools such as scrapers and polishers to remove tartar, plaque, and stains
- Applying preventative treatments such as fluoride and sealants
- Taking and developing X-rays of the mouth
- Recording findings during cleanings and reporting information to the dentist
- Assisting the dentist during procedures with tasks like administering anesthesia and removing sutures
Dental hygienist vs. dental assistant
Dental hygienists and dental assistants may sound like the same thing, but their positions aren’t interchangeable. While assistants might take on some of the same tasks as hygienists, their roles are more focused on helping the office run smoothly through administrative and maintenance duties. Daily responsibilities might include:
- Scheduling appointments and keeping records
- Getting patients comfortable in the dental chair
- Sterilizing dental equipment
- Setting up tools and restocking materials
- Handing instruments to the dentist during procedures
- Managing patient billing and payments
In some cases, dental assistants are allowed to take on extra responsibilities, however each state regulates these on their own. You may find that dental assistants have additional duties such as:
- Polishing teeth to remove plaque and stains
- Applying fluoride and sealants to protect against cavities
- Administering topical anesthesia
Dental Hygienist Education Requirements
All states require dental hygienists to be licensed, though the specific requirements vary. That said, the minimum level of education you need to earn your license in any state is an associate’s degree. Depending on your career goals, you might choose to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
No matter which degree you choose, becoming a licensed hygienist requires attending a program that’s been approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Accredited dental hygiene programs have demonstrated that they meet the highest quality standards for education and therefore help ensure future patient safety.
What you’ll study
According to CODA, all accredited programs must cover 4 key content areas—general education, biomedical sciences, dental sciences, and dental hygiene science. These are further broken down into more concentrated topics:
|General education||Oral and written communication, psychology, and sociology|
|Biomedical science||Anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, immunology, pathology and/or pathophysiology, nutrition, and pharmacology|
|Dental science||Tooth morphology, oral embryology and histology, oral pathology, radiography, periodontology, pain management, and dental materials|
|Dental hygiene science||Oral health education and preventative counseling, health promotion, patient management, community oral health, medical and dental emergencies, infection and hazard control, clinical dental hygiene, provision of services for patients with special needs and bloodborne diseases, and the legal and ethical principles of dental hygiene practice|
These apply to all levels of degrees, though if you choose to pursue an advanced degree, you might tailor your education even further. You could dive deeper into areas such as systemic dental conditions, dental health theory and research, or pediatric oral health.
Types of Dental Hygienist Degrees
The minimum level of education degree for a dental hygienist is an associate’s degree, though bachelor’s and master’s degrees are also options for those who want to move up in the field. The length of time it takes to complete your education depends on the degree you choose.
Dental hygienist associate’s degree
Associate’s degrees provide you with the necessary level of education that’s required for licensing. These degrees are typically earned at community colleges or technical schools and take about 2 years to complete.
Along with classroom coursework that covers the topics outlined by CODA, you’ll also complete supervised clinical experience over the course of your program. In your first year, as you begin providing clinical services, you should acquire between 8 and 12 hours of hands-on practice per week. This should increase to between 12 and 16 hours of dental hygiene practice in your second year.
Dental hygienist bachelor’s degree
Though not as common, bachelor’s degree programs are designed for dental hygienists who are interested in more specialized care, like practicing or developing programs within public health or school settings. You’ll take classroom courses in dental hygiene and participate in supervised clinical practice, as well as receive an education in liberal arts.
Bachelor’s degrees typically take 4 years to complete, though you can earn one in less time by entering with an associate’s in dental hygiene. Known as degree-completion programs, these are designed for students who already have their dental hygiene license and now want to learn leadership skills or develop knowledge of theory and research. Because you’ll have already gained the hands-on experience through your associate’s program, clinical experience may not be necessary. In fact, it might be possible to complete your degree entirely online. You can expect a degree-completion program to take between 15 and 18 months.
Dental hygienist master’s degree
If you’re looking to teach, conduct research, or work at an administrative level, a master’s degree in dental hygiene might be the best option to pursue. These degrees could lead to higher-level roles like oral disease prevention specialists, community program directors, or leaders of dental health and education programs. Master’s degrees in dental hygiene typically take 1–2 years and require the completion of a capstone project.
Online Dental Hygiene Programs
Online programs do exist, however keep in mind that dental hygiene is a hands-on field. You might be able to enjoy the flexibility of taking basic courses online, but you’ll still need to complete in-person clinical experience to prepare you for the duties of the role.
The exception to this rule could be a degree-completion program. Since you enter this type of program having already completed your clinical experience while earning your associate’s degree, it could be possible to earn your bachelor’s entirely online.
How to Get Your Dental Hygiene License
Dental hygienists must be licensed by the state where they work. After graduation from an accredited program, you’ll need to take and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. The test consists of 350 multiple-choice questions broken into 2 parts: discipline-based and case-based components. The test is scored on a scale of 49–99, with 75 being the minimum score for passing.
Each state also has its own clinical-based exam, which tests your knowledge of basic hygiene procedures, anesthesia, and restorative techniques. Additionally, it’s common to be requited to take a drug and law exam that covers the rules and regulations that are specific to your state. Passing all necessary exams allows you to earn your license as registered dental hygienist (RDH).
Dental hygiene license renewal
Dental hygienists are required to renew their license, typically every 1–3 years. You’ll need to pay any necessary fees and provide proof that you’ve completed the required number of continuing education hours as determined by your state. These are often somewhere between 10 and 20 hours for every 1-year cycle, 30–50 hours for 2-cycles, and around 60 for 3-year cycles. The topics you’ll need to cover will vary by state, though most require classes in CPR and infection control.
The American Dental Association (ADA) offers countless ways for you to earn your continuing education. You can search through a database of both live and online courses that cover a variety of topics.
Finding Dental Hygienist Jobs
Along with continuing education, the ADA also offers resources to help you find a job. Through the online ADA CareerCenter, you can search by job title, location, salary, company, and more to find opportunities that meet your unique needs. Jobs are posted directly to the CareerCenter and are also pulled in from outside job listing websites to make it easy to find openings all in 1 place.
The most common workplace for dental hygienists is a private office, though you could find roles in settings such as hospitals, nursing homes public health clinics, dental schools, research facilities, advanced practices, and dental corporations.
Dental Hygienist Salary
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists across the country earn an average annual wage of $77,230. However, your salary is dependent on a number of factors including the exact position, your level of education, amount of experience, and the setting in which you work. Entry-level hygienists in dental offices may earn less, while those in research, teaching, or corporate positions will likely earn more. In 2019, the top 10% of dental hygienists enjoyed salaries of over $103,000 a year.
Salary compared to other dental careers
|Position||Average Annual Salary|
|Dental laboratory technician||$44,330|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2019
Along with competitive salaries, dental hygienists enjoy other benefits, including plenty of opportunities to find jobs. The BLS predicts that the demand for dental hygienists will increase by 6% through 2029.
Outlook for Dental Hygienists through 2029
What’s more, dental hygienists often have the chance to take advantage of flexible schedules. In fact, roughly half of all dental hygienists work part time while still earning above average salaries.
After completion of a dental hygiene program, dental hygienists can choose to pursue additional training in such areas as education, business administration, marketing, and public health. Gaining this additional knowledge can help you find more specialized, high-level roles while increasing your earning potential.
Dental hygienist to dentist
After working in the field, you might decide you want to remove the “hygienist” from your title and become a full-fledged dentist. To do so, the most common path is to start with a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. With this degree, you can apply for a 4-year doctoral program to pursue a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). Most schools require you to complete prerequisites in biology, chemistry, physics, and English and take the Dental Admission Test before you can apply.
If you don’t yet have your bachelor’s, you can earn one through a degree-completion program in around 15–18 months. Some dental schools also offer doctoral programs that allow you to earn your bachelor’s while working toward your doctorate. These programs typically take 6 years to complete, compared to the total 8 years it would take to earn your bachelor’s and doctorate separately.
With a DMD or DDS in hand, you can sit for your state-required written and clinical exams in order to earn your license and be able to practice as an independent dentist.