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How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Education & Licensing

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Home » Specialties » Dental Hygienist

Career Fast Facts

  • What you’ll do: Clean teeth, examine gums, collect medical history, and educate patients on oral care techniques. You’ll work side-by-side with a dentist.
  • Where you’ll work: Private dental offices, nursing homes
  • Degree you’ll need: Associate degree
  • Median annual salary: $81,400
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What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

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.

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 educationOral and written communication, psychology, and sociology
Biomedical scienceAnatomy, physiology, chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, immunology, pathology and/or pathophysiology, nutrition, and pharmacology
Dental scienceTooth morphology, oral embryology and histology, oral pathology, radiography, periodontology, pain management, and dental materials
Dental hygiene scienceOral 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. The typical time frame is two to four years.

Dental Hygienist Associate Degree

Associate 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 two 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.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements for any dental hygiene program is dependent on the school. However, many programs require the completion of prerequisites with a GPA of 2.5 or higher. These might include courses in subject such as:

  • Anatomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Sociology

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.

Admission Requirements

You’ll likely need to meet prerequisites and have a GPA of 2.5 or higher. High school graduates should have taken the same courses that are needed to enter an associate’s program, while those who already have an associate’s degree should have knowledge in areas such as anatomy, radiology, and dental lab materials.

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.

Admission Requirements

Admission into a master’s program requires a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene or a related field that covered the necessary prerequisites. Other common admission requirements include:

  • A GPA or 3.0 or higher
  • Proof of a current dental hygienist license
  • Acceptable scores on the GRE
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Possible career statement or current resume

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.

Median Annual Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienist 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.

Compare dental hygienist salaries by state and see what you may earn where you live:

Dental Hygienists

National data

Median Salary: $81,400

Projected job growth: 7.4%

10th Percentile: $61,510

25th Percentile: $75,100

75th Percentile: $96,870

90th Percentile: $107,640

Projected job growth: 7.4%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $55,410 $46,430 $60,690
Alaska $106,930 $104,730 $126,420
Arizona $91,280 $78,620 $96,410
Arkansas $77,530 $46,800 $91,220
California $107,960 $97,110 $127,000
Colorado $96,560 $79,840 $114,400
Connecticut $93,480 $82,060 $101,600
Delaware $84,070 $77,690 $103,400
District of Columbia $85,650 $62,290 $119,460
Florida $77,660 $59,120 $85,610
Georgia $77,420 $61,620 $93,160
Hawaii $87,080 $66,180 $99,280
Idaho $82,830 $67,090 $94,530
Illinois $79,560 $48,340 $93,990
Indiana $78,630 $62,120 $96,620
Iowa $77,850 $65,860 $88,300
Kansas $77,610 $64,550 $86,210
Kentucky $72,930 $49,210 $93,600
Louisiana $80,030 $55,840 $91,810
Maine $77,950 $63,580 $91,380
Maryland $100,790 $61,360 $105,290
Massachusetts $91,970 $80,980 $102,920
Michigan $72,660 $59,380 $80,170
Minnesota $83,140 $77,940 $95,210
Mississippi $61,210 $45,670 $73,810
Missouri $77,330 $63,870 $91,250
Montana $83,180 $79,110 $93,690
Nebraska $78,760 $66,370 $84,310
Nevada $96,100 $39,020 $106,040
New Hampshire $88,020 $73,130 $98,690
New Jersey $95,420 $84,140 $102,640
New Mexico $93,150 $75,520 $96,630
New York $89,030 $62,730 $103,420
North Carolina $79,200 $64,860 $92,460
North Dakota $79,350 $63,230 $85,540
Ohio $76,350 $62,350 $83,910
Oklahoma $91,500 $62,000 $99,880
Oregon $98,220 $83,240 $107,250
Pennsylvania $76,770 $60,380 $96,450
Rhode Island $79,860 $78,820 $81,220
South Carolina $74,970 $59,810 $80,000
South Dakota $75,810 $65,090 $82,920
Tennessee $76,340 $44,230 $82,940
Texas $79,660 $66,420 $92,350
Utah $75,540 $64,800 $80,680
Vermont $85,320 $75,660 $92,280
Virginia $93,600 $61,250 $116,270
Washington $109,230 $93,330 $126,210
West Virginia $61,970 $49,690 $76,550
Wisconsin $77,170 $64,690 $83,660
Wyoming $80,840 $55,440 $102,760

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries may vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Salary Compared to Other Dental Careers

Career Median Annual Salary
Dental Hygienists $81,400
Dental Assistants $44,820
Dental Laboratory Technicians $46,050
Dentists, General $155,040

Other Benefits

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 7.4% through 2032, faster than average for all jobs.

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.

Career Growth

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.