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What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Dental Hygienist Career Basics

Dental hygienists use a variety of tools and devices to perform daily tasks. A range of instruments are used to help remove plaque and stains, including air-polishing tools and ultrasonic devices. As technology continues to advance, lasers are showing up next to the patient chair more frequently, and dental hygienists must be trained in proper usage of these tools. They must also be well-versed in radiography when using certain types of x-ray equipment. Although state-by-state requirements vary, many dental hygienists counsel patients on how different foods affect oral health and provide advice on proper techniques for care.

Dental Hygienist Careers In-Depth

Serving as the first stop once a patient is called from the waiting room, dental hygienists examine patients’ teeth and gums and report back to dentists about their oral health. While with the patient, they also perform basic dental procedures, including removing tartar, plaque and everyday stains; using fluoride treatments to protect teeth; applying sealants; and flossing extensively. Hygienists also teach their patients about proper oral care, including brushing techniques and the importance of flossing. Depending on the reason a patient is visiting, the hygienist may also take x-rays or molds to help the dentist assess the best plan of care, ranging from braces to root canals.

Dental Hygienist Salary

Dental hygienists enjoy rewarding careers and have the satisfaction of helping their patients achieve better oral health every day. They typically also enjoy good work-life balance, as most dental offices maintain normal working hours. Still, the financial rewards of this career are also important, particularly for individuals who aspire to make a certain annual income.

While newly minted dental hygienists typically bring home $50,140, those in the top tenth percentile of the field can expect their incomes to be around $98,440. The median average currently sits at $72,330. Factors other than experience can cause this number to fluctuate, too. Take a look at the state-by-state guide below to see the variances across America.

Steps to Becoming a Dental Hygienist

1

Learn about Dental Hygienist Careers

Before embarking on an educational path – and spending hard earned dollars on tuition – prospective dental hygienists should make a list of what they seek in a profession. Ranging from average salary to work-life balance, take time to think about both day-to-day responsibilities and long-term goals. Compare this list to qualities commonly exhibited by dental hygienists who love their work and see if it’s a match. For instance, individuals who prefer to work alone may find it difficult to interact with a number of different patients all day, every day. Because the majority of work is done with hands in close quarters, dexterity and not being turned off by oral care are also major factors of enjoying this career. If possible, find someone already working in this career – even your own dental hygienist – and ask their feelings on the profession.

Explore Dental Hygienist Degree Programs

2

Complete a Dental Hygienist Program

Dental hygienists working in a dentist’s office are typically required to hold an associate degree in dental hygiene. These programs, which typically take about three years to complete, must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which operates under the American Dental Association. In 2015 alone, the commission accredited more than 300 programs. Associate-level degrees in dental hygiene are most commonly found at community colleges, dental schools, technical institutions and universities. Many programs are also available as an online degree.

While bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene are outnumbered by their associate degree counterparts, more programs are popping up on campuses and as online degree options. Individuals with aspirations beyond dentists’ offices are drawn to this option as it opens more doors to research and clinical practice.

Master’s degrees in dental hygiene are the least common educational offering, but these programs do exist in small quantities. Students electing this path often have their eyes set on advanced research roles, or clinical practice within public health or educational health programs.

3

Complete Licensing Requirements

Completing educational requirements is a significant step toward becoming a dental hygienist, but all those looking to practice must be licensed. These requirements are mandated at the state level and vary depending on location, but the majority can be satisfied by showing proof of:

  • Diploma from a CDA-accredited program
  • Successful passage of the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, a comprehensive written test
  • Completion of a state-level or regional clinical board examination

Once candidates for licensure completes these three steps, they are considered fully licensed and allowed to add “RDH” to their names, signifying they are a registered dental hygienist.

4

Complete Additional Training

Continuing education plays a crucial role in the work of dental hygienists, providing both updated and additional knowledge throughout their careers. Whether serving patients with special health care needs or learning how lasers factor in to oral health, continuing education courses help keep dental hygienists at the forefront of knowledge.

In addition to courses offered by state and regional chapters of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, local dental hygiene programs should also be able to provide a list of what’s available. Students seeking an online option can take advantage of Colgate’s Oral Health Network, which offers free live webinars.

DISCOVER THE RIGHT DENTAL HYGIENIST PROGRAM

Career Goals & Educational NeedsAssociateBachelor’sOnline
Working with patients every day is one of the big reasons I want to enter this field. I think I would enjoy the one-to-one opportunity to teach them about better oral health. I’m looking for a program that won’t break the bank but provides the foundational knowledge I need to enter the field.
While helping patients appeals to me, I’m also interested in more specialized care, such as developing school or public health programs. I also want a well-rounded education covering additional topics outside dental hygiene.
Having worked in the field for a time, I’m interested in furthering my knowledge and using it to conduct research, teach, or develop health programs in the community.

Preparing for a Dental Hygienist Career: Dental Hygienist Schools & Programs

Dental hygienist programs are available in numerous educational settings, ranging from community colleges to specialized dental schools. Each of these options provides students with unique learning opportunities, and it’s a good idea for prospective dental hygienists to review their options before committing to a specific program. The following section reviews the most common choices available, including:

Vocational/Trade School

The average amount of time to complete a dental hygienist program is three years, but some vocational and trade schools allow students to enter the working world in as few as 17 months. These accelerated programs are heavily career-driven, providing real-world training and skills that translate directly to everyday work.

Dental School

Educational options at dental school range from certificates to master’s degrees, offering different types of students the ability to complete degrees. Because oral health is the sole focus of these institutions, students gain focused knowledge of the profession through hands-on clinical rotations, classroom teaching and volunteer opportunities.

Community College

Graduates of dental hygienist programs offered by community colleges receive an education rooted in comprehensive patient care, community health and lifelong oral health. Without the addition of general education courses, students focus solely on topics directly related to their future careers and are prepared to undertake licensure requirements upon graduation.

4-year schools

Although some colleges and universities offer associate-level degrees, the majority of students selecting this option are seeking either a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Four-year programs equip students with a deeper knowledge of topics than an associate degree while also providing a liberal arts underpinning. Master’s level degrees prepare graduates for advanced roles in the field, such as teaching or research.

Types of Dental Hygienist Degrees

Depending on the area of dental hygiene students hope to practice, selecting the right degree can make all the difference. Students looking to work in a dental office would be overqualified with a master’s degree, but those with only an associate degree would not be eligible to undertake academic roles or research posts. Review the different types of degrees and outcomes to find the program best suited to future goals.

Associate Dental Hygienist Degree

Students can apply for associate-level degree programs after submitting their application and supporting documents, including a passing score on the ACCUPLACER Dental Hygiene examination and evidence of completed prerequisite classes, including human anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and organic chemistry. Once enrolled, students move through a sequenced collection of classes that provide clinical experience, theoretical knowledge, and educational foundations. Common courses at this level include:

  • Dental Radiography
  • Dental Anatomy
  • Prevention of Oral Disease
  • Dental Hygiene Clinical
  • Oral Pathology

After completing studies, graduates undertake the written and clinical examinations required to become a registered dental hygienist (RDH) and are competitive for roles in public and private dental offices.

Bachelor’s Dental Hygienist Degree

As the field becomes more competitive, students with a bachelor’s degree will stand out for both dental office roles and advanced positions. This four-year degree – often offered as a Bachelor of Science (BS) – immerses students in an all-round educational experience that incorporates dental hygiene classes, basic science courses and a general education curriculum. While many of the same topics comprising the associate degree are included, the difference is the depth to which they are covered. Rather than simply teaching students how to educate their patients on good oral health, programs at this level specify different care plans for a variety of ages and populations, ranging from school children to individuals who are socially disadvantaged.

Many students who already hold an associate degree elect to use their credits toward a bachelor’s degree. Prerequisites for these learners include courses and lab work in chemistry, anatomy, biology, psychology, physiology, microbiology, and nutrition alongside classes in English, speech and sociology.

Once admitted, common courses include:

  • Oral Biochemistry
  • Preventative Dental Care
  • Periodontal Disease
  • Dental Specialties
  • Principles of Pharmacology

Upon graduation, students are able to sit for examinations and enter roles ranging from private dental offices to school health programs.

Master’s Dental Hygienist Degree

The American Dental Hygienists’ Association reported in 2015 that 21 master’s level dental hygiene programs currently exist in 15 states. Though far less common than associate and bachelor’s degrees, graduate level programs in dental hygiene open a world of possibilities to graduates. Applicants should have already completed a basic dental hygiene preparation program and baccalaureate degree, though it doesn’t have to be in dental hygiene. Once enrolled, full-time students complete the degree in one year, while those attending school while working should plan for two to three years of study.

In addition to coursework, students also need to pass a comprehensive examination; other programs also mandate a capstone project and field work. Common courses at this level include:

  • Systematic Research Writing
  • Dental Hygiene Theory and Science
  • Geriatric Dental Issues
  • Pediatric Oral Health
  • Systemic Dental Conditions

Graduates of master’s level dental hygiene programs go on to serve as academic faculty, researchers, and leaders of dental health and education programs.

Dental Hygienist Career Concentrations

Although concentrations are not as frequent at the associate degree level, many bachelor’s and master’s degrees offer a variety of specializations allowing graduates to focus their professions in a specific area of dental hygiene. Some of the most common areas are reviewed below, alongside information about average salaries within each area as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Dental Hygiene EducatorMedian salary: $49, 931

Education specialties within dental hygiene outfit students with both knowledge of oral health and theories and concepts related to teaching adult students. Courses cover topics like periodontal health and preventative oral hygiene while also delving into studies of curriculum design and student assessment. Graduates of these specialties go on to teach at vocational schools, community colleges, universities and dental schools.

Public Health AdministratorMedian salary: $62,246

Individuals who complete a specialization in healthy policy and administration during their dental hygiene degree often go on to work in public health, designing and developing initiatives to encourage oral health care. Aside from specific courses in areas of preventative dentistry, oral health and nutrition, and hygiene, topics like community dental health, human resource management and public policy development help ground students in public health administration.

Pediatric Dental HygienistMedian salary: $72,330

Dental hygienists concentrating in the care of young children take specialized classes related to the development of baby and permanent teeth, how to educate children in good oral health, and other topics affecting pediatric dentistry, including the use of fluoride varnishes and issues surrounding thumb sucking. Students also learn how to create a safe environment for children and help alleviate their fear of dental procedures.

Periodontal Dental HygienistMedian salary: $72,330

Dental Hygienists

Career, Salary and Education Information

Top 3 Dental Hygienist Jobs

  • Registered Dental Hygienist - James A. Burden, D.D.S. & Associates - Williamsburg, VA

    We are looking to hire for full-time (4 days) but are open to part time hours. This can be discussed with the right candidate. What we offer

  • Dental Hygienist - Richard T. Stone, DDS, P. C. - Alexandria, VA

    This position is for a clinically licensed practioner in the state of

  • Registered Dental Hygienist - Premier Dental Partners (CA) - Petaluma, CA

    Minimum Requirements: • Current California RDH License • CPR

See all Dental Hygienist jobs

What Dental Hygienists Do[About this section] [To Top]

Dental hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, and provide other preventive dental care. They also educate patients on ways to improve and maintain good oral health.

Duties of Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists typically do the following:

  • Remove tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
  • Apply sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
  • Take and develop dental x rays
  • Assess patients' oral health and report findings to dentists
  • Document patient care and treatment plans
  • Educate patients about oral hygiene techniques, such as how to brush and floss correctly

Dental hygienists use many types of tools to do their job. They clean and polish teeth with hand, power, and ultrasonic tools. In some cases, they use lasers. Hygienists remove stains with an air-polishing device, which sprays a combination of air, water, and baking soda. They polish teeth with a powered tool that works like an automatic toothbrush. Hygienists use x-ray machines to take pictures to check for tooth or jaw problems. Some states allow hygienists with additional training, sometimes called dental therapists, to work with an expanded scope of practice.

Dental hygienists help patients develop and maintain good oral health. For example, they may explain the relationship between diet and oral health. They may also give advice to patients on how to select toothbrushes and other oral care devices.

The tasks hygienists may perform, and the extent to which they must be supervised by a dentist, vary by state and by the setting in which the dental hygienist works. For example, some states allow hygienists to diagnose certain health problems independently of a dentist.

Work Environment for Dental Hygienists[About this section] [To Top]

Dental hygienists hold about 207,900 jobs. The largest employers of dental hygienists are as follows:

Offices of dentists95%
Government1
Offices of physicians1

Dental hygienists wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. When taking x rays, they follow strict procedures to protect themselves and patients from radiation.

Dental Hygienist Work Schedules

About half of dental hygienists work part time. Dentists often hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need:Find schools for Dental Hygienists near you!

Dental hygienists typically need an associate's degree in dental hygiene. Programs typically take 3 years to complete. All states require dental hygienists to be licensed; requirements vary by state.

Education for Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists typically need an associate's degree in dental hygiene. Bachelor's and master's degree programs in dental hygiene also are available, but are less common. A bachelor's or master's degree usually is required for research, teaching, or clinical practice in public or school health programs.

Dental hygiene programs are commonly found in community colleges, technical schools, and universities. In 2017, the Commission on Dental Accreditation, part of the American Dental Association, accredited more than 300 dental hygiene programs.

Programs typically take 3 years to complete, and offer laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction. Areas of study include physiology, nutrition, radiography, pathology, medical ethics, anatomy, patient management, and periodontics, which is the study of gum disease.

High school students interested in becoming dental hygienists should take courses in biology, chemistry, and math. Most dental hygiene programs also require applicants to complete prerequisites, which often include college-level courses. Specific requirements vary by school.

Important Qualities for Dental Hygienists

Critical thinking. Dental hygienists must use critical thinking skills in order to assess and evaluate patients.

Communication skills. Dental hygienists must accurately communicate with dentists and patients about oral health status, oral hygiene care plans, and, as needed, lifestyle counseling.

Detail oriented. Dental hygienists must follow specific rules and protocols to help dentists diagnose and treat a patient. Depending on the state in which they work and/or the treatment provided, dental hygienists may work without the direct supervision of a dentist.

Dexterity. Dental hygienists must be good at working with their hands. They generally work in tight quarters on a small part of the body, requiring fine motor skills using very precise tools and instruments.

Interpersonal skills. Dental hygienists must work closely with dentists and patients. Some patients are in extreme pain or have fears about undergoing dental treatment, and the hygienist must be sensitive to their emotions.

Problem-solving skills. Dental hygienists develop and implement oral hygiene care plans to maintain or improve patients' oral health.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Dental Hygienists

Every state requires dental hygienists to be licensed; requirements vary by state. In most states, a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program and passing grades on written and clinical examinations are required for licensure. To maintain licensure, hygienists must complete continuing education requirements. For specific requirements, contact your state's Board of Dental Examiners.

Many jobs also require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification.

Dental Hygienist Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for dental hygienists is $72,910. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $50,870, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $100,170.

The median annual wages for dental hygienists in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Offices of dentists$73,190
Offices of physicians69,410
Government57,790

Benefits, such as vacation, sick leave, and retirement contributions vary by employer and may be available only to full-time workers.

About half of dental hygienists work part time. Dentists often hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.

Job Outlook for Dental Hygienists[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 20 percent over the next ten years, much faster than the average for all occupations.

The demand for dental services will increase as the population ages. As the large baby-boom population ages and people keep more of their original teeth than did previous generations, the need to maintain and treat teeth will continue to drive demand for dental care.

Studies linking oral health and general health, and efforts to expand access to oral hygiene services, will continue to drive the demand for preventive dental services. As a result, the demand for all dental services, including those performed by hygienists, will increase. In addition, demand for dental hygienists is expected to grow as state laws increasingly allow dental hygienists to work at the top of their training, and they effectively become more productive.

Job Prospects for Dental Hygienists

Although the demand for dental services is growing, the number of new graduates from dental hygiene programs also has increased, resulting in more competition for jobs. Candidates can expect very strong competition for most full-time hygienist positions. Job seekers with previous work experience should have the best job opportunities.

There are areas in the United States, typically rural areas, where patients need dental care but have little access to it. Job prospects will be especially good for dental hygienists who are willing to work in these areas.

Occupational TitleEmployment, 2016Projected Employment, 2026Change, 2016-26
PercentNumeric
Dental hygienists207,900248,8002040,900

Careers Related to Dental Hygienists[About this section] [To Top]

Dental Assistants

Dental assistants perform many tasks, ranging from providing patient care and taking x rays to recordkeeping and scheduling appointments. Their duties vary by state and by the dentists' offices where they work.

Dentists

Dentists diagnose and treat problems with patients' teeth, gums, and related parts of the mouth. They provide advice and instruction on taking care of the teeth and gums and on diet choices that affect oral health.

Medical Assistants

Medical assistants complete administrative and clinical tasks in the offices of physicians, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities. Their duties vary with the location, specialty, and size of the practice.

Physician Assistants

Physician assistants, also known as PAs, practice medicine on teams with physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare workers. They examine, diagnose, and treat patients.

Physicians and Surgeons

Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses. Physicians examine patients; take medical histories; prescribe medications; and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare. Surgeons operate on patients to treat injuries, such as broken bones; diseases, such as cancerous tumors; and deformities, such as cleft palates.

Radiation Therapists

Radiation therapists treat cancer and other diseases in patients by administering radiation treatments.

Registered Nurses

Registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members.



*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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