Dental Hygienist Training and Career FAQ
Dental hygienists are essential to the dental health field. By providing professional and thorough care, they can play a major role in ensuring that a patient's overall experience is a positive one.
And patients aren't the only people who benefit—dental hygienists themselves get to experience a wealth of rewards by being part of this exceptional area of health care.
Dental hygienists are health care professionals responsible for cleaning patients' teeth and checking for signs of various oral health concerns, from gingivitis to oral cancers. Dental hygienists also provide patients with education on the importance of oral health and strategies for maintaining good oral hygiene.
Their role is important for a variety of reasons, most notably for providing care that can prevent future health problems for their patients and costly draws on the health care system at large. Prevalent ailments linked to oral health include everything from heart disease to diabetes to premature births. Plus, dental hygienists are often able to detect signs of other illnesses (such as HIV, oral cancer, osteoporosis, and eating disorders) through clinical examinations.
Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant
Although both play vital roles within the dental field, the two occupations are very different from each other. Here are a few points that can help you distinguish which is which:
- Perform both independent and supervised clinical tasks
- Require formal education and must be licensed to practice
- Represent a more senior-level role in the dental field
- Focus on preventive care and patient education
- Can form their own dental hygiene practices and contract their services
- Directly assist dentists with clinical procedures
- Handle a variety of administrative tasks
- Do not necessarily require certification
- Represent an entry-level role within a dental office
You could be responsible for a broad range of tasks related to patient care and education. The breadth of duties varies from state to state, and some tasks may require further training and certification. Additionally, some of these duties require authorization from a dentist whereas others call for direct supervision. This all depends, however, on individual state regulations. So it's a good idea to look into the specific requirements of your state for more detailed information.
The duties that form the job description generally consist of:
- Recording medical and dental histories
- Completing dental charting and other documentation for patient records
- Providing patients with referrals to other health care professionals as necessary
Clinical and Laboratory Procedures
- Conducting head, neck, and oral examinations, and checking blood pressure
- Screening patients for indicators of systematic illnesses
- Removing plaque and calculus (tartar) from teeth through scaling and root planing
- Cleaning and polishing teeth
- Applying pit and fissure sealants and fluorides for protection, as well as antimicrobial agents
- Providing instruction on proper brushing and flossing techniques
- Explaining procedures to patients and ensuring that they are comfortable
- Performing laboratory tests and providing results to other health care professionals as required
- Performing periodontal probing and pocket depth assessment
- Performing emergency medical and dental care when necessary
The duties that vary by state/regional regulations include:
- Performing patient assessments and making diagnoses
- Developing, implementing, and evaluating patient treatment plans
- Administering local anesthetics and nitrous oxide
- Taking, processing, and interpreting dental x-rays
- Creating impressions of patients' teeth for examination and assessment
- Applying cavity liners or bases
- Placing and finishing composite and amalgam restorations
- Placing and removing temporary crowns and restorations
- Fabricating temporary crowns
- Placing and removing sutures and periodontal dressings
How to Become a Dental Hygienist
Starting in this field typically requires either a two-year associate degree in dental hygiene or a four-year bachelor's degree. Other program types do exist but are much less common. It's also important to note that even though associate degree programs may only last two years, many require certain college-level course credits as a prerequisite before you can enroll.
In order to enroll in a program, prerequisites that you will need to meet are likely to include the following:
- High school diploma or GED equivalent
- High school math, science, and English courses
Additionally, some schools may request that you:
- Pass an entrance exam
- Obtain prerequisite college credits
- Complete a personal interview
- Take a dexterity test
- Submit an essay
Each state has its own dental hygienist requirements and conditions for licensing. Upon graduating from an accredited program, you will first need to successfully pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. Then you must pass whatever other clinical or written examinations that your state or region requires in order to become a registered dental hygienist (or licensed dental hygienist in Indiana).
Other licensure requirements can include things like letters of recommendation from dentists or registered dental hygienists, a background check, high school or post-secondary transcripts, and a personal interview.
Additionally, most states have stipulations for continuing education throughout the duration of your career, which are in place to ensure that you stay up-to-date on current technologies, infection control practices, and advancements in the field. These requirements usually need to be met on an annual or bi-annual basis, but they differ from state to state.
You will also need to keep your CPR certification current in case of any medical emergencies you may encounter on the job.
Duration of Training
Most programs last from two to four years. When you graduate, you can be eligible to take the national and state/regional examinations. Once you meet these requirements, apply for licensing, and receive approval, you will be considered a registered dental hygienist (RDH).
Dental hygienist programs vary in cost depending on location and type of school. But, according to national statistics, the average totals for tuition and fees are:*
- $22,692 for an associate degree
- $36,382 for a bachelor's degree
- $30,421 for a master's degree (after a bachelor's degree has been obtained)
According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association, the cost of certification is usually about $1000. This typically includes application and exam fees, as well as professional liability insurance.
What Training Will Cover
A program can teach you about important and relevant subjects, such as:
General Science and Health
- Chemistry and biology
- Oral pathology
- Head and neck anatomy
- Tooth morphology (tooth identification)
- Periodontology (study of gum disease)
- Pharmacology and pain management
- Oral embryology and histology (dental development, structure, and function)
Clinical Practice and Patient Care
- Radiographic imaging
- Medical and dental emergency care
- Oral health education
- Infection and hazard control management
- Community dental health
- Child, adolescent, adult, special needs, and geriatric dental care
- Dental materials
- Psychology and sociology
- Ethics and professionalism
In addition to classroom and lab-based learning, schooling can enable you to take part in a substantial clinical component, often in an on-site dental clinic or community facility. This is a critical aspect of training since clinical experience is required to sharpen your skills and prepare you to meet licensing requirements.
If you're planning to advance your education by obtaining a master's degree, your studies will likely include research methods and applications, educational theory, epidemiology, statistics, leadership, and more.
The earning potential for a dental hygienist can range depending on a variety of factors, such as geographic location, level of experience, and area of practice. These national estimates from May 2015 provide a look at the overall picture:***
- The median dental hygienist salary came in at $72,330 annually, or $34.77 per hour.
- The highest-earning 10 percent received more than $98,440 per year, or $47.33 an hour.
Plus, since over 60 percent only work part time, it's important to take this into consideration. Not only does this profession pay quite well, it also requires fewer hours than many other allied health professions. Additionally, when you compare a dental hygiene salary to the wage for similar jobs, you can see that hygienists earn substantially more.
If you are wondering whether a career in this field is a good move, the career outlook data is encouraging. The rising number of openings in this profession can be attributed to a variety of factors. For one thing, the increased understanding of how oral health affects overall health is driving demand for preventive dental care. Additionally, new advances in the field, along with an aging population, are creating further opportunities. Plus, since there are millions of individuals across the country who lack access to a dentist, many state and local organizations are stepping up and funding dental hygienist services to fill the gap.
According to national employment estimates, this field is expected to grow by 19 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much higher than the average for all occupations.**
The majority work in dentists' offices. However, dental hygienists can also be found in a variety of other environments, such as specialty oral health practices, community health organizations, public health clinics, schools, correctional facilities, hospitals, and long-term care facilities.
Outside of clinical practice, there are also opportunities within public administration, education, research, marketing, and sales.
Benefits of the Work
- Flexible hours—Fewer than 40 percent work full time, with most only working a few days each week. This fact alone shows that dental hygiene can be a very positive career choice for those with families.
- The chance to help others—You could be responsible for front-line dental care, not only be cleaning teeth but also delivering important care and education that can contribute to your patients' improved health.
- Varied surroundings—Many work on a contract basis, allowing them to spend time in a variety of offices. If you choose this route, you could be working with a wide range of different health and dental professionals, as well as patients.
- Strong demand for your services—The outlook for careers in this field is expected to be very good in the coming years.
- Contracting benefits—As a contractor, you could enjoy the opportunity to choose which clients you take on, what days you work, and more. You could also negotiate items such whether your pay structure is hourly, daily, or commission-based.
How Do I Get Started?
You're already interested in the dental health field. And now you're armed with the information you need to confidently start the process of training. Get started now by taking a look at the schools near you!
* American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), Dental Hygiene Education Facts, April 2012, web site last accessed on April 17, 2015.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, web site last accessed on February 18, 2016.
*** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, web site last accessed on May 12, 2016.
American Dental Association (ADA), web site last accessed on December 14, 2016.
American Dental Education Association (ADEA), web site last accessed on April 17, 2015.
The Canadian Dental Hygienists Association (CDHA), web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.
International Federation of Dental Hygienists (IFDH), web site last accessed on April 17, 2015.
Institute for Oral Health (IOH), web site last accessed on August 8, 2012.