Dental hygienists help people maintain a vital part of well-being: their oral health, which Mayo Clinic states is a direct link to overall health.1 Dental hygienists work on teams with dentists to provide dental patient treatment. They help people learn how to take better care of their teeth, gums and mouths.
A career as a dental hygienist can be rewarding in many ways. You can begin your career with an associate degree, which takes less time to complete than a traditional 4-year bachelor degree. Plus, compared to most jobs that require an associate degree for entry-level work, dental hygiene careers typically pay more.2 3
If you have an interest in the human body and you want to help people lead healthier lives, you might find work as a dental hygienist fulfilling. Use this guide to see if the career fits your goals.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
What is a dental hygienist? When people head in for a dental exam, the first person they meet with is typically the dental hygienist. A dental hygienist prepares patients to be examined by a dentist. Dental hygienists perform duties including:
- Document and update patient dental health records and treatments
- Perform dental X-rays
- Clean teeth with dental instruments to remove plaque, stains and tartar
- Apply sealants
- Provide fluoride treatment
- Teach patients how to properly take care of teeth, including brushing and flossing recommendations and optimal dental tools to use at home
As dental hygienists clean teeth, they may identify cavities or gum issues to alert the dentist about. They’re on the lookout for oral diseases like gingivitis and talk with patients about their oral healthcare routines.
Like a nurse working on a team under supervision of a doctor, a dental hygienist typically works under supervision of a dentist. Most of the tasks dental hygienists perform are preventative or dental maintenance. A dentist performs more intensive treatments, like filling cavities.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in some states, dental hygienists who get additional training may fill roles called dental therapists.4 Dental therapists may perform restorative services, including extracting primary teeth.
Benefits of Being a Dental Hygienist
People are drawn to work as a dental hygienist for a variety of reasons. One is that you can work in the health and wellness field without having to attend dental school, which can take up to 6 years or more to become a dentist.5 You can earn an associate degree and prepare for dental hygienist licensure in less than 2 years.
Another perk to work as a dental hygiene professional is that compared to being a dentist, the work schedule may be more predictable and less demanding. While the BLS reports many dentists work evenings, weekends and on-call hours, dental hygienists can work more flexible schedules.6 If you want to work part-time, that’s another option dental hygienists have.7
Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistants
When considering a career in a dental office, you may be wondering what is better: dental assistants or dental hygienists? The fact of the matter is that the two roles are very different. A dental assistant works closely with a dentist to help with patient care. A dental hygienist, on the other hand, works closely with patients to do the bulk of the work of a routine dental appointment.
Why Become a Dental Hygienist?
The BLS reports as the population ages, dental services will increase in demand. Also, people are becoming more educated about the link between oral and overall health, which is making dental services more popular.
According to the BLS, the employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 11% between 2020 and 2030, which is faster than average compared to all occupations.10
Wherever there are people, there is a need for those who work in a dental hygienist career. According to the BLS, there were 206,100 dental hygienist jobs in 2020, with 94% of dental hygienists working in dentist offices.11 Some dental hygienists work in physician offices or in government roles.
Best States to Work as a Dental Hygienist
Some states have higher dental hygienist demand based on factors like population size. Salary may vary by state, as well, due to cost of living.
The following states have the highest employment level for dentist hygienists as of May 2020, according to the BLS.13
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Start Your Career in Dental Hygiene
Carrington College focuses on small class sizes and hands-on training. Here you’re more than a face in a room. Take the first step on your way to a new career in dental hygiene.
Dental Hygienist Jobs
While most dental hygienists work in dentist offices under the supervision of a dentist, there’s plenty of variety available in work as a dental hygienist.
Some dental hygienists work in physician’s offices, on teams that include doctors and nurses for overall patient health treatment. Dental hygienists may also be employed by the government and provide care via local clinics and hospitals or in underserved areas.
Dental hygienists may work full-time or part-time. Hygienists may specialize in working with one dentist, or they may work with a team of dentists.
There’s a variety of dental specialties, including dental anesthesiology, dental public health and oral medicine. A registered dental hygienist (RDH) might work with a dentist who specializes in one of the following areas.15
- Oral and maxillofacial pathology, radiology and/or surgery: This specialty focuses on oral and maxillofacial diseases, including diagnosing, imaging and surgical treatment.
- Orofacial pain: Orofacial pain focuses on pain disorders of the mouth, jaw, face, head and neck.
- Pediatric dentistry: A pediatric dental hygienist will work with a dentist who specializes in providing oral care for infants and children through adolescence.
- Periodontics: Periodontics is the dentistry specialty focusing on prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases of teeth and the surrounding tissues.
- Prosthodontics: The prosthodontics dental specialty focuses on helping patients with missing or deficient teeth and/or oral and maxillofacial tissues with the use of biocompatible substitutes.
Some people who study dental hygiene pursue careers outside of a dentist environment. Those who specialize in dental hygiene may pursue work in dental supplies sales, hospital/nursing home consultancy, teaching or community clinic administration.16 Whether you want to provide direct patient care or educate others about the importance of oral health, a dental hygienist education presents a variety of opportunities.
How to Become a Dental Hygienist
Dental hygienist requirements will vary depending on each state, but you’ll need to be licensed to legally work as a dental hygienist. The American Dental Association (ADA) reports there are some common requirements to be aware of.17
- Earn an associate degree. Typically, a dental hygienist must have a dental hygienist degree from a program that’s accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
- Pass exams. Typically, licensure is dependent on achieving a passing score on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) and on passing the state-authorized licensure examination. NBDHE eligibility rules are determined by each CODA accredited dental program.18
- Get licensed. Licensure requirements will vary by state. These may include requirements like a statement of citizenship form, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification and passing a background check.19
How long does it take to become a dental hygienist? That depends on how long it takes to complete school, pass exams and get licensed. You may be able to begin your dental hygiene career in as few as 2 to 3 years.
Do I Need to Be Certified to Be a Dental Hygienist?
Yes, the ADA states dental hygienists must be licensed by the state in which they work in order to legally provide patient education and dental hygiene care. Typically, licenses will need to be renewed after a certain amount of time, which may require continued education credits.20 Without an active license, it’s illegal to perform licensed dental hygienist duties.
How Do I Obtain RDH Licensure?
Search your state government’s website to see what’s required for RDH licensure in the state where you want to work. After you’ve received a degree from an accredited dental program and have passed your exams, you can apply for licensure. Sometimes license applications are available for online submission. You may be required to pay a fee for your application to be processed.
Once you’re approved, you’ll receive your license, along with information on the dates it’s active for. Pay attention to renewing your license so you stay active if you want to continue working as a dental hygienist.
What to Look for in Dental Hygiene School
Before you sign up for dental hygienist school, research the dental hygienist licensing requirements for the state where you want to work.
Also, think about the following factors as you compare Dental Hygiene programs.
- Affordability: Is there financial aid available? Will the school help connect you with scholarships, grants and loans to pay for school?
- Instructor quality: What kind of experience do the instructors at dental hygienist schools you’re considering have? Ask about how involved instructors at dental hygienist colleges are and how much interaction you get as you practice dental hygiene.
- Hands-on experience: You’ll need to learn concepts and terminology in a classroom setting, but hands-on experience helps you practice your skills and interact with patients. Enquire about hands-on opportunities you’ll get in your dental hygienist education.
- Program outcomes: If your goal is to work as an RDH, you’ll want to know that the program you choose prepares you to get licensed. Ask about how a dental hygiene school prepares you to take dental exams for licensure and how it prepares you to work with patients.
It may help to check out graduate testimonials, too, so you can see how a dental hygiene school has led to professional growth and development.
How Long is a Dental Hygiene Program?
You can get a Dental Hygiene degree in less than 2 years. The length of the program will depend on factors like whether it’s a part-time or full-time program and what courses and curriculum are required to complete the program.
Can I Attend Dental Hygienist School Online?
While some dental hygiene schools offer online dental hygiene associate degree programs.21 there is no way to get clinical training in an online program. An online program would not offer the same hands-on, instructor-supervised experience that an in-person program would. In order to practice on patients in a program and receive crucial clinical training, an in-person program is required.
Discover Your Career as a Dental Hygienist
Carrington College’s Dental Hygiene Program offers you the hands-on training you need for a job as Dental Hygienist. Take the first step on your way to a new career.
What Will I Learn in Carrington’s Dental Hygiene Courses?
Carrington College’s Dental Hygiene program teaches students how to work in a variety of professional settings and provide safe dental hygiene care to diverse clients. Students learn topics including anatomy and communication for patient services. Students learn how to complete dental hygiene services such as oral X-rays, sealants and fluoride application, and stain and plaque removal.
Dental Hygienist Classes
At Carrington College, each Dental Hygiene program is designed to prepare students to meet the dental hygienist licensing requirements of the state in which the program’s offered.22 Typically, dental hygiene courses will include a mix of classroom and lab work with real patients. These courses and labs cover topics like the following:
- Clinical dental hygiene
- Oral radiology
- Oral biology
- Head and neck anatomy
- Dental morphology
- Preventive dentistry
- Local anesthesia
- General and oral pathology
- Dental hygiene care for patients with special needs
- Behavioral foundations of dental hygiene care
- Dental materials
- Community oral health
- Scientific methods
- Ethics, jurisprudence and dental hygiene practice
In addition to learning how to perform dental care and educate patients, dental hygiene students learn how to empathetically deliver patient care. Labs are instructor-supervised, so students get real-time feedback on the work they’re providing.
Prepare for a Career in Dental Hygiene with Carrington College
COur programs are accredited by CODA and have a curriculum designed to help students pass the NBDHE and clinical exam and get licensed.
You’ll get to work directly with patients in an engaging mix of lab and classroom work. Our experienced instructors are invested in positive student outcomes and support students throughout their dental hygiene education.
Dental Hygienist FAQ
What does a dental hygienist do?
Dental hygienists provide preventive dental care and examine patients for signs of oral diseases. They educate patients on dental health and perform dental work including sealant and fluoride application, dental X-rays and tartar and plaque removal.
How long does it take to become a dental hygienist?
It takes as few as around 2 years to become a dental hygienist, including completing education, exams and the licensure process.
Requirements to become a dental hygienist
Dental hygienist requirements will vary by state. Typically, requirements include: completing a dental hygienist program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation; passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination; passing state licensing exams; and meeting any other state-specific requirements, such as a background check and CPR certification.