How to Become a Dental Hygienist and More About This Career

Dental hygienists help people maintain a vital part of well-being: their oral health. learn what takes become a hygienist from career outlook and more.

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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, 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
  • Cleaning 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 six years or more to become a dentist.5 You can earn an associate degree and prepare to take the Dental Hygiene National Board, as well as any state or regional clinical licensing examinations (if applicable)* in as few astwo years.

Another perk to working 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 BenefitsDental 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.

A benefit of pursuing a career as a dental assistant include getting into the working world faster. Learn more about a career in dental assisting.

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.

Wherever there are people, there is a need for those who work in a dental hygienist career.11 Some dental hygienists work in physician offices or in government roles.

States with Highest Employment Levels of Dental Hygienists

Some states have higher employment of dental hygienist 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 2022, according to the BLS.13

California 25,980
Texas 11,180
Florida 13,090
New York 13,360
Pennsylvania 8,640

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

  1. Earn an associate degree. Typically, to become a dental hygienist one must complete a Dental Hygiene degree program that’s accredited** by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
  2. Pass exams*. Take the Dental Hygiene National Board, as well as any state or regional clinical licensing examinations (if applicable). Licensure qualifications vary by state.  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 two to three 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.

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.

Certified Dental HygienistHow 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 Hygiene 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 a Dental Hygiene Program

Before you sign up for dental hygienist training, research the 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 for the Dental Hygiene program you’re considering have? Ask about how involved instructors at these 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. Inquire 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 these Dental Hygiene programs prepare you to take dental exams for licensure and how they prepare you to work with patients.

It may help to check out graduate testimonials, too, so you can see how a school has led to professional growth and development.

How Long is a Dental Hygiene Program?

You can get a Dental Hygiene degree in as few as two 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 Complete a Dental Hygiene Program Online?

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.

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 Hygiene Program Requirements

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.

Students learn to analyze and apply advances in research to dental hygiene care and are encouraged to participate in and provide leadership in community activities that promote optimal oral health.

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

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. Graduates of the program are prepared to take the Dental Hygiene National Board, as well as state or regional clinical licensing examinations. Licensure qualifications vary by state.

Learn about Carrington College’s Dental Hygiene associate degree program. Request Dental Hygiene program.

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 can take as few as two to three 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 Hygiene 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, fingerprinting, and CPR certification.

*Carrington College prepares students to take appropriate certification and licensure exams related to their individual majors. The College does not guarantee students will successfully pass these exams or be certified or licensed as a result of completing the program.

**The Dental Hygiene programs at the Boise, Mesa, Sacramento, and San Jose campuses are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. The Commission on Dental Accreditation is a specialized accrediting body recognized by the United States Department of Education. The Commission on Dental Accreditation can be contacted at 312 440 4653 or at 211 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611-2678. The Commission’s website address is

Carrington College is accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, 428 J Street, Suite 400, Sacramento, CA 95814; 415-506-0234 an institutional accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education.

Additional information about accreditation, including the filing of complaints against member institutions, can be found at



Last Updated:

January 29th, 2023


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