What Is a Dental Hygienist?

Job Description and Career Information

female dental assistant working on boy
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A dental hygienist provides preventative oral care under a dentist's supervision. He or she cleans patients' teeth and examines their mouths for signs of disease and damage. Hygienists teach them how to maintain good oral health. Their scope of practice—what services they are legally allowed to deliver—differs according to the rules of the state in which they work.

Quick Facts

  • Dental hygienists who worked full-time earn a median annual salary of $74,070 or hourly wages of $35.61 (2017)
  • 207,900 people work in this occupation (2016).
  • About half of all hygienists have part-time jobs in multiple dental practices.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has designated this a "Bright Outlook" occupation because of its exceptional job outlook. Employment, between 2016 and 2026, is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations.

Roles and Responsibilities

These are some typical job duties of dental hygienists found in job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Complete preliminary examinations on new dental service patients"
  • "Take X-rays of patients' teeth and develop them for dentist's use"
  • "Educate patient on office procedures and treatments"
  • "Complete dental prophylaxis by cleaning deposits and stains from teeth and from beneath gum margins"
  • "Evaluate overall oral health, examining oral cavity for signs of periodontal disease or possible cancers, including sores, recessed & bleeding gums, and oral lesions"
  • "Administer local anesthetics"
  • "Chart decay, disease, conditions, and any treatment recommended by dentist"
  • "Stock all needed supplies and maintain equipment"

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

To work as a dental hygienist, graduation from an accredited dental hygiene school with either an associate degree (most common), a certificate, a bachelor's degree, or a master's degree is required.

You can search for accredited programs in the U.S. or Canada on the American Dental Association website.

You also need a license from the dental board in the state in which you want to practice. After graduation,  you will have to pass a written exam and clinical exam. Consult individual state dental boards to learn about specific requirements. The American Dental Association website features a directory of state dental boards.

What Soft Skills Do You Need?

People who possess certain characteristics are better suited for this occupation than are others. In addition to your degree and license, you will need the following soft skills:

  • Compassion: Those who work in this occupation, as well as others in the healthcare field, need a desire to help people.
  • Manual Dexterity: Excellent fine motor skills are needed to grasp instruments and work inside patients' mouths. 
  • Interpersonal Skills: When dealing with patients, you must be able to relate to them, recognize when they are uncomfortable or anxious, and reassure them.
  • Attention to Detail: Without the ability to pay attention to detail, it will be impossible to perform several aspects of your job including noticing stains and other treatable issues during cleanings and, while examining patients' teeth, detecting potential health problems requiring the dentist's attention.
  • Physical Stamina: Excellent stamina is essential since dental hygienists spend a lot of time on their feet.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

Dental practices, in addition to requiring specific technical skills, expect their workers to meet other requirements. Here are some that we found in actual job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Must have a desire to challenge themselves with new and cutting-edge technologies"
  • "Well presented and professional in demeanor"
  • "Must be a team player and have an outgoing personality"
  • "Be passionate about helping people"
  • "Proactive and will recognize areas of concern above and beyond periodontal disease"
  • "Ability to focus in fast-paced environment"

What Is the Difference Between Dental Hygienists and Dental Assistants?

Dental hygienists and dental assistants, while both work in dental practices under dentists' supervision, differ in their job duties, educational requirements, and earnings, as well as the number of hours they typically work.

Dental assistants escort patients to exam and treatment rooms, prepare them for examinations and procedures, and sterilize instruments and hand them to dentists. They also schedule appointments and keep records and may take and develop X-rays. Unlike dental hygienists, they do not clean or examine patients' teeth, but in some states, they are allowed to apply sealants and fluoride.

Dental assistants don't spend as much time in school as hygienists. In some states', they must complete a year-long program at a community college or vocational school, while in others only on-the-job training is mandatory.

Dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $37,630 or $18.09 per hour (2017), only slightly more than half of what hygienists made. Unlike hygienists, their jobs were usually full-time.

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Do a self assessment to learn about your interests, personality type, and work-related values. These traits can predict whether an occupation will be a good fit for an individual. Do you have the following traits? If so, you may find career satisfaction by being a dental hygienist.

Quiz: Should You Become a Dental Hygienist?

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Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree (D.P.T.)
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Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited October 12, 2018).