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 earned a median annual salary of $72,910 in 2016. Those who had part-time jobs, as about half of them do, earned $35.05 hourly.
  • In 2014, 201,000 people worked in this occupation.
  • Some dental hygienists work 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, through at least 2024, 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, you will have to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school with either an associate degree (most common), a certificate, a bachelor's degree, or a master's degree.

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

After graduating, you will have to get a license from the dental board in the state in which you want to practice. You will have to pass a written exam and a 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: A desire to help people is necessary for this career as it is for others in the healthcare field.
  • Manual Dexterity: You need excellent fine motor skills 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, you will be unable to perform several aspects of your job. When doing cleanings, it will let you notice stains and other things you can treat. When performing examinations, you will be able to detect potential health problems that will require the dentist's attention.
  • Physical Stamina: Excellent stamina will allow you to spend a lot of time on your feet and bending over while treating patients.

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. They may take and develop X-rays. Unlike dental hygienists, they do not clean or examine patients' teeth. In some states, they are allowed to perform tasks like applying sealants and fluoride.

Dental assistants don't spend as much time preparing for this career as hygienists spend preparing for theirs. 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 needed.

Dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $36,940 in 2016, 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?

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Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree (D.P.T.)
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Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited May 8, 2017). Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited May 8, 2017).