What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019 

Dental hygienists provide preventative oral care under a dentist's supervision. They clean patients' teeth and examine their mouths for signs of damage, gingivitis, and other diseases. Hygienists teach patients 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.

Dental hygienists differ from dental assistants. While both work in dental practices under dentists' supervision, they 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 Hygienist Duties & Responsibilities

The dental hygienist job requires candidates to be able to perform duties that include the following:

  • Complete a preliminary exam on each new dental service patient
  • Clean and remove stains, plaque, and tartar from teeth
  • Apply flourides and sealants for tooth protection
  • Take dental x-rays and develop them
  • Administer local anesthetics to patients
  • Document treatment plans and care performed on patients
  • Examine each patient's oral health and communicate findings to dentists
  • Educate patients on how to care for their teeth with good oral hygiene, including proper brushing and flossing

Dental hygienists must also use several tools as part of their job. This includes hand, power, and ultrasonic tools for cleaning and polishing teeth, and x-ray machines for taking patient x-rays to check for issues with teeth and jaws. They may also use lasers.

Dental Hygienist Salary

A dental hygienist's salary varies based on the level of experience, geographic location, and other factors.

  • Median Annual Salary: $74,070 ($35.61/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $101,330 ($48.72/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $51,180 ($24.61/hour)

Education, Training & Certification

Dental hygienists usually need an associate's degree, and programs are available at community colleges, trade schools, and universities.

  • Education: 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.
  • Licenses: 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 both 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.

Dental Hygienist Skills & Competencies

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.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has designated this a "Bright Outlook" occupation because of its exceptional job outlook.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for dental hygienists over the next decade relative to other occupations and industries is strong, driven by an aging population that needs more dental care.

Employment is expected to grow by about 20 percent over the next ten years, which is faster growth than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026. Other health technologist and technician jobs are projected to grow slightly slower, at 14 percent over the next ten years.

These growth rates compare to the projected 7 percent growth for all occupations. Although the demand for dental care services will continue to grow, the number of new graduates is also increasing, creating more competition for jobs. Job seekers that have some previous work experience may have the best results with their job search.

Work Environment

About half of all hygienists have part-time jobs in multiple dental practices. Virtually all hygienists work in the offices of dentists, although a very small number work in doctors' offices.

Work Schedule

Dental hygienists often work part-time hours, and dentists hire them to work a few days each week. For this reason, some dental hygienists work for more than one dental practice.

How to Get the Job

APPLY

Look for dental hygienist positions using job-search resources like Indeed.com, Monster.com, and Glassdoor.com. You can also visit specialized online job portals, such as The American Dental Hygienists Association's job board. You can also find job opportunities by contacting your dental hygienist school's career center.


FIND A DENTAL HYGIENIST VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY

Look for an opportunity to do volunteer work as a dental hygienist through online sites such as The American Dental Association.


FIND AN INTERNSHIP

Get guidance by working with in a dentist's office. You can find dental hygienist internships through the same online job search sites that list dental hygienist jobs. Also check with your school's career center for available dental hygienist internships. Some organizations, such as Oral health America also offer internships.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in optometry also consider the following career paths, listed with their median annual salaries:

  • Dental Assistant: $37,630
  • Dentist: $158,120
  • Medical Assistant: $32,480