According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four adults has untreated dental cavities in the United States. Almost half of the adults 30 years and older show signs of gum disease, which is considered alarming by institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO). The increasing need for oral health professionals is noticeable, which is why many aspiring healthcare professionals decide to pursue careers in dentistry fields.
Dental assistant and dental hygienist are two professionals that sound similar, but, at the core, they are different from each other. Let’s take a look at statistics and official resources to determine the similarities and differences between dental assistant vs. dental hygienist.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Overview
According to the BLS, a dental assistant is a health care professional trained in basic dental assisting tasks. Dental assistants work alongside other dental professionals (mainly dentists) in dental offices. Although dental assistants are suited to provide support in dental treatments, entry-level dental assistants often collaborate in administrative tasks inside a dental office based on their responsibilities.
A dental hygienist is a licensed dental professional suited to provide preventive dental care and therapeutic dental treatments to patients. Although the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) has accredited over 300 dental hygiene programs, dental hygienists are not legally licensed to perform all dental-related tasks.Instead, dental hygienists work closely with dentists in a dental office or dental clinic by following a determined scope of responsibilities based on their job requirements and state laws.
Are Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists the Same?
No, dental assistants and dental hygienists are not the same things. The differences between the two professionals revolve around their scope of responsibilities and educational path.
Dental assistants typically support dentists with basic patient care tasks, and they are not required to be licensed - completing dental assistant training programs is enough to become a dental assistant.
However, a registered dental hygienist has been trained and educated to perform more skilled clinical tasks in a dentist’s office or clinic, and they need to obtain an associate’s degree, which typically takes up to three years to obtain.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Tasks and Responsibilities
Dental assistants’ duties vary based on the requirements of the dentist's office and the state where they work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, patient care and administrative duties are among the main responsibilities of dental assistants.
On the other hand, dental hygienists’ duties are more skill-based since they are certified to perform more intrusive procedures. Dental hygienists are also proficient with dental terminology to educate patients and support the dental team as required by their position.
This is an overview of the most common tasks and responsibilities of both professionals.
Dental Assistant Job Duties
Handling office management.
Keeping track of patient records and scheduling patient appointments.
Sterilize dental instruments.
Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene.
Process x-rays and complete lab tasks only under the direction of a dentist.
Preparing patients and the work area for treatments and procedures.
Dental Hygienist Job Duties
Document and perform teeth treatment plans.
Educating patients about oral hygiene and other topics.
Use dental tools and dental equipment proficiently.
Remove tartar, stains, and plaque from patients’ teeth.
Examine patients to apply sealants and fluoride treatments.
Take x-rays and dental impressions as required by a dentist.
Analyzing and understanding a patient's medical history to develop procedures to protect teeth and heal oral diseases.
Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant: Work Environment
Critical thinking is a must for dental hygienists to successfully evaluate care plans for patients.
Communication skills are important to communicate successfully with both dentists and patients.
In order to successfully maintain oral health and prevent further dental issues, dental hygienists need excellent problem-solving and interpersonal skills.
Dexterity and coordination are required for dental hygienists to work with small tools and instruments.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Education
The education requirements to become a dental assistant are different from the education requirements that dental hygienists have to go through.
Therefore, it’s important for all aspiring dental hygienists or assistants to get accurate information regarding the path to follow to become a healthcare professional in any of these fields.
How to Become a Dental Assistant
The BLS says that in order to become a dental assistant, students need to get a high school diploma and complete a dental assistant training program, which typically lasts one year.
Dental assistant programs are offered mainly in community colleges and vocational schools. Most states do not require entry-level dental assistants to be licensed. However, dental assistants who want to perform extended duties (such as coronal polishing) require certifications from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).
Clinical practice and hands-on training are very important. Dental practice programs are provided by the vocational school or community college that provides the program, but most times, dental assistants perform and learn about dental practice through on-the-job training.
How to Become a Dental Hygienist
To become a dental hygienist, it is necessary to acquire an associate degree or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. A dental hygienist associate degree or bachelor’s degree usually takes up to three years to complete, and they are offered in universities, technical schools, and community colleges.
Master’s degree programs in dental hygiene are available but uncommon. These programs include dental practices, courses about medical ethics, periodontics, and more.
Having a degree from an accredited training program in dental hygiene is necessary in all states.
This means that all dental hygienists must be licensed, and to maintain licensure, continued educational requirements might be needed. The BLS suggests contacting your state’s Board of Dental Examiners to get more details depending on this matter.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has gathered crucial information regarding the salaries of both dental assistants and dental hygienists, and these are the most relevant facts that we should be aware of:
Dental Assistants Salary Overview
The median annual wage for dental assistants was $38,660 in May 2021.
The lowest 10 percent of dental assistants earn $29,580, whereas the top 10 percent of dental assistants earn more than $59,540.
Dental assistants who work in government facilities have a median annual wage of $46,090. Dental assistants who work in physician or dentist offices earn between $38,000 and $38,500 on average.
Dental Hygienists Salary Overview
The median annual wage for dental hygienists was $77,810 in May 2021.
The lowest 10 percent of dental hygienists earn less than $60,100, whereas the highest 10 percent of dental hygienists earn more than $100,200.
Dental hygienists who work in government facilities have a median annual wage of $64,110. Dental hygienists who work in offices of physicians or dentists have a median annual wage that ranges from $77,290 to $77,810.
Top Paying States for Dental Assistants vs. Dental Hygienists
The employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 9 percent over the course of a decade (from 2021 to 2031).
16,300 openings for dental hygienists are projected each year from 2021 to 2031.
The projected employment for dental hygienists in 2031 is 233,100, which represents a 19,000 numeric increase if compared to employment numbers in 2021 (214,000).
Dental Hygienists vs. Dental Assistants: Differences and Similarities
Dental assistant and dental hygienist career paths are similar yet different from one another.
Whether you want to jumpstart your career and become a dental hygienist or dental assistant, it is important to have the main differences between these two professions in mind. To summarize, these are the most relevant similarities and differences between dental assistants and dental hygienists:
Both dental assistants and dental hygienists work under the direct supervision of licensed dentists.
The great majority of both dental assistants and dental hygienists (over 90 percent) work in the offices of dentists.
It can take up to one year to become a dental assistant, whereas aspiring dental hygienists need three years of education to become licensed in the state they live in.
On average, dental assistants have a median annual wage of $38,660, whereas dental hygienists earn $77,810. This means that dental hygienists make 101.24 percent more money than dental assistants.
Although the employment of dental hygienists is expected to grow at a greater rate than dental assistants employment (9 percent vs. 8 percent), there are 40.29% more job openings for dental assistants (358,600 vs. 214,000).
Do Dental Hygienists Earn More Than Dental Assistants?
Yes, on average, dental hygienists earn 101.24 percent more than dental assistants on median annual wages. If we take a look at the top 10 percent of dental assistants who earn $46,090 vs. the highest 10 percent of dental hygienists who earn $100,200, then the difference is 117.44 percent.
Can a Dental Assistant Clean Teeth?
Dental assistants are generally not allowed to perform teeth cleaning. Legally, cleaning teeth fall into the scope of responsibilities of dentists and dental hygienists.
Program outcomes may vary depending on each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guranteed.