April 1, 2024

Dental Hygienist Career Guide: Salary, Education & Jobs

Dental assistants play an important role in dentistry. In this article, we explore the differences

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Dental Hygienist Career Guide: Salary, Education & Jobs

What is a dental hygienist?

Dental hygienists provide care under a dentist’s supervision and are an integral part of any dental practice. They work in tandem with dentists and look for signs of any tooth damage or decay, and educate patients on how to maintain a healthy mouth and teeth. 

A dental hygienist is a licensed dental professional. In the U.S., hygienists have been registered with a dental association. They are not licensed to perform all dental-related tasks, as they have a specific scope or procedures they are allowed to provide care for. Often, dental hygienists see patients before the dentist and perform such actions like taking radiographs, applying sealants, administering fluoride and other periodontal maintenance procedures. There are some hygienists who are licensed to use local anesthesia for some dental needs, but administration laws depend on each state. 

Is becoming a dental hygienist hard?

Like many professions in the medical world, dental hygienists need to complete school, pass board exams and become licensed with a dental association

Dental hygienists typically first attend a community college, technical college or university to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree majoring before taking their licensing exams. In addition to their degree, states require dental hygienists to be licensed, but those requirements vary by state. 

You can find dental hygiene programs offered in many community colleges and technical schools. Larger universities also tend to offer these credentials, as well. Because it’s a three-year program, many choose to study at a community college to save money. These dental classes include lab, clinical, and classroom instruction settings. Focuses can include pathology, medical ethics, and periodontics. 

What qualifications do you need to be a hygienist?

All U.S. states require that dental hygienists are licensed. However, these licenses vary state-by-state, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the state laws that you wish to practice in. In general, states require hygienists to have a degree from an accredited school and pass the board exams. There are continuing education requirements from a licensing standpoint, which are specific to the state that you work in. 

A dental hygienist is required to be licensed because it’s a way to protect the public from those who are not qualified to perform certain procedures or practices. Dental hygienists must practice according to the requirements of the particular state that they work in. It is possible to be denied a license, even if you receive a degree and have passed the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and a clinical board examination. Reasons for rejection could include a felony or prior convictions. States generally do background checks on each applicant and will take into consideration any serious offenses. 

Are dental hygienists rich?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay in 2020 for dental hygienists in the United States was $77,090 per year or $37.06 per hour. Depending on where you live, this number fluctuates slightly. Lower cost of living areas offer a lower salary on average. Additionally, where you work matters. The BLS also reports that dental hygienists who work in dental offices make the most, whereas those who work for the government earn $65,080. Most full-time hygienist jobs come with benefits such as vacation, PTO, and a 401(k)

The projected job growth for dental hygienists is expected to grow over 6 percent in the next ten years. This is faster than average than most careers, making it a secure job to have regardless of economic ups and downs. Demand for dental services has continued to increase over the last couple of decades and, with people living longer, the need for oral healthcare later is greater than ever. 

What is the difference between a dental hygienist and a dental assistant?

While both dental hygienists and dental assistants both act as supporting roles in a dentist’s office, their duties are different. One of the main differences is the amount of education needed, including specific licenses and credentials, and the jobs and procedures that they are allowed to perform on patients. 

What are the differences between dental assistants and dental hygienists?

What do dental assistants do?

Dental assistant responsibilities include:

  • Closely working with patients during procedures. 
  • Taking dental x-rays.
  • Preparing dental instruments and other equipment. 
  • Handling office management. 
  • Educating patients on oral health. 

Unlike a dental hygienist, dental assistants do not need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Instead, they often complete a one or two year program at a community college or technical school. Dental assistants also make a considerably smaller salary than hygienists, with an average yearly salary of $35,390. Many dental assistants often decide to continue to pursue their education and get a degree in Dental Hygiene, allowing them to become dental hygienists and therefore taking on more responsibility and a higher salary. 

What do dental hygienists do?

Dental hygienists responsibilities include: 

  • Understanding a patient’s medical history. 
  • Removed plaque and stains. 
  • Applying fluoride and other preventatives 
  • Removing stitches, sutures, and other types of dressings. 

Hygienists do perform some of the same duties as assistants, but their labor is more skilled, and they are certified to do more intrusive procedures. Depending on the state, some may also administer local anesthesia and nitrous oxide, polish restorations, and place temporary fillings. Many provide lab diagnostic tests for other healthcare professionals. 

Where do dental hygienists work?

Dental hygienists can work in a number of facilities. Most tend to work in a private dental practice, though there are jobs in nursing homes, schools, practice clinics, government facilities, and prisons. 

This profession can offer flexible working hours, making it ideal for those with children or who are doing continuing education. Some work part-time, and others make it their full-time career with benefits. 

Is dental hygiene a good career?

Becoming a dental hygienist is a good career move for many. There are different paths to become a hygienist, and it’s an in-demand job with high projected job growth. It’s a career that allows for some flexibility with scheduling and salary. From clinical settings to prisons, dental hygienists are able to create a positive impact in their community by providing oral care. 

More Resources

Become a Dental Assistant: Steps, Education, & Career Guide
Discover the path to becoming a dental assistant, including education requirements, certification, and job outlook. Start your rewarding career in dental healthcare today.
Program outcomes may vary depending on each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guranteed.