What Is a Dental Hygienist?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Becoming a dental hygienist is an exciting and rewarding health care career. Learn what they do, what the job outlook is, how to earn an associate degree in dental hygiene, and what you can do if you're interested in becoming one.

[Featured Image] A female dental hygienist works in a dentist's office on a tablet.

Dental hygienists work alongside dentists and other health care professionals to help patients maintain good oral health. Should you choose this exciting career path, you might handle routine cleanings and care, offer preventative options, screen for potential problems, and help dentists tackle various health issues pertaining to the mouth, teeth, and gums. 

Learn more about what a dental hygienist does, how to become one, and the job outlook for this oral health care career option. 

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a licensed health care professional who works with a dentist to help patients maintain good oral health and dental hygiene. As a dental hygienist, your goal is to prevent and treat diseases that impact the teeth and gums. This might include cleaning teeth, examining the teeth and gums, taking X-rays, collecting medical histories, and educating patients on taking proper care of their teeth and gums.

Typical dental hygienist duties

The average dental hygienist's duties will vary from office to office and maybe even from state to state, as each state has its own unique rules and regulations regarding what a dental hygienist can and can't do. Typical dental hygienist duties include:

  • Using the appropriate dental instruments to perform routine cleanings

  • Removing plaque, tartar, and stains from a patient's teeth

  • Cleaning, sterilizing, and organizing dental instruments 

  • Reviewing and maintaining a patient's medical history

  • Taking X-rays

  • Inspecting the mouth for signs of oral cancer

  • Checking the gums for signs of gum disease 

  • Providing any findings of symptoms of various diseases to the dentists so they can make a diagnosis

  • Educating patients on preventative care and good dental hygiene practices

  • Assisting the dentists with more complicated procedures, like administering anesthesia or removing stitches 

Where do dental hygienists typically work?

Most dental hygienists work in dental offices and work fairly regular hours, and the job can be both full-time and part-time. However, some dental hygienists work in other health care settings, like schools, public health clinics, hospitals, managed care organizations, and nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

If you choose to earn an advanced degree and take advantage of extra training, you may have even more opportunities. Options include teaching courses at postsecondary schools, working in sales and marketing of dental equipment, administering public health programs, and managing dental offices and health care clinics. 

Potential salary and job outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a dental hygienist is $37.41 per hour or $77,810 per year [2]. Those who work in private dental offices tend to make the most money. 

Like other healthcare fields, the BLS expects the dental hygiene field to grow at a faster than average rate over the next decade. Currently, there are over 206,100 registered dental hygienists in the United States [1], and that number is expected to increase. The need for dental hygienists is expected to grow at a rate of 11 percent by 2030 [2]. Aging baby boomers, new studies showing how oral health and general health are related, and new state laws that allow dental hygienists to take on more responsibility all play a role in why this career is on the rise. 

How to become a dental hygienist

Requirements for dental hygienists vary from state to state, but most require you to earn at a minimum an associate degree, pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and obtain a license issued by that state. If you know you want to take this career path as early as high school, consider taking courses in chemistry, biology, and math. 

You'll also want to think about the human skills required for becoming a dental hygienist. Of course, you'll need to enjoy working with and helping others. You'll spend time with patients, dentists, dental assistants, and office workers on a daily basis. The patients you work with may be in pain or may fear dental work, so it's important that you're sympathetic to their needs. 

Other critical human skills for dental hygienists include: 

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving: Every mouth is different, so you must come up with a plan of action for each patient. 

  • Communication skills: On any given day, you'll find yourself communicating with your patients, a dentist, office staff, dental assistants, patients' families, and more.

  • Detail-oriented: In order to come up with a diagnosis or plan of action for each patient, you must pay close attention to the details involved in their situation. 

  • Dexterity: Much of your job as a dental hygienist involves working with your hands, using precision, and handling dental instruments in a small space. 

Earn an associate degree

As previously mentioned, you must earn an associate degree before embarking on a career as a dental hygienist. Bachelor's and master's degrees are also available, but they aren't quite as common, and they're usually only required for careers like teaching or research. You'll find many associate degree programs in dental hygiene at community colleges, vocational schools, and technical schools, as well as some universities. According to the American Dental Association, there are over 300 accredited programs in the United States [3].

It generally takes about three years to complete a dental hygiene program. Your courses will likely include classroom lectures, lab work, and clinical practice. You'll typically study anatomy, medical ethics, periodontics, nutrition, pathology, radiology, and patient management. You may also take some liberal arts courses, and you may choose to take additional courses in topics like public health or marketing, depending on your career goals. 

Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination

Once you've completed your associate degree, you'll need to take and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, offered by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE). The test is usually made up of 350 questions and divided into two parts, including both discipline-based and case-based items [4]. 

Complete any required state licensing

Once you pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, you need to look into the type of licensing required by the state where you want to practice. What is required will vary from state to state. However, completing an accredited dental hygiene program, passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and passing a state or regional clinical board examination is almost always required. 

Consider additional training

Finally, many dental hygienists choose additional training. As discussed, you may go on to earn a more advanced degree. If you have a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, you may go on to work in education, other clinical settings, school health programs, or public health programs. If you have a master's degree, you can explore careers in education, research, health care administration, public health, and advanced clinical positions. 

You may also be required to take so many hours of courses every year or every few years once you earn your dental hygienist license. Whether they're required or optional, taking these courses can help keep you up to date on the latest practices and discoveries in the world of dental hygiene. 

Next steps

If you're interested in exploring a career in the dental field or health care, take a look at some of the dentistry courses offered on Coursera. From the University of Pennsylvania's Introduction to Dental Medicine course to the University of Michigan's Dentistry 101, you can get a feel for the topic and determine if it's something you want to turn into a rewarding career.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Dental Hygienists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm#tab-6." Accessed March 22, 2022. 

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Dental Hygienists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm#tab-5." Accessed March 22, 2022.

3. American Dental Association. "Dental Team Careers, https://www.ada.org/resources/careers/dental-team-careers." Accessed March 22, 2022. 

4. Joint Commissions on National Dental Examinations. "NBDHE Case Development Guide, http://jcnde.ada.org/~/media/JCNDE/pdfs/nbdhe_case_guide.pdf." Accessed March 22, 2022.

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