What Is a Dental Hygienist? And How to Become One

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Dental hygienist is an exciting and rewarding health care career. Learn what they do, their job outlook, and how to become 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. As a dental hygienist, you'll handle routine oral cleanings and care, offer preventative options, screen for potential problems, and help dentists tackle various health issues pertaining to patients' mouths, teeth, and gums. 

In this article, you'll 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. On any given day, this might include cleaning teeth, examining the teeth and gums, taking X-rays, collecting medical histories, and educating patients on proper oral care.

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 dental 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 

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A lecture on patient evaluation from the University of Pennsylvania's Introduction to Dental Medicine course.

Where do dental hygienists typically work?

Most dental hygienists work in dental offices and work fairly regular hours, ranging from part-time to full-time employment. Some dental hygienists, however, work in other health care settings, such as 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 $77,810 per year or $37.41 per hour as of May 2021[1]. Those who work in private dental offices tend to make the most money. 

Like other healthcare occupations, the BLS expects dental hygienists 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. Between 2021 and 2031, though, the BLS projects that the number of job openings in the field will increase by 9 percent, adding an average of 16,300 new jobs each year throughout the decade [2].

An aging baby boomer population, new studies highlighting the connection between oral health and general health, and new state laws allowing dental hygienists to take on more responsibility all play a role in why this career is on the rise.  Read more: Dental Hygienist Salary: Your 2022 Guide

How to become a dental hygienist

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

Here are some of the steps you should consider when pursuing a career in the field:

1. Earn an associate degree.

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.  Read more: What Is an Associate Degree? Requirements, Costs, and More

2. 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 made up of 350 questions and divided into two parts, including both discipline-based and case-based items [4]. 

3. 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 are almost always required. 

4. Practice critical workplace skills.

As a dental hygienist, you'll spend time with patients, dentists, dental assistants, and office workers on a daily basis, so you'll need to refine your human skills if you want to excel in the job. While some days may see you calming patients fearful of dental work, others might require you to collaborate with other dental professionals to ensure patients get the care they need.

Some common human skills you can expect to use on the job 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. 

5. 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, then you may go on to work in education, other clinical settings, school health programs, or public health programs. A master's degree, meanwhile, will allow you to explore careers in education, research, health care administration, public health, and advanced clinical positions. 

You may also be required to take a certain number of continuing education hours 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, you might consider taking a cost-effective, online course through Coursera today. The University of Pennsylvania's Introduction to Dental Medicine course provides an overview of dental medicine to engage, educate, excite and assist you in improving the oral health of your patients and members of your community.

The University of Michigan's Dentistry 101, meanwhile, gives course takers a well-rounded introductory understanding of the field of dentistry and offers glimpses of the profession that aren't always easily available.

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Article sources

1

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Dental Hygienists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm#tab-1." Accessed November 10, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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