by Kaitlin Louie
Dental hygienists work closely with dentists and dental assistants to ensure that patients receive adequate oral care and oral health guidance. The primary responsibilities of dental hygienists include cleaning teeth, examining patients’ mouths for evidence of oral diseases, and providing both preventative oral care and advice on how patients can optimize the health of their teeth, gums, and tongue. Dental hygienists work almost exclusively in dentists’ offices, and generally enjoy flexible hours and strong compensation for their services.
Advancing technology and rising public awareness about the role that oral health plays in overall health have fueled an increasing demand in America for dental hygiene services. As a result, the employment of dental hygienists is expected to grow 38 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is much greater than the national average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012).
In order to become a dental hygienist, candidates must typically earn at least an associate degree in dental hygiene and pass both a national and a state-administered licensing exam. Training often involves classroom, laboratory, and clinical components that help to prepare students for these exams.
- How does one become a dental hygienist?
- What kinds of dental hygienist programs are available?
- What are some examples of the courses taught in a dental hygienist program?
- Must the dental hygienist training program that I attend be accredited?
- What does the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination involve?
- What do the regional licensing examinations for dental hygiene involve?
- How do I renew my dental hygienist license? How often must I renew this license?
- If I move states, is my dental hygienist license transferable to my new state of residence?
- What are the key job responsibilities of the dental hygienist?
- What tools and technology do dental hygienists typically use?
- How are dental hygienists and dental assistants different?
- What is the typical job environment for the dental hygienist?
- What associations would be useful for me to join as a dental hygienist?
- What is the employment outlook for dental hygienists?
- What is the average dental hygienist salary?
- What are some careers that are related to dental hygiene?
Career Colleges interviewed two dental hygiene instructors who shared their experiences as teachers as well as professionals in the field. To read their stories, including their additional tips and advice for potential dental hygiene students, visit our interview directory. Learn more about the daily responsibilities and experiences of this profession from Julie Spaans, dental hygienist.
How does one become a dental hygienist?
There are multiple paths to becoming a dental hygienist. However, the general steps to achieving this profession can be summarized thus:
- Fulfill prerequisite science courses at one’s high school or college.
- Enroll in an associate or bachelor’s degree program in dental hygiene that has been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
- Research state-specific requirements for licensure in dental hygiene.
- Pass both a written and practical licensing examination that has been approved by one’s state of residence.
- Submit necessary documentation for licensure to the dental hygienist licensing agency of one’s state.
- Apply for jobs in one’s area, and engage in working interviews.
What kinds of dental hygienist programs are available?
Dental hygienist programs are available at community colleges, vocational schools, trade schools, technical schools, and state universities. The majority of these programs are full-time and lead to an associate’s degree, though bachelor’s programs in dental hygiene also exist. Prerequisites for dental hygienist programs may include successful completion of high school chemistry, biology, and/or mathematics courses. If one did not take or pass these subjects in high school, one often has the option of taking these courses at one’s college to fulfill the prerequisite requirements. Some dental hygiene schools also require that students receive CPR certification, pass a health check, and/or receive certain vaccinations.
Associate Degree (A.S. or A.A.S)
The associate degree in dental hygiene is the most common degree that dental hygienists hold, and generally takes 2 years to complete. Associate degree programs have a targeted focus on preparing students for a professional career as a dental hygienist, and typically have courses that cover the fundamentals of oral anatomy, dental cleaning techniques, and proper oral care. These programs also often contain a practical component in which students implement the methods and principles that they learn in their classes, both in a clinical and a laboratory setting.
Bachelor’s Degree (B.S.)
The bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene generally takes four years to complete, and involves more advanced courses in the same subjects taught in associate degree programs, as well as general education requirements such as English or communications courses, social science classes, etc. Some bachelor’s degree programs in dental hygiene allow students who have already completed an associate degree program in dental hygiene to transfer much of their A.S. coursework towards their B.S. For students in this situation, it is best to discuss transfer options with an admissions counselor before enrolling in a program.
What are some examples of the courses taught in a dental hygienist program?
The general course subjects for dental hygienist programs include but are not limited to:
- Human Anatomy and Physiology— the study of body systems and their functions (for example, the circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, central nervous, and musculoskeletal systems), as well as common diseases and physical conditions.
- Oral and Facial Anatomy—the anatomy of the human mouth, including jaw, teeth, gums, throat, and tongue. Diseases of the mouth and their treatment.
- Dental Hygiene—the theories, methods, and practices of cleaning and caring for people’s teeth and gums.
- Dental Radiology—how to take and interpret dental x-rays. How to identify cavities and other teeth and gum conditions.
- Pharmacology—the use and effects of certain drugs and medicines.
- Oral Health and Nutrition—practices that patients should implement to improve their oral health. How nutrition affects oral health.
- Dental Laws and Ethics—ethics and principles of the dental field, standards of professional conduct in various dental care settings and situations.
- Clinical Practicum—practical courses that enable students to apply the dental hygiene knowledge they learn in the classroom. Often involves working on real patients.
- Laboratory—practical application of radiology and radiography (ex. taking and interpreting patient x-rays), and other laboratory practices such as making impressions of patients’ teeth.
Must the dental hygienist training program that I attend be accredited?
Yes. Dental hygienists must be licensed in order to practice professionally, and all dental hygiene licensing organizations in the United States require that candidates attend a dental hygiene program that has been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), a division of the American Dental Association (ADA), in order to qualify for a licensure exam.
What are the steps to obtaining a dental hygienist license?
All states require dental hygienists to earn and maintain a professional license. Licensing requirements vary by state; however, in general all states require dental hygienists to complete the following in order to obtain licensure:
- Graduate from an accredited dental hygienist training or degree program
- Take and pass a written examination such as the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE)
- Take and pass a clinical (i.e. practical) examination at an approved regional testing agency
- Fulfill other state-specific certifications and/or requested documentation (such as proof of CPR certification, letters of recommendation, school transcripts, etc.)
It is important that one check with one’s state of residence for specific requirements, as they vary from state to state.
What does the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination involve?
The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) is currently recognized by all United States licensing jurisdictions as fulfilling the written examination requirement for dental hygienist licensure. However, some states require additional written examinations such as a jurisprudence exam (which tests candidates on their knowledge of state dental laws and practices). The NBDHE is a comprehensive exam that includes 350 multiple-choice questions divided into two sections:
- Component A: 200 questions on the scientific concepts behind dental hygiene practices, the methods of clinical dental hygiene services, and the principles of community health and research.
- Component B: 150 case-based questions that use information from 12-15 dental hygiene patients. Questions test candidates’ ability to evaluate patient records and characteristics, interpret patient radiographs, understand periodontal procedure methods, plan and implement patient care and advice, use preventive oral treatments, and comprehend dental hygienist ethics and professional responsibilities.
What do the regional licensing examinations for dental hygiene involve?
Regional licensing examinations are practical exams that test candidates’ application of the knowledge they learn in their training programs. Different regions of the nation approve different regional exams for dental hygienist licensure. Thus, one should check with one’s state of residence to see what regional examination(s) it accepts to fulfill the practical examination licensure requirement. Approved regional testing agencies include:
- Council of Interstate Testing Agencies (CITA)
- Central Regional Dental Testing Service (CRDTS)
- North East Regional Board of Dental Examiners (NERB)
- Southern Regional Testing Agency (SRTA)
- Western Regional Examining Board (WREB)
Regional clinical examinations generally have a clinical, radiographic, and sometimes a computer component. The clinical component involves cleaning and removing deposits from a selection of teeth on an actual patient. The radiographic component involves evaluating a complete x-ray of a patient’s mouth. A computer component is only required for the NERB and WREB exams; these tests involve multiple choice questions that test candidates’ knowledge of proper dental patient care.
How do I renew my dental hygienist license? How often must I renew this license?
License renewals are generally required of dental hygienists every one to three years. License renewal requirements also vary from state to state, but generally require the candidate to take continuing education courses and/or take another examination that tests his or her continuing competence in dental hygiene concepts and practices. Continuing education courses are available both online and in-person through dental hygiene associations such as ADHA.
If I move states, is my dental hygienist license transferable to my new state of residence?
Most states provide dental hygienists who are already licensed in another state the option of obtaining licensure in a new state if they already have an active license that is in good standing, have graduated from a CODA-accredited dental hygiene school, and have taken both a national written and regional clinical exam. The process that dental hygienists undergo to receive a license in a new state of residence is called licensure by endorsement or licensure by credentials. Candidates who fulfill all the requirements for licensure in their new state of residence must still formally apply to the licensing board of their new state of residence—they do not automatically qualify for a license by endorsement.
Some states have stricter requirements for licensure by credentials than others. For example, some states mandate that applicants pass a state-specific jurisprudence exam, submit letters of recommendation from their dental hygiene school, undergo a background check, or obtain additional certifications such as CPR or local anesthesia. Please check the specific requirements of one’s future or desired state of residence to ensure that one fulfills all the requirements for dental hygienist licensure.
What are the key job responsibilities of the dental hygienist?
Dental hygienists focus on preventative dental treatments, such as cleaning and providing proper oral health guidance. The primary job responsibilities of the dental hygienist may include:
- Clean plaque, tartar, stains, and other accretions both from the teeth and along the gum line using dental instruments and technology
- Use probes to examine gums for sores, periodontal gum recession, and/or gum disease
- Record and evaluate patient medical histories
- Expose and develop dental x-rays
- Record and keep track of patient’s dental health for treatment and evaluation by dentist
- Apply fluoride and sealants to protect teeth from cavities and decay
- Advise patients on proper oral hygiene, such as brushing and flossing methods
- Examine patients’ lymph nodes underneath their chin to check for swelling indicative of oral cancer
What tools and technology do dental hygienists typically use?
Dental hygienists use a variety of specialized tools to thoroughly clean and examine patients’ teeth and gums. They also regularly use certain software programs to keep track of patient information and appointments. Examples of common tools and technology that dental hygienists routinely use include the following:
- Dental probes
- Teeth cleaning devices such as dental polishers, dental scalers, and air/water syringes
- Dental x-ray machines
- Medical/dental charting software
How are dental hygienists and dental assistants different?
Both dental hygienists and dental assistants help dentists care for patients. However, several key distinctions exist between these two professions. While dental hygienists are trained and authorized to clean teeth and evaluate patients’ mouths for oral infections and diseases, dental assistants perform administrative and logistical tasks such as preparing both patients and work areas for treatment and examinations, organizing patient information, coordinating patient billing and payment, sterilizing dental instruments, and handing tools to dentists and dental hygienists during cleaning and treatment procedures. While dental hygienists require at least an associate degree in dental hygiene, dental assistants who receive training usually attend programs that lead to a diploma or certificate. For more information on dental assistants, view our corresponding career profile here.
What is the typical job environment for the dental hygienist?
Dental hygienists work almost exclusively in dentist’s offices, which are typically brightly lit and clean environments. Other job environments for the dental hygienist include hospitals, research institutions, correctional facilities, public health clinics, schools, and nursing homes. Flexible schedules are a distinctive and often attractive aspect of this profession, and the majority of dental hygienists work part-time. Dentists frequently hire hygienists to work for part of the week; as a result, some hygienists may work for multiple dentists in their area. Many dental hygienists also work as independent contractors. Dental hygienists who work on a part-time or contract basis may have fewer work-related benefits than those who are employed full-time. Dental hygienists interact on a daily basis with dentists, dental assistants, and patients, and must maintain a helpful and professional demeanor in the workplace.
Dental hygienists spend long hours bent over patients to clean and treat their teeth. The physical demands of this profession can lead to health problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and neck or back pain. In addition, due to the fact that dental hygienists come in close contact with patients’ mouths, they must wear surgical masks, safety glasses, and gloves in order to protect both themselves and patients from potential infections and diseases. Exposure to patients’ blood (often in the form of bleeding gums during cleanings) is a routine risk of this profession, and thus care must be taken to avoid contact with patients’ blood through the appropriate use of tools and protective equipment.
What associations would be useful for me to join as a dental hygienist?
Dental hygienist associations can provide career support, educational programs, and a helpful network of fellow dental hygienists. The largest and most established national dental hygienist association is the American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA). ADHA is organized into three tiers: component (local), constituent (state), and national. Each of these tiers has different functions within the organization, and serves members in different ways. ADHA’s component associations serve members through local educational and community service programs, while the constituent organizations keep the local associations informed of national policies and legislations concerning dental hygienists. ADHA’s national organization gathers feedback from the state and local chapters and represents these chapters’ interests to policy makers. ADHA members must join all three tiers of the organization. Annual membership fees cover membership in all three tiers.
Benefits of being an ADHA member include:
- Representation in government policy development
- Discounts on continuing education courses
- Employment assistance in the form of employment reference materials, state employment referral services, national classified advertising
- Discounted professional, liability, disability, and medical insurance
Another reputable dental hygienists’ association is the National Dental Hygienists’ Association (NDHA), which has component organizations in California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, and Tennessee. Benefits of joining NDHA include:
- Options for Continuing Education courses
- Resources for Professional Development
- Networking and employment opportunities
- Scholarships for dental hygiene students and practicing dental hygienists who wish to earn a graduate degree
What is the employment outlook for dental hygienists?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012) reports that the employment of dental hygienists is expected to grow by 38% nationally between 2010 and 2020, which is much faster than the national average for all occupations. This robust increase in employment outlook is due to the understanding within the scientific community and the general public of the link between oral health and overall health. Advancements in dental hygiene and oral health technologies, including new devices that detect oral diseases, are also expected to attract new clients to dentist offices. In addition, the baby boomer population should comprise a large portion of dental hygienist clientele as they age and require more dental services to maintain their original teeth.
States with the highest employment level in this occupation as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
What is the average dental hygienist salary?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), the mean compensation for dental hygienists in 2011 was $69,760 per year, or $33.54 per hour. Depending on their employer, dental hygienists may be paid by the hour, by the day, through a salary, or by commission. As most dental hygienists work part time at several dentists’ offices, their income can vary according to patient demand.
Percentile wage estimates for dental hygienists as of May 2011:
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
Top paying states for dental hygienists as of May 2011:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
District of Columbia
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
- Dental Assistants help dentists care for patients, keep track of patient records, and make appointments, among other administrative and dental tasks.
- Medical Assistants perform clinical and administrative tasks such as scheduling patient appointments, measuring vital signs, recording patient history, conducting blood tests and other labwork, and assisting physicians with patient examinations and procedures.
- Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides help occupational therapists to treat patients who have injuries, disabilities, or illnesses and who need to recover the ability to complete daily tasks and life activities.
- Physical Therapist Assistants work with physical therapists to help patients recover from physical injuries and illnesses. They also perform secretarial duties and maintain the cleanliness and organization of a physical therapy space.
- Ultrasound Technicians use sound wave technology to image a patient’s body in order to diagnose or evaluate certain medical conditions, from pregnancy to disease and injury.
Resources and Additional Information:
"http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm" | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Dental Hygienists
"http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2021.00" | O*Net Online: Dental Hygienists
"http://www.adha.org/" | American Dental Hygienist Association
"http://www.ada.org/" | American Dental Association
"http://www.ada.org/JCNDE.aspx" | Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations
"http://www.ndhaonline.org/" | National Dental Hygienists’ Association
Kaitlin is a content writer and editor for CareerColleges.com and CityTownInfo.com. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English Literature, and aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing and social dancing on the weekends.