The Dental Hygienist Guide

The Leading Career Resource for Dental Hygienist Jobs.

Welcome to DentalPost’s Dental Hygienist Guide

The dental hygienist plays a vital role in providing patient care by working with the dentist to identify and treat oral diseases. In this position, the dental hygienist completes oral health exams, performs oral prophylaxis, and periodontal therapy. The dental hygienist also maintains the patient’s medical history, educates the patient on proper preventative care and overall oral health and wellness. For dental assistants looking to transition to a dental hygiene role, and other people looking to join this profession, this guide helps to understand educational requirements, delivers data around expected salaries, and charts a course for career advancement.

Dental Hygienist Knowledge Center

Certification

Learn about the training and education, certification, and job description of a Dental Hygienist position.

Guide to Hiring

Looking to hire a dental hygienist? Here’s a few tips from our trusted experts.

Job Search

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Schools

DentalPost explores the benefits, career prospects, and things to consider when choosing a Dental Hygienist school.

Salary

How much does a dental hygienist earn in each state?

Search For Dental Hygienist Jobs by State

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Everything You Need to Know about becoming a RDH

There are many reasons why you would want to become a registered dental hygienist. First, you have a chance to earn a competitive salary with your Associate degree, and you can continually advance your career if you get your bachelor’s or master’s degree in the same field.

While working as an RDH, you get to help your patients lead healthier lives and be of service to anyone who asks for your expertise. Better yet, you get to enjoy a flexible lifestyle.

Today, there are so many opportunities for education and careers if you choose to be a dental hygienist. You can study in person or online, and you can work in many settings beyond the traditional dental practice. What does it take to become a registered dental hygienist? Read on and learn everything there is to know.

A Dental Hygienist’s Job Description

Like the name suggests, your work will be to ensure the oral cleanliness of your patients to prevent the occurrence of dental diseases and conditions. A dental hygienist works in collaboration with the dentist to prevent, identify, and treat oral diseases. You will clean teeth and gums, examine gums, collect your patients’ medical history, and educate your patients on the ideal oral care routine.

Your specific job responsibilities will be as follows:

  • Clean Teeth: Because your patients use a normal toothbrush, you will clean their teeth using ultrasonic toothbrushes and instruments that deeply clean the patients’ teeth. You will also use power polishing tools that remove stains and other handheld devices to remove plaque and tartar from the teeth.
  • Examine Patient’s Teeth: You will be responsible for examining the healthiness of your patients and the presence of oral diseases. In such a case, you might need to take x-rays to assess the exact cause of a dental problem. After the examination, you may create a mold for the dentist to review.
  • Monitor Oral Health: As you examine patients, you will need to document the procedures you perform and the clinial issues you discover. This will help you create a dental history of the patient for review the next time a patient comes in.
  • Educate Patients on Oral Health: Because the work of a dental hygienist is in preventative oral care, it is your job to educate your patients on how to brush, floss, and use mouthwash.

Other responsibilities include:

  • Making impressions of patient’s teeth
  • Administering anesthetic injections before an invasive surgery
  • Performing root planning for non-invasive therapy
  • Removing sutures
  • Taking photos of the exterior and interior oral structures to show different stages of treatment and the outcomes
  • Applying decay protective agent such as a sealant, varnish, or fluoride
  • To pick and size orthodontic bands and to prepare teeth for the placement of braces
  • Removing orthodontic appliances

Depending on state regulations, you might work under the supervision of a dentist as a dental hygienist. In most cases, however, you will work closely with a dentist to develop patient treatment plans based on your examinations.

In your day to day work, you will use several tools, including ultrasonic tools, lasers, air polishing devices, automatic toothbrushes, x-ray machines, software such as Dentrix, and many more. They also use tools that help them make molds and teeth impressions. As a dental hygienist, it is your job to explain to patients how to maintain oral sanitation, how diet affects hygiene and health, and how to pick a toothbrush or oral care device.

The extent of the tasks you carry out will depend on the state you work in. Some states allow dental hygienists to provide restorative services such as teeth extraction and placement of temporary crowns. To be such a hygienist, also called a dental therapist, you need additional training.

Is a Dental Hygienist the Same as Dental Assistant?

The responsibilities of dental hygienists and those of a dental assistant might collide, seeing that both professionals assist a dentist. However, the positions of these two professions are not interchangeable. Dental assistants might take some of the roles that hygienists take, but their responsibilities involve the smooth running of the office, including administrative and maintenance duties. Hygienists treat patients by the themselves while dental assistants work chairside with a dentist.

A dental assistant will:

  • Schedule appointments and keep records
  • Direct patients to appropriate treatment rooms
  • Sterilize dental equipment
  • Hand instruments to the dentist during a dental procedure
  • Manage billing and payments

Depending on the state of operation, some dental assistants have extra duties that might make them sound like dental hygienists. These include teeth polishing to remove stains and plaque, applying sealants and fluoride to protect teeth against cavities, and administering topical anesthesia.

A Dental Hygienist Working Environment

In 2018, dental hygienists held about 219,800 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 94 percent of these hygienists worked in offices of dentists, 1 percent worked in offices of physicians, and 1 percent worked with the government. In some states, dental hygienists can operate their own clinics.

In your day to day tasks, you will need to wear safety glasses, gloves, and surgical masks to protect yourself from any patient who might have an infectious disease. When taking x-rays, you will need to follow safety procedures to keep you and your patient safe.

You can work as a full time or a part time dental hygienist. You can work with a dentist for only a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks, and you can also work in multiple dental practices.

Education Requirements and Levels to be a Dental Hygienist

Regardless of the state of operation, you need a license to be a dental hygienist. The minimum level of education to qualify for a license in all states is an associate’s degree. However, you can continue to scale the ladder in your career by pursuing a master’s degree or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene.

Program Accreditation

Not only do you need an associate degree to get a license, but you also need to pursue an accredited program. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) approves dental programs offered in colleges and universities. For CODA to accredit a program, the program should meet the highest-quality educational standards.

What Will You Study?

CODA stipulates that for a dental hygiene program to be complete, it should cover four main areas. These areas are general education, biomedical sciences, dental hygiene science, and dental sciences. The four content areas carry content as follows:

  • General education involves oral and written communication skills, sociology, and psychology.
  • Biomedical science involves physiology, anatomy, chemistry, immunology, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology, nutrition, pathophysiology, and pharmacology.
  • In dental hygiene science, you will study oral health education, health promotion, preventative counseling, patient management, community oral healthiness, dental emergencies, infection control, provisions for special needs patients, legal and ethical principles, and clinical dental hygiene services.
  • In dental science, you will study the morphology of a tooth, oral embryology and histology, radiography, oral pathology, periodontology, dental materials, and pain management.

The study areas above apply to all degree levels. However, if you further your education, it is easier to better tailor the programs you pursue. Dental hygiene master’s students can pursue systemic dental conditions, pediatric oral well-being, and dental health theory, and research, among other specializations.

Dental Hygienist Degrees to Pursue

With an associate degree, you can be a dental hygienist. However, if you want to move up your career ladder, you need to advance to a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. The degree you choose determines the length of time you will be in school.

An Associate’s Degree

An associate’s degree is the minimum level of education you require to get a license in dental hygiene jobs. You can earn this degree at a community college or technical school, and it only takes you two years to get a certificate.

Besides the topics outlined by CODA, you will complete a supervised clinical experience in the course of your schooling. In your first year, you engage in between eight and twelve hours of hands-on practice every week. In your second year, the hours of hands-on practice will increase to between twelve and sixteen hours a week.

Admission for an associate degree will depend on the school you choose. However, most schools require that you complete prerequisites and attain a GPA of at least 2.5. You would do well to pursue subjects such as anatomy, biology, chemistry, and sociology.

Some schools might require that you have a CPR certification before you enter the program or before you start your clinical practice.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor degree in dental hygiene is not as common as an associate degree. The degree is ideal when you need to pursue more specialized care such as developing programs for public or school settings. Like in an associate degree, you will engage in classroom courses and supervised clinical patient. Besides these, you will also learn liberal arts.

This degree will take four years to complete. However, if you already have your associate degree, it will take you between fifteen and eighteen months to complete. It is easy to complete your degree through the degree completion program. This is a program for licensed dental hygienists with interest in learning leadership skills or develop knowledge in theory and research.

Seeing that you already gained the hands-on experience through the associate degree program, clinical experience is not necessary with a degree completion program. This way, it is possible to complete your degree online.

You need to meet all prerequisites with a GPA of at least 2.5. If you are a high school graduate, you need to have taken the same courses as needed for an associate degree including biology, chemistry, anatomy, and sociology. If you already have an associate degree, you need knowledge in areas such as radiology, dental materials, and anatomy.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is the right choice if you have interests in administrative full-time positions, research, and teaching. With a master’s degree, you can assume roles such as oral disease prevention specialist, leader of education and dental health programs, and community program directors. The programs take between one and two years and require you to complete a capstone project.

To get into a master’s degree program, you need a bachelor degree in oral hygiene or a related field. You also need a GPA of at least 3.0, a dental hygienist license, letters of recommendation, career statement or resume, and acceptable GRE scores.

Online Study Programs

You can take online classes for your bachelor’s or master’s degree. However, the work of a dental hygienist is hands-on and you, therefore, need to attend in-person classes for your clinical practice for your associate degree. A bachelor’s is only possible online if you already have an associate degree.

Career Concentrations for a Registered Dental Hygienist

You do not have to work in a dental practice once you have your license, especially with a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. You can focus your profession in any other area within the dental industry. Some of the areas of specialization include:

  • Hygiene Educator: Does being a teacher appeal to you? If it does, then you have a chance to be one. When studying to be a teacher, you get the knowledge on oral fitness and concepts and theories to enable you teach adult students.
  • Courses on education cover topics such as periodontal health, preventative oral hygiene, curriculum design, and student assessment among others. As a graduate, you can teach in a vocational school, community college, or university. You can also teach in dental schools.
  • Public Health Administrator: To be a public health administrator, you need to complete a specialization in administration and public health policy during your degree. Your responsibilities will include designing and developing initiatives that seek to prevent dental diseases. Other topics administrators study include community dental practice, public policy development, and human resource management.
  • Pediatric Dental Hygienist: As a pediatric dental hygienist, you will concentrate on the care of children’s dental problems, including the development of permanent teeth in children. You will also educate children on good oral shape and alignment. You will also handle other issues including thumb sucking and fluoride varnishing. You need to be able to work with children to create safe environment for them and help alleviate the fear of dental procedures.
  • Periodontal Dental Hygienist: If you choose this option, your tasks will involve oral cancer patient screening, charting, tongue hygiene, nutrition, and denture care. Generally, your tasks involve anything that promotes holistic oral care. You can work in a private or public dentist office.

Attributes of a Good Dental Hygienist

  • Critical thinking: This is an important attribute as it helps you assess and evaluate patients.
  • Dexterity: You need to be good with your hands as your work involves hands-on practices. You will be working on small parts of the body using precise tools. This way, you need excellent motor skills.
  • Problem-solving skills: Sometimes, your work will involve creating dental care plans for your patients. Therefore, you need to be good at solving problems.
  • Interpersonal skills: You will work with dentists, patients from all walks of life, patients in extreme pain, children who fear dental procedures, the elderly, and so many other people. It is your job to make all these people feel comfortable and make the dentist understand their problems.
  • Communication skills: As a dental hygienist, your tasks involve counseling your patients and explaining the patient’s health conditions to the dentist.
  • Attention to detail: There are rules and protocols to follow when helping a dentist diagnose a condition. Again, dental hygienists in some states do not work under the supervision of a dentist; in such states, the hygienist needs to be very careful with their work.

How to Apply and get a Dental Hygienist License

You need a license from the state where you work before you start looking for dental hygiene jobs. After graduating from a CODA-accredited program, you need to take and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. In the test, you will tackle 350 multiple-choice questions. These questions are in two parts: discipline and care-based questions. The American Dental Association scores the test on a scale ranging from 49 to 99. You pass when you score at least 75 points on the test.

There are different clinical-based tests. This test evaluates your knowledge of basic hygiene practices, restorative techniques, and anesthesia. In some states, you might need to take a drug and law exam to test your knowledge on the rules and regulations in your state. You need to pass all the exams to earn a license and practice as registered dental hygienist.

Renewing Your License

You will need to renew your license in every 1 to 3 years to keep working in a dental office. To renew your license, you need to show proof that you have completed continuing education courses as stipulated by the American Dental Association, or your state, and pay the necessary fees. Every year, you need to engage in continuing education for a number of hours as required by the state. The hours can be between 10 and 20 for a 1-year cycle, 30 to 50 hours for a 2-year cycle, and about 60 hours for a 3-year cycle. In some cases, you will only cover CPR and infection control.

American Dental Association offers a variety of ways for you to engage in continuing education. Check out the live and online classes that American Dental Association offers.

Finding a Job as a Dental Hygienist

Once you have your degree, DentalPost.net can help you find a job. You can search for a position based on a wide variety of criteria, from location to the size of the practice, as well as pay and other benefits in the practice environment. You want to find a dental practice that suits you and where you fit as a member of a dental team, and DentalPost is an ideal site for that.

Most dental hygienists end up working in a general dental office in private practices. However, you can also find a job in a public hospital, nursing home, dental school, dental corporations, and research facilities. In some of the working centers, such as dental corporations, your years of experience will matter.

The Salary of a Dental Hygienist

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that dental hygienists earn an average annual salary of $76,220. That translates to $36.25 per hour. Many factors determine the salary you earn, including your exact position, level of education, the setting in which you work, and your experience. Entry-level hygienists will likely earn less than $76,000, while hygienists doing research, teaching, or holding administrative positions might earn much more, up to $100,000 a year.

Besides the competitive salary, this job type brings other benefits, including paid time off and plenty of opportunities to find jobs. Better yet, compared to the other professions whose national average growth stands at 7 percent, the demand for dental hygienists will grow by 20 percent by 2026. Dental hygienists enjoy flexible schedules with more than half of them working part time and still earning above-average salaries.

Job Outlook and Job Prospects

Over the next ten years, the employment of dental hygienists will grow by about 11 percent; this is faster than all other professions. The demand for dental practice services will rise as the years pass. The sizeable baby-boom population is aging. This population keeps more of its original teeth than previous generations did.

The need for today’s generation to maintain their original teeth increases the demand for dental hygienists. There is also increasing research on oral diseases, and this also makes more people aware of dental services. If you are the ideal candidate, you can grab these opportunities and build your career.

Job prospects will vary by region. Entry into accredited programs in colleges and universities is competitive, thanks to the high number of applicants. The applicants exceed the number of positions available in colleges and universities. Again, the rate at which dental hygienists abandon their jobs is lower than in other professions.

Overall, the number of job openings will exceed the number of graduates in a few years. If you are willing to work in underserved areas and work less than 40 hours a week, you will have more opportunities.

Career Growth

After acquiring your degree and working as a dental hygienist for a few years, you can pursue additional training to rise in your career ladder. You can seek training in areas such as education, administration, public health, and marketing. With additional training, you will find specialized and high-level roles. This also increases your earning potential.

From a Dental Hygienist to a Dentist

Some hygienists decide that they want to pursue a career as a dentist. Of course, a dentist earns more, but it requires much more education. With a bachelor’s, you can apply to pursue a 4-year program in Doctor of Dental Medicine or Doctor of Dental Surgery. You will need to complete prerequisites in chemistry, biology, physics, and English. You will also take a Dental Admission Test. As a dentist, you can choose different dentistry jobs, including family dentistry, among others.

If you have an associate degree, you can go for a bachelor’s through a degree-completion program that takes about 18 months. In some institutions, you can even study for your doctorate when pursuing your bachelor’s; look for an institution that offers doctoral programs. These doctoral programs take six years, but this is still a shorter period compared to the eight years it would take to pursue the bachelor’s and the doctorate separately.

Once you have a Doctor of Dental Medicine or Doctor of Dental Surgery degree, all you need to do is pass clinical exams as required by your state and get a license. As a dentist, you can work part time in your practice, or offer patient care in public health facilities. With the patient experience garnered from your work as a dental hygienist, you will be a great dentist.

Career Resources for a Dental Hygienist

If you are a team player and your services are high quality, you will climb the career ladder. You can join a dental group where professionals grow each other. You can check out the resources below for anything you need to understand on dental hygienist.

American Dental Education Association, ADEA
The institution works as the voice of dental education. It is in charge of programs in colleges and universities, and it brings together clinical coordinators.

American Dental Hygienists’ Association , ADHA
This is a member-based organization for dental hygienists. The organization advocates for the welfare of dental hygienists, offers them assistance, and helps them with continuing education and careers. There are annual events and publications for you to peruse.

International Federation of Dental Hygienists, IFDH
The IFDH champions the work of all dental hygienists and even offers a research grant program. It is an organization for hygienists from all over the world.

National Dental Hygienists’ Association, NDHA
The NDHA has been in operation for more than 50 years. It supports members through events, scholarship programs, and continuing education opportunities.

Get Started

There is an increasing demand for dental hygienists. All you have to do is find an accredited institution and pursue your degree.


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