How To Become A Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists are healthcare workers who provide a variety of preventative oral health services for their patients such as reviewing health history, cleaning teeth, checking for diseases and taking x-rays. They also educate their patients on proper oral hygiene such as brushing techniques and flossing habits. Not only is dental hygiene one of the fastest growing occupations, it also offers excellent salaries and employment prospects as well as a wide range of intangible advantages from job security to personal satisfaction.

Becoming a dental hygienist could be one of the most important (and challenging) endeavors of your life. Before you decide that you want to become one and take advantage of the many benefits the job offers, you should first learn what the education and training requirements are as well as what duties they are responsible for on a daily basis. The following is an overview of the career and what salary you can expect in different sectors and locations.

Job Description and Outlook

Dental hygienists work with dentists to provide oral health care for their patients. Their responsibilities and the services they can perform vary from state to state as every state has its own set of rules and regulations that govern the profession. Some states allow procedures such as: administering anesthesia, applying temporary fillings, removing stitches and applying periodontal dressings.

Typical responsibilities and services they provide include:

  • Cleaning deposits (hard and soft) from patient’s teeth such as plaque, tartar and stains
  • Teach patients about proper oral hygiene habits (mostly brushing and flossing) and answer any questions they have
  • Take and develop x-rays of patients’ teeth
  • Apply fluorides, sealants and fillings to prevent tooth decay and erosion
  • Screen patients for conditions, diseases, oral cancer by inspecting their teeth, gums, neck and head, health records, x-rays, pulse and blood pressure
  • Create impressions of teeth for study casts
  • Develop outpatient treatment plans
  • Maintain and update oral health records
  • Carry out general office administration and management activities

Excellent communication and people skills as well as above average manual dexterity are absolutely necessary to succeed as a licensed hygienist. The job involves constant interaction with both patients and dentists all day and patients (and sometimes even dentists) can be difficult to deal with at times. Good communication skills help keep everyone on the same page and can help put distressed patients at easy. The manual dexterity is a must because they must be able to safely and efficiently operate the many tools at their disposal. Other useful characteristics that can make the job easier include being compassionate, detail oriented and having the willingness to learn new techniques/concepts.

Most dental hygienists work in general dentist offices, but there are many who work in specialized clinics such as pediatric (children) or periodontic (oral disease) dentists. They can also be employed by nursing homes, public health clinics and hospitals to provide hygiene services. These professionals work closely with dentists and their assistants to provide the complete spectrum of oral care services.

Depending on their educational background and level of experience, hygienists may visit schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, and communities to teach people about dental hygiene or work as an instructor for a dental education program or school. Some even find employment with manufacturing or marketing companies that deal with dental equipment and materials.

Dental hygienists use a number of different tools on a daily basis, such as power drills before applying a filling or ultrasonic/air-powered devices to insert prosthetics. They use powered and hand tools to clean and polish teeth and remove stains. They also occasionally use x-ray machines to create images of a patient’s teeth. They wear latex gloves, surgical masks and sometimes even safety glasses to maintain a clean environment and protect patients and themselves from diseases and viruses.

The career can provide a number of attractive non-monetary benefits including:

  • Prestige– it is a highly skilled discipline that is well-respected and valued by health care
  • professionals and society and general.
  • Creativity – every patient’s personality and condition is different. This requires creativity in the way they approach oral health education and management.
  • Flexibility– There are many employment options available including both full-time and part-time work as well as evening and weekend hours.
  • Security– The demand is high and is projected to increase well in to the future.
  • Satisfaction– working with, building relationships and helping people can provide a lot of personal fulfilment.
  • Variety – as mentioned above, each patient’s condition is different which requires a variety of technical and interpersonal skills and procedures.

There are currently over 211,000 licensed dental hygienists employed across the United States. More than half of all of those employed work part time. In 2018, approximately 38% worked full time.

Those who want more work can work for more than one dentist. The job market is expected to grow much faster than average, giving students who graduate with the necessary qualifications excellent employment prospects. Overall, employment is projected to grow by 38 percent between 2018 and 2028 – amounting to 68,500 new jobs over that period. This growth rate is much higher than the overall average for all occupations (14%).

New developments in research, the growing links between oral and general health and new technologies to help diagnose problems will all increase the demand for certified individuals to provide preventative dental services. The large baby boomer generation will also have a huge effect on demand since people keep their original teeth more often and later in life than they did in previous generations.

It is also important to note that demand is closely linked to the health of the economy because dental health services are paid by the patient themselves or a private insurance company. Oral health services can be seen as an unnecessary expense during economic slowdowns, which can make it hard for some to find a job or they might be offered fewer hours.

Education and Licensing Requirements

Individuals are usually required to earn an associate’s degree in dental hygiene from one of around 270 accredited programs in the United States in order to become one. This degree is typically 2 years long and consists of clinical, lab, classroom and practical instruction for courses such as: pharmacology, microbiology, physiology, anatomy, radiography, periodontology and general dentistry. In addition to having an associate’s degree, all states require individuals to be licensed. The next step in getting a license is taking and passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE), which consists of both a written and practical lab test.

Other requirements vary from state to state. ALL states require a current CPR certification. For full licensure details and requirements, contact your state’s dentistry, medical, or health departments for more information or visit the American Association of Dental Boards (AADB). With an associate’s degree and license, you can register as a hygienist in your state and get a job in a private practice or office. Most states require hours of continuing education in the form of self study, volunteer work, publications, teaching, courses or conferences on a 1-3 year cycle in order to be able to renew a license. A full list of CE requirements by state can be found here.

Certificate programs, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees are also offered across the country, but most have the associate’s degree. The higher level degrees are for those who want to teach, research or practice in school or public health programs.

Individuals who are interested in the field such as high school students, young college students, or those seeking a career change, should prepare for the degree by familiarizing themselves with biology, chemistry, anatomy and mathematics. Some dental hygiene programs prefer students who have completed at least a year of college. Entrance requirements of an associate’s degree program include having a high school diploma or GED, being at least 18 years old, a minimum “C” average in high school courses, and passing basic college entrance exams. Specific requirements vary from school to school.

Salary Facts and Statistics

The income statistics stated in this section are based on full-time work and were partially derived from part-time earnings data. Dental hygienists are typically paid by the hour, but some receive yearly salaries or receive payments on a commission basis. Hourly pay averages around $34 per hour, but they can make over $60 per hour depending on location, their education and their experience. Entry-level jobs start at around $32 per hour.

They often receive employee benefits, such as retirement benefits, health insurance coverage, membership dues for professional associations, sick pay, vacation days, and tuition aid for continuing education. The perks included in the benefits package usually depend on the employer and length of time they have been in the position.

As you might expect, the Offices of Dentists industry is the largest employer and California (19,590), Texas (10,850), Florida (9,800), New York (9,690) and Michigan (8,930) are the states that employ the highest number of individuals. States that pay the highest salaries on average are: California ($91,010), Washington ($90,420), Nevada ($88,620) and Alaska ($86,310). According to the May 2011 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for a dental hygienist employed in the United States is $69,760. This amounts to an hourly wage of $33.54. The reported salaries ranged from a 10th percentile of $46,020 to a 90th percentile of $94,850. The highest paying industries were the following (in order):

  • Offices of Dentists – $70,070 per year (employs 176,670)
  • Outpatient Care Centers – $69,220 per year (employs 690)
  • Offices of Other Health Practitioners – $66,710 per year (employs 470)

And here is a list of industries that employ the most:

  • Offices of Dentists – $70,070 per year (employs 176,670)
  • Offices of Physicians – $64,160 per year (employs 1,860)
  • Employment Services – $64,690 per year (employs 1,240)

Salary by Years Experience (United States)

According to data collected by, their salary is between $39,712 and $86,787 (including bonuses and profit sharing). These statistics were provided by 1,409 professional hygienists, most of who have been employed for 1-4 years. The average salary is approximately $68,000.

With great pay, excellent employment prospects, excellent wages and fulfilling work, the career is a great opportunity in the health care industry. For more information, look into the dental hygiene associate’s degree programs in your state and contact your state’s medical board.