What Does a Dental Hygienist Do? (Plus How To Become One)
Updated March 3, 2023
Dental hygienists work directly with patients to help them maintain healthy teeth. The role requires the ability to handle medical instruments and build relationships with patients and fellow health care employees. Learning about the education and skills requirements for dental hygienists can enable you to decide if the profession suits your interests.
In this article, we discuss what a dental hygienist does, explain the credentials you may need for fulfilling the role and provide information on their typical salary and work environment.
What does a dental hygienist do?
A dental hygienist works in collaboration with dental office managers, dental assistants and dentists to support positive oral health. Serving both child and adult patients, a dental hygienist prioritizes the prevention and treatment of oral diseases. Often, they also perform duties to support general office operations and efficiency. Under the supervision of a board-certified dentist, their specific responsibilities include:
Educating patients about effective strategies for maintaining oral health
Performing basic cleaning procedures, including the removal of calculus and plaque
Performing advanced cleaning procedures as needed, including root planing and scaling
Supporting positive patient follow-up care through patient and family education
Taking impressions of a patient's teeth via a dental mold known for study and treatment planning
Completing paperwork and related office management documentation
Conducting patient screenings to establish overall oral health
Taking basic vital signs, oral health history and oral health assessments
Summarizing screening and cleaning results for the dentist to inform their examination
Depending on the state's specific licensure requirements, dental hygienists may also perform the following additional duties:
Applying topical or local anesthesia
Conducting X-rays and developing the film
Placing or removing sutures
Applying nitrous oxide
Salary of a dental hygienist
The national average salary of a dental hygienist is $86,130 per year. It varies depending on their education, licensing, years of experience and specific work environment. Dental hygienists working in metropolitan areas with high demand, for example, are likely to earn higher salaries than those in communities with lower demand. Similarly, dental hygienists working in dental specialists' offices earn higher salaries than those working in a standard dentist's office.
For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.
Dental hygienist requirements
While the exact requirements may vary between states or specific employers, being hired as a dental hygienist requires a combination of formal education and training, related certifications and specific skills as follows:
The minimum educational requirement to be a dental hygienist is an associate degree in dental hygiene from a program that the Commission on Dental Accreditation approves. When enrolled full time, an associate degree takes approximately two years to complete. Junior colleges, four-year colleges and universities or vocational schools offer associate degree programs. Interested individuals can go on to pursue a bachelor's or master's degree in dental hygiene. Although not required, employers may prefer advanced degrees, which can make candidates more competitive than their peers who only pursued an associate degree.
Educational programs often include a training component during which students perform patient care duties under the supervision of a licensed dental hygienist and/or a dentist. Dental hygienists may also receive on-the-job training. This is likely to include an overview of the office's specific procedures and continued opportunities to work under the supervision of more experienced colleagues. The length and content of these training programs can vary between employers.
Certifications for dental hygienists include a mandatory state license and several optional certificates that dental hygienists can obtain to enhance their resume or meet licensure continuing education requirements. Here are some examples of certifications for dental hygienists:
Dental hygiene license: Required for work in any state, obtaining a dental hygiene license requires passing a state licensure exam and the National Board Dental Hygiene exam. The state exam is typically an application-based assessment of your clinical skills, with the national exam assessing knowledge of dental hygiene practices.
Basic Life Support Certification: A Basic Life Support Certification is required for nearly all dental employees. Sometimes referred to as a CPR certification, earning this credential requires completing a half-day course and successfully passing an exam that includes written questions and a demonstration of skills.
Continuing education courses: Issued by the American Dental Hygienists Association, dental hygienists can enhance their skills by completing continuing education courses, which require the completion of an online webinar or in-person workshop and passing of an exam.
In addition to formal education and certifications, excelling as a dental hygienist requires the development of certain technical and interpersonal skills. The most important skills for dental hygienists include:
Attention to detail: The technical processes of cleaning teeth, removing calculus and plaque and performing complex tasks, such as casts and X-rays, all require exceptional attention to detail.
Fine motor skills: Related to the technical aspects of completing procedures is the need for strong fine motor skills to manipulate dental equipment and operate with precision in small spaces.
Compassion: Dental work can cause anxiety for patients, especially young children or those with a history of oral disease. Demonstrating compassion by answering questions, allowing breaks, offering a comfort item during procedures or allowing patients to express concerns are all helpful patient care strategies.
Cleanliness: It's of the utmost importance that all dental utensils, machines, linens and patient care areas are free of germs or anything that has the potential to compromise the health of the patient. Being diligent about tidying up spaces, rinsing everything out and replacing materials as needed is essential.
Communication: Given the significant amount of time that dental hygienists spend completing patient screenings and patient education, it's important that they have strong communication skills. Specific skills to develop and refine include active listening, summarizing, paraphrasing, describing and explaining. This is true for both verbal and written communication.
Dental hygienist work environment
Dental hygienists typically work in a dentist's or dental specialist's office Monday through Friday, with occasional Saturday or evening hours. It's common for dental hygienists to work part-time for a few different dental practices as opposed to working full time with one dentist or practice. Due to the nature of the work, dental offices tend to be very clean with strict guidelines for sterilization and organization of materials and equipment. Aside from using dental tools or X-ray machines, working as a dental hygienist doesn't require physical labor.
How to become a dental hygienist
If you are setting goals toward a future in this profession, here are five steps you can follow to become a dental hygienist:
Finish high school. Obtaining a high school diploma or equivalency certificate is a prerequisite for pursuing a dental hygienist training program. Opting for extra science classes, if available, could help build your background knowledge before beginning a training program.
Earn an associate degree. An associate degree in dental hygiene from an accredited institution is the minimum education requirement to enter the field. Consider factors such as cost, credit requirements, location and concentration areas to determine which program is right for you.
Obtain state licensure. While select states may have additional licensure requirements, completion of an approved dental hygiene program, passing of a state or regional exam and passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination are the three requirements to obtain licensure.
Prepare your resume and supporting materials. Create a personalized, well-written resume that succinctly highlights how your skills and qualifications can ensure your success in the job you're seeking. Be sure to list all formal education you've completed along with state licenses, relevant work experience and clinical internships.
Apply for jobs. Use job search engines and any professional contacts you met during your training program to identify and apply for dental hygienist jobs that match your preferred location and job description.
Dental hygienist job description example
West Ridgewood Dental is seeking a collaborative and highly motivated dental hygienist to join our experienced dental team. In addition to basic cleaning procedures, this person is responsible for coordinating all patient screenings and miscellaneous office documentation. Experience with X-rays and local anesthesia preferred. Successful candidates have a current New York state dental hygienist license and BLS provider certification. We prefer candidates with three to five years of experience minimum.
Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.
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