How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

Updated July 31, 2023

Dental hygienists work closely with dentists to maintain the good oral hygiene of dental patients. They may routinely clean the patient's teeth while also assisting the dentist with other preventative and evaluative dental procedures. Understanding the educational and training requirements to become a dental hygienist can help you decide on whether it is the right career for you. In this article, we discuss the expected responsibilities of a dental hygienist while also evaluating the individual requirements it takes to become one.

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a dental professional who cleans teeth and evaluates the patient's mouth for any symptoms of dental disorders. Dental hygienists also provide teeth scaling and root planing expertise, administer anesthesia, take x-rays and provide oral hygiene instruction to patients. Additional responsibilities often include:

  • Removing plaque from and polishing patients' teeth

  • Evaluating and updating each patient's dental history

  • Screening patients for pain or dental concerns to report to the dentist

While the majority of dental hygienists work in a community or private dental office, other employment opportunities may be available in a hospital, health clinic, community center or in a school setting. Depending on the training and qualifications of the dental hygienist, some individuals may choose to also train or educate new students.

Some dental hygienists may also pursue a specific specialization within the dental industry. A few of the most common dental hygienist specializations include:

Dental hygienist researchers

A dental hygienist researcher conducts research and interprets results to better understand common dental conditions and diseases. Students interested in working as a dental hygienist researcher will typically need to complete a master's degree.

Dental hygienist teacher

Dental hygienist teachers use field and industry knowledge to educate and train new dental hygienists. A bachelor's degree is often needed to teach at the community college level and education at the bachelor's or masters' degree level requires a master's degree.

Public health advocate

A public health advocate with a background in dental hygiene focuses on advocating and educating the public on proper oral health techniques. Public health advocates may work in high-risk communities or the school setting.

Pediatric dental hygienist

A pediatric dental hygienist works primarily with children and teens. They complete all dental hygiene duties while also informing and educating parents and teens on good oral healthcare.

Related: Learn About Being a Dental Hygienist

How long does it take to become a dental hygienist?

It will typically take between two and four years to become a dental hygienist, depending on the level of education in the industry you pursue. To work as a dental hygienist, you will need to be licensed with your state and with the American Dental Association. Students who pursue an associate degree will typically complete all requirements within two years. Individuals who want to obtain a bachelor's or master's degree will typically take up to an additional four to six years.

It is important to note that a dental hygienist who wants to pursue higher education can work while they do so, as long as they have completed a minimum of an associate degree and completed the board exam. Aspiring dental hygienists will need to complete certain educational and training requirements, including:

1. First, complete a high school diploma or equivalent

A high school diploma is needed to apply to an associate or bachelor's degree program. Coursework in biology, anatomy, physiology and other science specializations can help prepare you for a dental program.

2. Second, choose an accredited dental hygienist school and complete an associate degree

While there are many dental hygienist programs to choose from, you want to choose one that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. The completion of all educational requirements in a dental hygienist program will typically take between two and four years. Students can expect to take coursework in anatomy, physiology, immunology and pathology. Toward the end of the program, students will be expected to complete on-the-job training under the direct supervision of a licensed hygienist.

3. Next, complete a bachelor's degree (optional)

Some dental hygienists may choose to pursue employment after completing an associate degree. Others may choose to pursue a bachelor's degree. Some aspiring dental hygienists may even go on to achieve a master's degree to work in a research or educational manner.

4. Finally, obtain national and state licensing

Licensure with your state and the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination is required to work as a dental hygienist. The test is made up of two parts with a total of 350 multiple-choice questions. You need a score of at least 75 to pass. State tests vary depending on the state in which you work. The successful completion of both exams will earn you a Registered Dental Hygienist license.

Related: When a Professional Degree Will Help You Advance in Your Career

Education levels for dental hygienists

While you can work in some dental hygienist careers with an associate degree, some students will complete a bachelor's or master's degree. Each type of education level dictates the specific tasks and job titles that you qualify for, which include:

Associate degree

An Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene prepares you for the job duties of a general dental hygienist. With an associate degree and licensure, you are eligible to work in most private dental offices.

Bachelor's degree

A Bachelor's Degree in Dental Hygiene prepares you to work with dental specializations like in a community health clinic or in a school setting. Earning a bachelor's degree can also make you a more competitive applicant when applying for open dental hygienist positions.

Master's degree

Dental hygienists who want to teach and train other students to work in the dental industry will need a master's degree. Dental hygienists who pursue a master's degree can also work in careers as a prevention specialist or developing local community health outreach programs. Master's level dental hygienists may also be involved in research studies.

Related: Dental Hygienist Resume Examples

Frequently asked questions

Which degree is best for dental hygienists?

While dentist offices typically hire hygienists with an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, having a master's degree may be beneficial if you eventually want to work in a higher-level position. The degree you earn as a hygienist likely depends on your professional goals and how long you're willing to take to complete your education. An associate degree program usually only takes two years, while a bachelor's degree and a master's degree program take a total of six to seven years.

Do dental hygienists complete dental school like dentists?

Unlike dentists, it's not necessary for dental hygienists to attend dental school. Instead, they can attend an accredited dental hygienist program and receive training on how to clean teeth, perform X-rays, apply preventative material to teeth and teach patients how to clean their teeth properly. A hygienist program is less extensive than a traditional dental program, and it usually takes a much shorter time to complete.

Can a dental hygienist become a dentist?

Many hygienists transition to a career as a dentist after gaining some experience in the field. To become a practicing dentist, it's necessary for them to complete dental school and earn either a Doctor of Medicine in dentistry (DMD) degree or a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree. They also need a valid dental license, which involves passing a series of exams.

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