Whether teaching a kindergartner how long they should brush their teeth or helping a senior citizen properly care for their dentures, dental hygienists work directly with myriad patients to provide basic oral health care and instruct them on how to keep their whitest and healthiest smiles. The following guide delves into the educational and licensing requirements for these professionals while also highlighting numerous career paths within this occupation.
Dental hygienists use a variety of tools and devices to perform daily tasks. A range of instruments are used to help remove plaque and stains, including air-polishing tools and ultrasonic devices. As technology continues to advance, lasers are showing up next to the patient chair more frequently, and dental hygienists must be trained in proper usage of these tools. They must also be well-versed in radiography when using certain types of x-ray equipment. Although state-by-state requirements vary, many dental hygienists counsel patients on how different foods affect oral health and provide advice on proper techniques for care.
Serving as the first stop once a patient is called from the waiting room, dental hygienists examine patients’ teeth and gums and report back to dentists about their oral health. While with the patient, they also perform basic dental procedures, including removing tartar, plaque and everyday stains; using fluoride treatments to protect teeth; applying sealants; and flossing extensively. Hygienists also teach their patients about proper oral care, including brushing techniques and the importance of flossing. Depending on the reason a patient is visiting, the hygienist may also take x-rays or molds to help the dentist assess the best plan of care, ranging from braces to root canals.
Dental hygienists enjoy rewarding careers and have the satisfaction of helping their patients achieve better oral health every day. They typically also enjoy good work-life balance, as most dental offices maintain normal working hours. Still, the financial rewards of this career are also important, particularly for individuals who aspire to make a certain annual income.
While newly minted dental hygienists typically bring home $50,140, those in the top tenth percentile of the field can expect their incomes to be around $98,440. The median average currently sits at $72,330. Factors other than experience can cause this number to fluctuate, too. Take a look at the state-by-state guide below to see the variances across America.
Before embarking on an educational path – and spending hard earned dollars on tuition – prospective dental hygienists should make a list of what they seek in a profession. Ranging from average salary to work-life balance, take time to think about both day-to-day responsibilities and long-term goals. Compare this list to qualities commonly exhibited by dental hygienists who love their work and see if it’s a match. For instance, individuals who prefer to work alone may find it difficult to interact with a number of different patients all day, every day. Because the majority of work is done with hands in close quarters, dexterity and not being turned off by oral care are also major factors of enjoying this career. If possible, find someone already working in this career – even your own dental hygienist – and ask their feelings on the profession.
Dental hygienists working in a dentist’s office are typically required to hold an associate degree in dental hygiene. These programs, which typically take about three years to complete, must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which operates under the American Dental Association. In 2015 alone, the commission accredited more than 300 programs. Associate-level degrees in dental hygiene are most commonly found at community colleges, dental schools, technical institutions and universities. Many programs are also available as an online degree.
While bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene are outnumbered by their associate degree counterparts, more programs are popping up on campuses and as online degree options. Individuals with aspirations beyond dentists’ offices are drawn to this option as it opens more doors to research and clinical practice.
Master’s degrees in dental hygiene are the least common educational offering, but these programs do exist in small quantities. Students electing this path often have their eyes set on advanced research roles, or clinical practice within public health or educational health programs.
Completing educational requirements is a significant step toward becoming a dental hygienist, but all those looking to practice must be licensed. These requirements are mandated at the state level and vary depending on location, but the majority can be satisfied by showing proof of:
Once candidates for licensure completes these three steps, they are considered fully licensed and allowed to add “RDH” to their names, signifying they are a registered dental hygienist.
Continuing education plays a crucial role in the work of dental hygienists, providing both updated and additional knowledge throughout their careers. Whether serving patients with special health care needs or learning how lasers factor in to oral health, continuing education courses help keep dental hygienists at the forefront of knowledge.
In addition to courses offered by state and regional chapters of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, local dental hygiene programs should also be able to provide a list of what’s available. Students seeking an online option can take advantage of Colgate’s Oral Health Network, which offers free live webinars.
|Career Goals & Educational Needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Online|
|Working with patients every day is one of the big reasons I want to enter this field. I think I would enjoy the one-to-one opportunity to teach them about better oral health. I’m looking for a program that won’t break the bank but provides the foundational knowledge I need to enter the field.|
|While helping patients appeals to me, I’m also interested in more specialized care, such as developing school or public health programs. I also want a well-rounded education covering additional topics outside dental hygiene.|
|Having worked in the field for a time, I’m interested in furthering my knowledge and using it to conduct research, teach, or develop health programs in the community.|
Dental hygienist programs are available in numerous educational settings, ranging from community colleges to specialized dental schools. Each of these options provides students with unique learning opportunities, and it’s a good idea for prospective dental hygienists to review their options before committing to a specific program. The following section reviews the most common choices available, including:
The average amount of time to complete a dental hygienist program is three years, but some vocational and trade schools allow students to enter the working world in as few as 17 months. These accelerated programs are heavily career-driven, providing real-world training and skills that translate directly to everyday work.
Educational options at dental school range from certificates to master’s degrees, offering different types of students the ability to complete degrees. Because oral health is the sole focus of these institutions, students gain focused knowledge of the profession through hands-on clinical rotations, classroom teaching and volunteer opportunities.
Graduates of dental hygienist programs offered by community colleges receive an education rooted in comprehensive patient care, community health and lifelong oral health. Without the addition of general education courses, students focus solely on topics directly related to their future careers and are prepared to undertake licensure requirements upon graduation.
Although some colleges and universities offer associate-level degrees, the majority of students selecting this option are seeking either a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Four-year programs equip students with a deeper knowledge of topics than an associate degree while also providing a liberal arts underpinning. Master’s level degrees prepare graduates for advanced roles in the field, such as teaching or research.
Depending on the area of dental hygiene students hope to practice, selecting the right degree can make all the difference. Students looking to work in a dental office would be overqualified with a master’s degree, but those with only an associate degree would not be eligible to undertake academic roles or research posts. Review the different types of degrees and outcomes to find the program best suited to future goals.
Students can apply for associate-level degree programs after submitting their application and supporting documents, including a passing score on the ACCUPLACER Dental Hygiene examination and evidence of completed prerequisite classes, including human anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and organic chemistry. Once enrolled, students move through a sequenced collection of classes that provide clinical experience, theoretical knowledge, and educational foundations. Common courses at this level include:
After completing studies, graduates undertake the written and clinical examinations required to become a registered dental hygienist (RDH) and are competitive for roles in public and private dental offices.
As the field becomes more competitive, students with a bachelor’s degree will stand out for both dental office roles and advanced positions. This four-year degree – often offered as a Bachelor of Science (BS) – immerses students in an all-round educational experience that incorporates dental hygiene classes, basic science courses and a general education curriculum. While many of the same topics comprising the associate degree are included, the difference is the depth to which they are covered. Rather than simply teaching students how to educate their patients on good oral health, programs at this level specify different care plans for a variety of ages and populations, ranging from school children to individuals who are socially disadvantaged.
Many students who already hold an associate degree elect to use their credits toward a bachelor’s degree. Prerequisites for these learners include courses and lab work in chemistry, anatomy, biology, psychology, physiology, microbiology, and nutrition alongside classes in English, speech and sociology.
Once admitted, common courses include:
Upon graduation, students are able to sit for examinations and enter roles ranging from private dental offices to school health programs.
The American Dental Hygienists’ Association reported in 2015 that 21 master’s level dental hygiene programs currently exist in 15 states. Though far less common than associate and bachelor’s degrees, graduate level programs in dental hygiene open a world of possibilities to graduates. Applicants should have already completed a basic dental hygiene preparation program and baccalaureate degree, though it doesn’t have to be in dental hygiene. Once enrolled, full-time students complete the degree in one year, while those attending school while working should plan for two to three years of study.
In addition to coursework, students also need to pass a comprehensive examination; other programs also mandate a capstone project and field work. Common courses at this level include:
Graduates of master’s level dental hygiene programs go on to serve as academic faculty, researchers, and leaders of dental health and education programs.
Although concentrations are not as frequent at the associate degree level, many bachelor’s and master’s degrees offer a variety of specializations allowing graduates to focus their professions in a specific area of dental hygiene. Some of the most common areas are reviewed below, alongside information about average salaries within each area as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Education specialties within dental hygiene outfit students with both knowledge of oral health and theories and concepts related to teaching adult students. Courses cover topics like periodontal health and preventative oral hygiene while also delving into studies of curriculum design and student assessment. Graduates of these specialties go on to teach at vocational schools, community colleges, universities and dental schools.
Individuals who complete a specialization in healthy policy and administration during their dental hygiene degree often go on to work in public health, designing and developing initiatives to encourage oral health care. Aside from specific courses in areas of preventative dentistry, oral health and nutrition, and hygiene, topics like community dental health, human resource management and public policy development help ground students in public health administration.
Dental hygienists concentrating in the care of young children take specialized classes related to the development of baby and permanent teeth, how to educate children in good oral health, and other topics affecting pediatric dentistry, including the use of fluoride varnishes and issues surrounding thumb sucking. Students also learn how to create a safe environment for children and help alleviate their fear of dental procedures.
Focusing on the health of teeth and diseases that affect them, periodontal dental hygienists are well versed in charting, oral cancer screenings, tongue hygiene, denture care, nutrition and other elements that help produce holistic oral care and treatment. These professionals can be found in both private dentists’ offices and public health agencies.
The most successful dental hygienists have a blend of skills, credentials and understanding of tools and technologies that allow them to excel in their roles. Take a look at the checklist below to get a better sense of what it takes to thrive in this career.
Dental hygienists must be able to both communicate the procedures they will be performing on a patient while also gathering accurate and appropriate medical histories to provide the dentist.
Teaching proper oral care is an important component of being a dental hygienist, and these professionals should be well-educated on best practices so they can communicate them to their patients. Whether instructing in proper flossing technique or how to clean braces, this is a daily component of the role.
No one likes to sit in the waiting room for an extended amount of time, and it’s up to dental hygienists to provide care and consultation to their patients in an efficient manner.
The dentist’s chair makes many uneasy – especially young children. Being able to show empathy and help patients take their mind off of receiving medical care goes a long way in easing fears and worries.
While requirements vary by state, all dental hygienists are required to graduate from an accredited program and pass both written and clinical examinations. Note: Indiana refers to these professionals as Licensed Dental Hygienists.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Roles for dental hygienists in the U.S. are set to grow by 19 percent between 2014 and 2024, with 37,400 positions being added during this time. While this national average provides an idea of how the field is progressing, these numbers may be higher or lower in different states. Compare job outlook projections and the number of projected annual job openings with our job growth tool.
Operating as the voice of dental education, ADEA provides a special interest group for clinical coordinators of dental hygiene programs.
This membership-based organization advocates for dental hygienists while also providing assistance with continuing education and careers. A number of annual events and publications are also available.
Whether serving in North America or New Zealand, the IFDH champions the work of dental hygienists throughout the world and provides a research grant program.
In operation for more than five decades, NDHA supports members through annual events, continuing education opportunities, and scholarship programs.
Aside from national associations and organizations, many states have their own professional bodies to further the work of dental hygienists, as seen in this example from Tennessee.
With more than 300 new dental hygiene programs approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation in 2015 alone, prospective students may feel overwhelmed with options. Use this powerful search tool to find a program that meets your needs in areas of cost, location and accreditation.