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 many patients to provide basic oral health care and instruct them on how to keep their smiles white and healthy.

If you’re thinking about pursuing dental hygiene as a career, the following guide can help you decide if it’s right for you. Below, we’ll delve into the educational and licensing requirements for dental hygienists, while also highlighting numerous career paths within this occupation..

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What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Dental Hygienist Career Basics

As a dental hygiene professional, you will use a variety of tools and devices to perform daily tasks. During your dental hygiene class, you’ll learn how to use a range of instruments to remove plaque and stains from patients’ teeth, including air-polishing tools and ultrasonic devices. As technology continues to advance, lasers are showing up next to the patient chair more frequently, and as a dental hygienist, you must be trained to use these tools properly. You must also be well-versed in radiography when using certain types of x-ray equipment. Finally, although state-by-state requirements vary, you may play a role in counseling patients on how different foods affect oral health and provide advice on proper techniques for care.

Steps to Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Step 1
Learn about Dental Hygienist Careers
Before embarking on an educational path – and spending hard earned dollars on tuition – make a list of what you 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. Once you’ve finished your list, compare it to qualities commonly exhibited by dental hygienists who love their work and see if it’s a match.
For instance, if you prefer to work alone, you may find interacting with patients all day difficult. As a result, dentistry might not be the right industry for you. Also, because you‘ll do the majority of the work with your hands in close quarters, you’ll need to have a good level of dexterity and be comfortable working on patients’ mouths to enjoy this career. If possible, find someone already working in this career – even your own dental hygienist – and ask their feelings on the profession.
Step 2
Complete a Dental Hygienist Program
We’ll discuss specific dental hygienist education requirements later in this guide, but in general, you’ll need to hold an associate degree in dental hygiene to work as a hygienist in a dentist’s office. These programs, which typically take about two 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. If you have aspirations beyond working in a dental office, you might prefer this option, as it opens more doors to research and clinical practice.
Lastly, 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.
Step 3
Complete Licensing Requirements
Completing educational requirements is a significant step toward becoming a dental hygienist, but you'll also need to get licensed. These requirements are mandated at the state level and vary depending on location, but the majority can be satisfied by showing proof of:
  • Diploma from a CDA-accredited program
  • Successful passage of the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, a comprehensive written test
  • Completion of a state-level or regional clinical board examination

Once you complete these three steps, you’re considered fully licensed and can add “RDH” to your name, signifying that you are a registered dental hygienist.
Step 4
Complete Additional Training
During the course of your career, you’ll need to participate in continuing education sessions to stay up-to-date on the latest dental hygiene techniques and research. Whether it relates to serving patients with special health care needs or learning how lasers factor into oral health, continuing education courses help keep you at the forefront of knowledge.
In addition to courses offered by state and regional chapters of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA), you can also research local dental hygiene programs to see which classes are available in your area. If you’re looking for an online option, you can take advantage of Colgate’s Oral Health Network, which offers free live webinars.

Dental Hygienist Salary

In general, dental hygienists enjoy rewarding careers and have the satisfaction of helping patients achieve better oral health every day. If you choose to pursue this profession, you’ll likely enjoy a good work-life balance, as most dental offices maintain normal working hours. Still, the financial rewards of this career are also important, especially if you aspire to make a certain annual income.

While newly minted dental hygienists typically bring home $54,200, those in the top tenth percentile of the field can expect their incomes to be around $104,420, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median average currently sits at $77,090. 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.

State

Discover the Right Dental Hygienist Program

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.

Preparing for a Dental Hygienist Career: Dental Hygienist Schools & Programs

Dental hygienist programs are available in numerous educational settings, ranging from community colleges to specialized dental schools. Each of these options provides unique learning opportunities, and it’s a good idea to review your options and dental hygienist class requirements before committing to a specific program. The following section reviews the most common choices available, including:

Vocational/Trade School

The average amount of time to complete a dental hygienist program is three years, but some vocational and trade schools allow you 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.

Dental School

Dental school educational options range from certificates to master’s degrees, letting you complete whichever type of degree you’d like. Because oral health is these institutions’ sole focus, you will gain knowledge of the profession through hands-on clinical rotations, classroom teaching, and volunteer opportunities.

Community College

If you enroll in a community college dental hygienist program, you will receive an education rooted in comprehensive patient care, community health, and lifelong oral health. Without additional general education courses, you will focus solely on topics directly related to your future career and prepare to undertake licensure requirements upon graduation.

4-year schools

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 you with a deeper knowledge of topics than an associate degree while also providing a liberal arts underpinning. Master’s-level degrees prepare you for advanced roles in the field, such as teaching or research.

Types of Dental Hygienist Degrees

Depending on the area of dental hygiene you’re hoping to practice, selecting the right degree can make all the difference. For instance, if you want to work in a dental office, you would be overqualified with a master’s degree. But if you only have an associate degree, you wouldn’t be eligible to undertake academic roles or research posts.

Review the different types of degrees and outcomes to find the right program for your goals and determine which classes to take for dental hygiene.

Associate Dental Hygienist Degree

You can apply for an associate-level degree program after submitting your application and supporting documents, including a passing score on the ACCUPLACER Dental Hygiene examination and evidence of completed prerequisite classes, including:

Human anatomy Physiology Microbiology Organic chemsitry

Once enrolled, you will move through a sequenced collection of dental hygienist classes that provide clinical experience, theoretical knowledge, and educational foundations. Common courses at this level include:

Dental Radiography Dental Anatomy Prevention of Oral Disease Dental Hygiene Clinical Oral Pathology

After completing studies, you'll 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.

Bachelor’s Dental Hygienist Degree

As the field becomes more competitive, you’re more likely to stand out for both dental office roles and advanced positions if you have a bachelor’s degree. This four-year degree – often a Bachelor of Science (BS) – offers an all-round educational experience that incorporates dental hygiene classes, basic science courses, and a general education curriculum.

While the associate degree has many of the same topics, the difference is the depth to which they are covered. Rather than simply teaching you how to educate your patients on good oral health, bachelor’s-level programs specify different care plans for different ages and populations, ranging from school children to socially disadvantaged individuals.

If you already hold an associate degree, you might elect to use your credits toward a bachelor’s degree. In that case, your prerequisites would include courses and lab work in:

Chemistry Anatomy Biology Psychology Physiology Microbiologu Nutrition English Speech Sociology

Once admitted, common courses include:

Oral Biochemistry Preventative Dental Care Periodontal Disease Dental Specialties Principles of Pharmacology

Upon graduation, you can sit for examinations and enter roles ranging from private dental offices to school health programs.

Master’s Dental Hygienist Degree

As of 2021, there are 17 master’s level dental hygiene programs in the United States, according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Though far less common than associate and bachelor’s degrees, graduate-level programs in dental hygiene open a world of possibilities if you’re interested in taking your career to a higher level.

To enroll, you will need to complete a basic dental hygiene preparation program and baccalaureate degree, though it doesn’t have to be in dental hygiene. Once classes begin, you can complete your degree in one year if you’re studying full-time. But if you’re attending school while working, plan for two to three years of study.

In addition to coursework, you will also need to pass a comprehensive examination. Other programs also mandate a capstone project and field work. Common courses at this level include:

Systematic Research Writing Dental Hygiene Theory and Science Geriatric Dental Issues Pediatric Oral Health Systemic Dental Conditions

Graduates of master’s level dental hygiene programs go on to serve as academic faculty, researchers, and leaders of dental health and education programs.

Dental Hygienist Career Concentrations

Although concentrations are not as frequent at the associate degree level, many bachelor’s and master’s degrees offer a variety of specializations allowing you to focus on 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).

Dental Hygiene Educator

Median salary: $52,172

With this concentration, you will gain 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. After school, you may choose to teach at vocational schools, community colleges, universities and dental schools.

Public Health Administrator

Median salary: $65,985

If you complete a specialization in health policy and administration during your dental hygiene degree, you might be interested in working 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 give you a strong foundation in public health administration.

Pediatric Dental Hygienist

Median salary: $70,354

If you’re interested in working with young children, you will 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. You will also learn how to create a safe environment for children and help alleviate their fear of dental procedures.

Periodontal Dental Hygienist

Median salary: $65,367

As a periodontal dental hygienist, you will focus on the health of teeth and diseases that affect them. You will become well-versed in charting, oral cancer screenings, tongue hygiene, denture care, nutrition, and other elements that help produce holistic oral care and treatment. After school, you may opt to work in either a private dentist’s office or a public health agency.

COMPONENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL DENTAL HYGIENIST CAREER: SKILLS, CREDENTIALS, TOOLS & TECHNOLOGY

To be a successful dental hygienist, you will need to have a blend of skills, credentials and understanding of tools and technologies. Take a look at the checklist below to get a better sense of what it takes to thrive in this career.

Skills

When you work as a dental hygienist, you must be able to communicate the procedures you perform on a patient while also gathering accurate and appropriate medical histories to provide to the dentist. Teaching proper oral care is an important component of being a dental hygienist, so you should be well-educated on best practices so you can communicate them to your 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, so to be a successful dental hygienist, you need to provide care and consultation to your patients in an efficient manner. The dentist’s chair makes many uneasy – especially young children. In this role, you should be able to show empathy and help patients take their mind off of receiving medical care to ease their fears and worries.

Tools

Dental lasers X-ray technology Dental scalers Dental charting software Probes Teeth cleaning utensils Periodontal devices Dentrix software

Credentials

Registered Dental Hygienist

While specific requirements vary by state, you will be required to graduate from an accredited program and pass both written and clinical examinations. Note: Indiana refers to these professionals as Licensed Dental Hygienists.

Related Careers at a Glance

7%

Median Salary (2015):

$41,180

Education required:

Postsecondary non-degree award

3%

Median Salary (2015):

$164,010

Education required:

Doctoral degree

9%

Median Salary (2015):

$42,110

Education required:

High school diploma or postsecondary certificate

7%

Median Salary (2015):

$86,850

Education required:

Associate degree

31%

Median Salary (2015):

$115,390

Education required:

Master’s degree

19%

Median Salary (2015):

$35,850

Education required:

Postsecondary non-degree award

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Dental Hygienist Job Growth

Roles for dental hygienists in the U.S. are set to grow by 6 percent between 2019 and 2029, with 13,000 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.

Dental Hygienist Degree and Career Resources

American Dental Education Association

Operating as the voice of dental education, ADEA provides a special interest group for clinical coordinators of dental hygiene programs.

American Dental Hygienists’ Association

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.

International Federation of Dental Hygienists

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.

National Dental Hygienists’ Association

In operation for more than five decades, NDHA supports members through annual events, continuing education opportunities, and scholarship programs.

Tennessee Dental Hygienists’ Association

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.

Related Careers at a Glance

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Taylor Freitas
Contributing Writer

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