How to Become a Dental Hygienist

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September 22, 2021

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Poets may consider the eyes the window to the soul, but medical professionals know your mouth offers many clues about your overall health. For example, your teeth and gums can point to issues with your heart, like cardiovascular disease and endocarditis.

Problems like cavities and gum disease can also impact worker productivity. The Centers for Disease Control estimates untreated oral disease results in $45 billion in lost productivity each year — it's hard to concentrate and be productive if you have a toothache.

Dental hygienists play a critical role in helping people maintain strong teeth and healthy gums. The hygienist sees patients at their twice-yearly teeth cleanings. These professionals work under the supervision of a dentist and provide clinical care to patients. They remove plaque and tartar from teeth, take X-rays, and look for cavities and other signs of oral disease.

Dental hygiene is a growing field and these professionals earn median wages above $77,000 per year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), increasing awareness of the links between oral health and overall health has increased the demand for preventative dental care. The BLS projects 6% growth in the employment of dental hygienists from 2019-2029, with about 13,300 new jobs added during that time. Dental hygienists earned a median annual salary of $77,090 in May 2020, BLS data shows.

Most dental hygienists (93%) work in dental offices. California reported the highest number of working dental hygienists in 2020 with 17,880 licensed hygienists in the state, while Idaho recorded the highest concentration dental hygienists, accounting for 2.45 positions per 1,000 jobs. Alaska offered the highest pay for dental hygienists in 2020 — these professionals earned a mean annual salary of $115,050.

Dental hygienist training includes both classroom-based and hands-on learning experiences. After graduation, you will also need to obtain a state license before beginning work. Read on to learn if this dental career is right for you.

What Are the Requirements to Become a Dental Hygienist?

Attending an accredited college program is the first step to becoming a dental hygienist. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits dental programs, ensuring programs offer relevant and rigorous training applicable to aspiring dental hygienists.

CODA accredits three types of dental hygienist training programs: entry-level, degree completion, and graduate programs. Entry-level programs, designed for individuals with no prior education or experience in dental hygiene, include both associate and bachelor's programs.

Degree completion programs allow licensed dental hygienists to further their education, while graduate programs in dental hygiene often prepare undergraduate degree-holders for careers in teaching, research, or administration.

Although specific requirements vary by state, most states require graduates of accredited programs to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and complete state or regional clinical board exams. Check with your state's dental hygiene or dental regulatory board for other requirements, such as background checks and licensing fees.

Most states also require dental hygienists to continue learning after they start working. License renewal often requires practitioners to complete professional development courses or programs.

Other dental hygiene skills are physical stamina and dexterity. "The repetitive nature of the work can be physically demanding on the upper body, particularly the arms and hands," says Christine Songco — a registered dental hygienist in California. Nonetheless, Songco and many of her peers enjoy the work. "There are numerous dental hygienists who make the practice a lifelong career," she says.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Dental Hygienist?

You can choose between an associate degree or a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene. Both offer the training you need to become a licensed dental hygienist. A bachelor's degree may better serve individuals interested in administrative or research roles or those who might want to continue their education and earn a graduate degree later on.

Whichever degree you choose, expect to take classes in anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and microbiology. These courses help build the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for this career, and they also provide a foundation for specialized dental courses.

To pursue a career as a dental hygienist, you need an associate or bachelor's degree and a state-issued license.

You will also take courses in dental radiography, dental science, and dental hygiene as you prepare for clinical rotations. You will learn about the mouth and jaw structure, using hygienist tools, caring for oral prosthetics, and techniques for patient management.

As part of your degree program, expect to complete somewhere in the range of 550-700 hours of clinical work. Clinical work allows students to quickly put their new skills and knowledge to use in a real-world setting. Many schools offer dental clinics where students can access low-cost oral exams and cleanings. Clinical experience may be gained at these on-campus dental clinics, public health facilities, or private dental offices.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

The time necessary to complete your dental hygienist training depends on the degree path you choose.

Earning an associate degree in dental hygiene typically requires 2-3 years. According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), these associate degrees require an average of 84 credits. A bachelor's degree usually requires four years to complete, featuring around 120 credits. The credit requirements for a bachelor's include general education courses in subjects such as English, math, and history.

Nationally, students can choose from around 327 entry-level dental hygiene programs. Programs often cap the number of students accepted each term. Many schools use a competitive admissions process for acceptance into dental hygiene programs. You will likely need a high school diploma, college entrance test scores, and letters of recommendation when applying to a program.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dental Hygienist Careers

What does a dental hygienist do?

Dental hygienists provide direct patient care in dental offices. They examine patients for signs of oral disease, take X-rays, and perform preventative oral cleanings. Dental hygienists work under the supervision of a dentist and must hold a license from their state's dental board to practice.

How much does dental hygienist school cost?

The cost of dental hygienist training varies depending on the type of degree and school you choose. The ADHA estimates that tuition for an associate program in dental hygiene will likely cost around $22,690, while tuition for a bachelor's will cost around $36,380. Students often find lower costs at community colleges than at four-year colleges and universities.

What is the difference between dental assistant vs. dental hygienist?

While dental hygienists primarily provide clinical patient care, dental assistants often take on administrative duties like billing, appointment scheduling, and record keeping. Most dental assistant programs require one year to complete. Dental assistants earned a median salary of $41,180 in 2020 while dental hygienists earned a median salary of $77,090, according to the BLS.

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