What to Know About Being a Dental Hygienist

portrait of Bethanny Parker
by Bethanny Parker
Published on August 10, 2021

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If you want to work in the healthcare field but aren't quite sure what you want to do, you might consider being a dental hygienist. This career typically requires just an associate degree and pays well. In fact, a dental hygienist's salary compares favorably to that of a registered nurse. To become a registered nurse, however, you usually need to have a bachelor's degree.

Being a dental hygienist allows you to improve your patients' health by preventing and treating mouth diseases. As a dental hygienist, you will not only protect your patients' teeth and gums, but also their overall health, which is affected by bacteria in the mouth.

What Is a Dental Hygienist?

So what is a dental hygienist and what do they do? Dental hygienists are the licensed health professionals who clean your teeth when you visit the dentist. Dental hygienists assess oral health care and review their patients' health history. They screen for oral cancer, help with dental charting, and check for the presence of gum disease.

Dental hygienists remove plaque from the teeth, even below the gumline. They take X-rays and interpret them. After they finish cleaning the teeth, they may seal them with fluoride or another sealant. They also administer nitrous oxide and local anesthetics to help prevent pain and discomfort.

Dental hygienists provide counseling on proper oral hygiene and the importance of good nutrition in order to keep the teeth and gums healthy. In addition, they may conduct smoking cessation programs.

What Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

In order to become a dental hygienist, you must complete a dental hygiene program. Typically, candidates complete an associate degree in dental hygiene at an accredited college or university in order to qualify to take the licensing exam. If you prefer, you may decide to earn a bachelor's degree. However, an associate degree is typically enough to get a job as a dental hygienist.

Once you have completed your training, you must become licensed to work as a dental hygienist. Licensing requirements vary from one state to another, but generally include graduating from an accredited dental hygiene program, passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and passing a clinical examination at the state or regional level.

In most states, you must pass a background check to qualify for licensure. If you have been convicted of a serious misdemeanor or a felony, you may not be able to become a dental hygienist.

What Is a Dental Hygienist's Career Outlook?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the jobs for dental hygienists will likely grow 6% between 2019-2029. This is faster than the average growth rate for all careers. As the population ages, the demand for dental services will likely increase. Since people are keeping their original teeth later than in previous generations, they will likely need more dental services.

Because of efforts to improve access to dental hygiene services and studies linking oral health problems to problems with overall health, the BLS expects more people to be in the market for preventative oral health services. This includes services performed by dental hygienists.

Since the number of applicants to dental hygiene programs exceeds the number of openings, dental hygiene is a competitive career choice. However, if you can get into a training program and become a licensed dental hygienist, the BLS projects good job prospects.

Although most dental hygienists work in dental offices, other opportunities exist. Some dental hygienists work in hospitals, community clinics, prison facilities, schools, and nursing homes. Experienced dental hygienists sometimes move on to the corporate world, where they work as corporate administrators, educators, product researchers, and sales representatives.

Dental hygienists also work in public health programs as researchers, administrators, and clinicians. They may work with local health departments, the Head Start program, inner city or rural health clinics, or school sealant programs.

What Is a Dental Hygienist's Salary Potential?

According to the BLS, dental hygienists earned a median salary of $77,090 in 2020. The highest 10% earned over $104,420, while the lowest 10% earned less than $54,200.

Those who worked in dentist's offices earned a median of $77,330 per year, while those who worked in physician's offices earned $75,590. Dental hygienists employed by the government earned about $65,080.

Christine Songco, a registered dental hygienist in California with 15 years of experience, says the income she has earned over the years has enabled her to live a comfortable life. "The pay has allowed me to buy a home and raise my children while working part time."

Frequently Asked Questions About the Career of a Dental Hygienist

Should I be a dental hygienist?

Being a dental hygienist has its perks. Dental hygienists earn competitive wages and enjoy flexible work schedules. It only takes two years to earn an associate degree in dental hygiene in order to start your career. Dental hygienists do hands-on work that helps people improve their oral and overall health. If you want to work in healthcare, you might enjoy being a dental hygienist.

What is the average dental hygienist's job satisfaction?

According to Dentistry IQ, 84% of dental hygienists overall feel they made the right career choice. This percentage dips when asking more recent graduates. Of those who graduated in the 1970s to 1990s, 86-88% report being satisfied with their choice. Satisfaction drops to 76% for those who graduated in the 2000s and goes back up to 79% for those who graduated after 2010.

What is the difference between a dental hygienist and dental assistant?

Dental assistants and dental hygienists fill different roles in a dentist's office. Dental assistants lead the patients to the exam room, make sure they are comfortable, and sterilize dental instruments. They may perform laboratory tasks, educate patients on oral hygiene, and schedule appointments. Dental hygienists clean patients' teeth and look for signs of oral diseases. They take X-rays and apply fluoride or sealant treatments.

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