How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Discover what it takes to become a dental hygienist and what role these professionals play in improving people's oral health.

portrait of Doug Wintemute
by Doug Wintemute

Updated September 21, 2022

Edited by Kelly Thomas
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How to Become a Dental Hygienist
Image Credit: Ika84 / E+ / Getty Images


Dental hygienists can make a lasting impact on their patients' oral and overall health. Their positive contributions have led to a surge in hygiene services across the country. According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), the number of states with direct access to dental hygienist services has grown from five to 42 since 2005.

Increased accessibility to dental care has created more professional opportunities for individuals who aspire to become dental hygienists. Here, we explore what you need to become a dental hygienist and what the career might look like.

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Ready to start your journey?

Step-by-Step to Becoming a Dental Hygienist

To become a dental hygienist, individuals need to be licensed within the state they practice in. Since dental hygienists have different professional capabilities and limitations depending on their state, the licensing requirements can change with location. Employers also have their own set of demands, which might result in more specific entry requirements.

Regardless of a person's state and employer, the basic guidelines for these professionals are the same.

  • Earn a high school diploma.
  • Graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program.
  • Pass the national board dental hygiene examination (NBDHE) from the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE).
  • Pass an approved clinical board examination for your region or state.

Types of Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists' roles can differ between states and industries. Some states provide dental hygienists with a wider scope of practice, including more restorative duties and fewer supervision requirements.

In dental offices — their primary place of work — dental hygienists may handle both clinical and administrative tasks. They can also work in:

Non-clinical professionals use their knowledge of oral health and practical skills to design hygiene-focused programs and products for public consumption.

What Is a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists focus on preventative oral healthcare and disease prevention. Depending on where they work, they may provide care directly via examinations and cleanings or indirectly via information and education.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Dental hygienists play a substantial role in helping patients improve their oral health. They look for signs of disease and treat the issues before they get worse with cleanings, preventative measures, and patient education. They work with various instruments, powered tools, and x-rays.

Along with their clinical responsibilities, dental hygienists document their care plans and collaborate with other oral healthcare professionals. They may also conduct research into new technologies and practices. The extent of their work and level of supervision required varies by state.

Dental Hygienist Responsibilities

  • Examine patients' mouths for oral health concerns, such as plaque and tartar buildup and gum disease.
  • Diagnose conditions and develop a treatment plan within their scope of practice.
  • Clean teeth by removing plaque and stains using various tools and techniques.
  • Provide preventative information and treatments, such as applying sealants and fluoride.
  • In states where restorative services are permissible, place and remove crowns.

Requirements for Becoming a Dental Hygienist

While every state and employer has its own requirements for dental hygienists, these professionals need licensure to practice anywhere in the country. The following list examines the minimum expectations for a dental hygienist license.

Certification Process for Dental Hygienists

Establish State Licensure

In every state, the dental hygienist requirements for employment include licensure. For licensure, candidates must complete an accredited postsecondary program — typically an associate's or bachelor's degree program in dental hygiene. Graduates then must pass the national written examination and a state-approved clinical examination.

Once candidates meet their regional requirements, they can apply for licensure with their state licensing board. Licensed hygienists must renew their licenses every 1-2 years by completing varying amounts of continuing education each cycle.

Dental Hygienist Salary and Job Demand

The growing understanding of and respect for oral health have increased the need for dental hygienists. Evolving regulations and expanded roles for dental hygienists will also continue to shape the profession and drive demand.

9%
Projected employment growth Median salary 2021-2031

$77,810
Median salary 2021

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The vast majority of dental hygienists work in dental offices, either on their own or under the supervision of a dentist. The government and physician offices employ a small percentage of the workforce. More than 16,000 annual openings are projected across the industry.

Growth Opportunities

Top 5 Paid States

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Is being a dental hygienist stressful?

A dental hygienist's stress depends on many factors, but working in a patient care profession can have its challenges. Hygienists deal with clinical treatments that can take a long time to complete, leading to extended periods without breaks and possible fatigue.

Hygienists must also adapt to evolving infection control standards and processes without sacrificing efficiency. They may also deal with a demanding schedule and difficult patients.

Is dental hygienist a good career choice?

Yes. Dental hygienists provide a very valuable service to individuals and communities. Their professional outlook benefits from a growing and aging population that requires more oral hygiene than previous generations. As a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects about 19,000 new dental hygienist positions will be created between 2021 and 2031.

Dental hygienists also enjoy the financial rewards of the profession. The top 10% of hygienists earned more than $100,200 in May 2021, while 90% of professionals earned more than $60,000.

Do dental hygienists give anesthesia?

Yes. Dental hygienists can give local anesthesia to patients, but the rules and requirements vary by state. Depending on their location, hygienists may need to have direct, indirect, or general supervision from a dentist.

To qualify for the ability to administer anesthesia, hygienists typically need to complete a specific amount of didactic and clinical training. Some states require professionals to complete a minimum number of injections. A local anesthesia examination may also be required as part of the state's clinical exam or a standalone exam.

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