10 Most Important Dental Hygienist Skills

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Updated on March 13, 2024
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Dental hygienists do more than clean teeth — they also identify warning signs of oral diseases, provide preventative care, and educate patients on oral health.

Want to become a dental hygienist? It’s one of the highest-paying careers with an associate degree. And a bachelor’s in dental hygiene can open up even more career opportunities.

But before jumping into dental hygiene, you’ll need to strengthen your dental hygienist skills. From technical knowledge to patient care techniques, read on to learn about the most important dental hygienist skills.

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10 Essential Dental Hygienist Skills

Most of what you need to know to be a dental hygienist will be covered during a degree program in dental hygiene. This includes how to clean teeth, take X-rays, apply fluoride treatments, and assist the dentist with procedures such as root canals, fillings, and crowns.

Other traits and skills necessary for the field include communication skills, manual dexterity, time management, critical thinking, and empathy. Below, explore the various soft and hard skills required for this profession.

5 Important Soft Skills

Soft skills such as communication and empathy are critical for dental hygienists. In order to carry out your job duties, you’ll need to develop the following soft skills:

1. Communication

As a dental hygienist, your responsibilities include taking patient histories, talking to patients about their oral hygiene routines, and talking patients through their procedures. Additionally, you will need to communicate with the dentist, as your patient may have problems and concerns that the dentist will need to address.

Solid communication skills will also help you work better with your colleagues. While most of your time will be spent working with patients, you will likely collaborate with other hygienists in the practice.

2. Compassion and Empathy

Whether you’re working with adult patients nervous about their dentist visits or children going to the dentist for the first time, you’ll need compassion and empathy as a dental hygienist.

Strong interpersonal skills can help you reassure patients and address their concerns. Demonstrating empathy for patients sensitive to pain or afraid of particular dental treatments will help you do your job effectively while keeping patients calm and comfortable.

3. Time Management

Dental hygienists are often on a strict time schedule. Routine visits may only give hygienists 30-40 minutes with children or under 60 minutes with adult patients before the dentist meets with patients. New patient visits may take up to 90 minutes.

Time management skills help dental hygienists complete appointments in a timely manner and help dentists stay on schedule. Many employers of dental hygienists prioritize good time management abilities.

4. Detail Oriented

Dental hygienists must assess patient charts, identify areas of concern with a patient’s teeth or gums, and accurately communicate detailed information to dentists and other staff. If you struggle to pay attention to small details, a career in dental hygiene may be challenging.

A detail-oriented outlook helps dental hygienists follow correct protocols and provide effective treatments. You can strengthen your attention to detail during a dental hygienist program.

5. Critical Thinking

You’ll use your critical thinking and problem-solving skills to evaluate patients, develop oral hygiene care plans, and assist with dental procedures. Critical thinking skills can also help you determine the best approach with different patients and follow important safety procedures.

Dental hygienists draw on their critical thinking abilities to manage daily tasks. During a dental hygienist program, you’ll strengthen your ability to think critically and solve problems.

5 Important Hard Skills

In addition to soft skills, dental hygienists must have technical knowledge about dental procedures, along with the dexterity to operate dental tools. Below are the key hard skills for a dental hygienist:

1. Dexterity

Dental hygienists use precise tools and instruments to clean teeth, remove plaque, and check gum health. On top of that, dental hygienists must reach all areas of a patient’s mouth, which requires good dexterity.

Strong fine motor skills and the ability to work in tight spaces help dental hygienists. Students develop these skills during hands-on components in a dental hygienist program.

2. Taking X-Rays

In many dental offices, dental hygienists take X-rays, which dentists evaluate to determine tooth decay and necessary treatments. Taking X-rays requires specialized training in safety procedures. Dental hygienists also need to identify X-rays that do not meet quality standards so they can retake the images.

Dental hygienist programs incorporate training in X-rays to prepare hygienists for this key component of their job.

3. Conducting Dental Assessments

Dental hygienists conduct patient examinations, interpret patient charts, and evaluate X-rays. They draw on technical skills developed during the clinical components of a dental hygienist program to carry out these dental assessments.

In addition, you’ll need to know how to use specialized tools to assess patients. Programs provide extensive training in the best practices for conducting dental assessments.

4. Assist with Dental Procedures

As a dental hygienist, you’ll often assist dentists with procedures, including wellness exams and fillings. Hygienists may provide tools for the dentist, record patient information, or position patients during procedures.

Dental hygienists also assist dentists with more complex procedures, including root canals and crowns, which require specialized skills. During a dental hygienist program, you’ll develop your knowledge of dental procedures.

5. Applying Fluoride Treatments

Many routine dentist visits conclude with a fluoride treatment to strengthen teeth and protect against cavities. Dental hygienists often apply fluoride treatment, which requires an understanding of safety guidelines and the best practices for fluoride. You’ll also communicate with the patient about the treatment and its benefits.

Featured Online Associate Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dental Hygienist Requirements and Skills

Is being a dental hygienist hard?

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Being a dental hygienist can be hard. You'll need a high tolerance for bad dental health and the sight of blood. And you'll need patience and good time-management skills. Dental hygienists also must complete an accredited dental hygienist program, which typically takes 3-4 years depending on the program.

What education is required to be a dental hygienist?

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Dental hygienists need an associate degree in dental hygiene and a state-issued license. The requirements for licensure vary by state, so check the process in your state for specific information. You can also become a dental hygienist with a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene.

Do you need computer skills to be a dental hygienist?

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Dental hygienists must have some basic computer skills. For example, you'll need to know how to use electronic health record systems in order to enter patient history and assessments. Dental hygienist programs often include coursework that covers common software and applications that you might use as a dental hygienist.

Is dental hygienist schooling hard?

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Dental hygienist school can be challenging. Admissions can be hard at competitive programs, and the curriculum covers dental sciences with lectures, laboratory requirements, and projects. You'll also gain clinical skills, including how to use dental instruments. "It's a very large workload crammed into each semester," according to registered dental hygienist Elizabeth Graves.

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