How to Become a Dental Hygienist

February 13, 2024

how to become a dental hygienist assistant

Do you want to earn a degree fairly quickly and enter a clear career path? Are you interested in dentistry, but want low student debt? Are you a “people person” who has excellent communication skills, but also wants to learn technical skills? Dental Hygiene is high on the list of the 20 highest-paying associate’s degrees, and may be an excellent option for you! Read on to find out how to become a dental hygienist and whether this career path is a good fit for you. We’ll explore how long it takes to become a dental hygienist, dental hygienist salary figures, and more

What is a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists are licensed healthcare professionals who work with dentists to help patients improve and maintain their oral health. Responsibilities include examining teeth and gums, cleaning teeth, performing X-rays, collecting medical histories, and working with patients and dentists to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease.

Often, dental hygienists spend far more time with patients than dentists and take an active role in prevention and treatment plans. So if patient care is important to you, dental hygiene may be a fitting career path!

Specific duties can vary from office to office, but typical tasks include:

  • Using dental instruments to perform cleanings
  • Removing plaque, tartar, and stains from teeth
  • Cleaning and organizing dental instruments
  • Checking for signs of gum disease or oral cancer
  • Advising patients on dental hygiene
  • Administering preventative treatments, including fluoride treatments
  • Assisting dentists as needed, especially during more complicated procedures

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most dental hygienists work in dental offices, but some work in outpatient care centers, physician offices, or psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals. Hours tend to be very regular, and many dental hygienists work part-time.

Dental Hygienist Salary and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median dental hygienist salary was $81,400 in May 2022. The median hourly wage was $39.14. The top-paying states for dental hygienists include:

  1. Alaska: $113,770 annual mean wage
  2. California: $111,580 annual mean wage
  3. Washington: $111,430 annual mean wage
  4. Oregon: $95,360 annual mean wage
  5. New Jersey: $94,610 annual mean wage

Dental Hygienist Salary (Continued) 

Dental hygienists working in private dental offices tend to have higher salaries than those working in other types of environments.

About 16,400 openings for dental hygienists are projected each year, on average, over the next decade. Employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 7 percent from 2022 to 2032, which is faster than average for all occupations.

Hence, while nothing is guaranteed, the demand for dental hygienists is poised to remain high. If job security is important to you, it is worth exploring a career in dental hygiene or a similar field. Dental hygienist salary figures should remain stable as well.

Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant

Like dental hygienist positions, dental assistant positions are projected for steady growth over the next decade. The responsibilities of dental assistants overlap somewhat with those of dental hygienists, but tend to be more limited and include more administrative duties. Tasks include:

  • Scheduling appointments and maintaining patient records
  • Sterilizing instruments
  • Assisting dentists during procedures by handing over instruments and monitoring patient comfort

Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant (Continued)

The annual median pay for dental assistants is $44,820, so lower than for dental hygienists. In some states, there are no formal educational requirements for dental assistants, and they instead learn through on-the-job training. In other states, dental assistants must graduate from an accredited program, like dental hygienists.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Hygienist? 

It takes about 2 years to become a dental hygienist if you’re a full-time student. If you’re a part-time student, it can take longer—typically around 3 years—to fulfill the requirements for an associate degree in dental hygiene. A bachelor’s degree typically takes 4-5 years.

Steps to Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Different states and potential employers have different requirements for dental hygienists, but the basic steps are the same across the country:

1) Earn a high school diploma or GED certificate.

If you know in high school you are interested in pursuing a career as a dental hygienist, try to prioritize courses in chemistry, biology, and math.

2) Graduate from a dental hygiene program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

There are different types of dental hygienist programs, but most dental hygienists earn an associate degree from a community college, vocational school, or technical school. Associate’s degrees can be earned in-person or, increasingly, online. Indeed, online associate’s programs can offer greater flexibility and accessibility.

Alternatively, you can earn a bachelor’s degree or, eventually, a master’s degree in dental hygiene.

Associate’s degrees tend to be faster and less expensive to obtain than bachelor’s degrees, although the latter offers more in-depth training, particularly if you are interested in a career in education, research, public health, or sales. Unless you are certain about your career path and interests in dental hygiene, it is advisable to pursue an associate’s degree first. With that foundation, you can always go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

3) Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) from the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE).

The test is made up of 350 multiple-choice questions and divided into two sections—a discipline-based component and a care-based component. The discipline-based component focuses on three major areas. 1) scientific basis for dental hygiene practice, 2) provision of clinical dental hygiene services, and 3) community health/research principles. The care-based component presents 12-15 dental hygiene patient cases and assesses the student’s ability to assess patient characteristics, provide supportive treatments, and manage care.

It is a good idea to ask potential programs about whether and what types of resources and guidance they provide to help prepare students for the NBDHE.

4) Pass an approved clinical board examination for your region or state.

Clinical board examinations are administered to evaluate the clinical competency of candidates for dental hygiene licensure. These exams are often administered multiple times a year by regional testing agencies such as the Central Regional Dental Testing Service. Be sure to check state-specific requirements regarding accepted testing agencies.

5) Obtain licensure from the appropriate state dental board.

Dental hygienist licensing requirements, fees, and cycle lengths vary from state to state, but nearly all require completion of the above 4 steps to obtain licensure.

Dental Hygienist Programs

There are over 300 accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States. The most common way to search for accredited programs is by state, particularly if you are planning to obtain licensure in the same state as the program. While most dental hygiene programs are in-person or hybrid, a range of fully-online programs admit licensed dental hygienists who want to advance from an associate degree in dental hygiene to a bachelor’s degree. Examples include Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, an affordable program with a fully online format and no required clinicals. The American Dental Hygienists Association offers some resources for finding the right program for you, including relevant questions to ask of a potential program. These include:

  • In the last several years, what percentage of your graduates passed the clinical licensing exam on the first try?
  • What percentage of your students find full-time employment as a clinical hygienist within several months of graduation?
  • What resources are available to assist me in being successful?

Highly-rated dental hygiene programs include:

1) New York University

New York University is large, private, not-for-profit university. The Department of Hygiene and Dental Assisting has a reputation for academic excellence, and provides an interdisciplinary curriculum. The clinical requirements are rigorous, and students rotate through specialty areas such as orthodontics, periodontics, prosthodontics, implant dentistry, pediatric dentistry, and hospital clinics. There are two degree programs: Bachelor of Science (BS) in Dental Hygiene and Associate in Applied Science (AAS) in Dental Hygiene. Both programs include flexible plans. For the 78-credit AAS program, there is a three-year track, a two-year track, and a “Fast Track” 17-month program. About 69 students graduate annually from the AAS program. This experience comes at a price, and tuition at NYU Dentistry is high—as much as $60k a year. There are merit-based scholarships available, however, and the school is a good option for students interested in higher-paying positions in dental hygiene.

2) Madison Area Technical College

MATC, or Madison College, is a public technical and community college based in Madison, Wisconsin. The 69-credit, two-year Dental Hygienist associate degree program is regionally respected. Students gain hands-on experience at the on-campus dental clinic, which serves real patients from the area. The total estimated program cost is around $14k, and recent graduates from the program report an average starting salary of $74,460. Around 33 students graduate from the program annually.

3) Santa Rosa Junior College

Located in Santa Rosa, CA, SRJC is a public college with a large student population. About 45 students graduate annually with an associate’s degree from the dental hygiene program. About 99% of the students pass the National Board exam on their first attempt. The 2-year program includes clinical training which is provided at the on-campus dental clinic. The estimated program cost is about $20k, which includes tuition, textbooks, and supplies. There are many factors to consider when determining the best program for you, though, including location, affordability, class size, and internship opportunities.

Dental hygiene programs typically include the following:

  • Courses in dental anatomy and biochemistry (both lecture courses and labs)
  • Preclinical training in infection control and instrument use
  • Clinical training in procedures and patient interaction

Certification and Licensure Process for a Dental Hygienist

Most states require that your National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and clinical examination scores be sent directly to the state’s licensing institution, typically the Department of Health.

Beyond these examinations, some states require additional testing. For example, dental hygienists in Washington state must successfully complete the Washington State Drug and Law exam. Other states require up-to-date CPR certification.

Dental hygienists should also familiarize themselves with renewal requirements. Some states require licenses to be renewed annually, whereas other states require renewals every 2 or 3 years. Most states have continuing education requirements. For example, dental hygienists may be required to take updated infectious disease, ethics, or substance abuse courses in order to renew their license. Sometimes employers will have additional requirements (CPR certification if not required by the state, for example). Many will pay for their employee’s continuing education. When interviewing with prospective employers, be sure to ask about additional requirements and/or funding for continuing education.

In conclusion, if you have a passion for oral health and like working with your hands in a dynamic environment, a career as a dental hygienist could be a great fit. The path to becoming a dental hygienist is relatively affordable and straightforward, and job security is high.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist – Additional Resources

Alternatively, if dental hygiene programs sound interesting, but you’d prefer a similar career path in the medical field, check out Ultrasound Tech and/or X-Ray/Radiology Tech schools. Like dental hygiene, these programs allow you to obtain the necessary training in a short amount of time and with minimal student debt.

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