How to Become a Dental Hygienist in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a dental hygienist. Learn about job duties, education requirements, licensure and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Dental Hygiene degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

A dental hygienist cleans the teeth of dental patients using a variety of tools. They see patients for regular cleaning check-ups and are responsible for checking the teeth for any new problems to report to the dentist. They may administer x-rays to look for cavities or other issues and keep a record of a patient's dental history. Much of their work involves cleaning patients' teeth, and they use a variety of tools to remove stains and polish teeth. The following chart gives you an overview about a career as a dental hygienist.

Degree Required Associate's degree is most common; bachelor's degree available
Education Field of Study Dental hygiene
Key Responsibilities Clean and polish patient teeth; apply fluoride and sealant; take dental x-rays; teach patient proper dental hygiene
Licensure All states require licensure
Job Growth (2014-2024) 19%*
Median Salary (2015) $72,330*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Dental Hygienist?

Some of the job duties you will perform as a dental hygienist include examining the teeth and gums, noting the presence of disease or other abnormalities and removing tartar and plaque. You may also take x-rays, record patient histories, educate patients in good oral hygiene and apply fluoride treatments. In some states, you may be allowed to perform additional duties, such as administering anesthetics, removing sutures and placing fillings.

Step 1: Research Program Types and Career Options

To become a dental hygienist, you may enroll in a certificate, associate's degree or bachelor's degree program. When deciding which type of program to enroll in, you should consider your career goals. While a certificate or associate's degree is usually sufficient to obtain employment in a private dental office, a bachelor's or master's degree may be required if you are interested in public health, research or teaching. You may also want to consider that some programs have prerequisites. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some dental hygiene programs require that you complete at least one year of college prior to admission and may have other entrance requirements (www.bls.gov).

Step 2: Complete a Dental Hygienist Program

Once you have an idea about your career goals, you can choose an appropriate dental hygiene program. Your education will consist of classroom, laboratory and clinical components. Courses may include chemistry, microbiology, anatomy and physiology. Programs may also include classes in pathology, pharmacology, nutrition, radiology and periodontology. If you enroll in a bachelor's degree program, you will also gain skills in teaching and conducting research.

Step 3: Earn a License

You must become licensed in your state before you may begin working as a dental hygienist. To earn a license, you must generally graduate from an approved program and pass an examination that includes both written and clinical components. Each state administers its own clinical examination, while the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations of the American Dental Association (ADA) administers the written examination. The BLS notes that Alabama is the only state that does not require this written exam and administers its own exam. In most states, you will need to take an additional exam on legal concerns.

Step 4: Find Employment

After earning your license, you may obtain employment. If you wish to work full-time, you may need to find employment with more than one dentist. The BLS states that many dentists schedule dental hygienists to work 2-3 days per week. If you have a bachelor's degree, you may also find employment in teaching or research.

The BLS predicted that job opportunities for dental hygienists would grow by 19% between 2014 and 2024. This growth was credited to population growth and an increasing number of dentists who hire dental hygienists. In May 2015 dental hygienists earned an annual median salary of $72,330, according to the BLS.

Step 5: Consider Earning an Advanced Degree

If you're interested in advancing your career and obtaining employment outside of a dentist's office, you may want to consider earning a master's degree. Earning your master's degree may give you more opportunities to work in research, teaching or the sales and marketing of oral health products. Some programs allow you to choose an emphasis depending on your career goals, such as management, education or research. If you are interested in research, you may also want to consider earning a doctoral degree. If you would like to advance your career while continuing to work in a dental office, you may want to consider going on to dental school and becoming a dentist.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you have a strong interest in oral health and hygiene, you could also consider a job as a dental assistant, which can perform many of the same duties as a dental hygienist but typically works alongside a dentist during more complicated procedures. If you are interested in the field of medicine outside of dentistry, you could work as a medical assistant alongside a doctor. These careers require a postsecondary diploma or certificate.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

  • 1. Degree Options:
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Popular Schools

  • Southern New Hampshire University

    Southern New Hampshire University responds quickly to information requests through this website.

    Popular programs at Southern New Hampshire University:

    • Master

    Online Programs Available

  • Penn Foster

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    Popular programs at Penn Foster:

    • Certificates

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  • Northcentral University

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  • Grand Canyon University

    Grand Canyon University responds quickly to information requests through this website.

    Popular programs at Grand Canyon University:

    • Doctoral
    • Master
    • Bachelor Degrees

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  • Herzing University

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  • Fortis College

    Fortis College responds quickly to information requests through this website.

    Popular programs at Fortis College:

    • Certificates

    Campus Locations:

    • Maryland: Towson
  • Indiana Wesleyan University

    Indiana Wesleyan University responds quickly to information requests through this website.

    Popular programs at Indiana Wesleyan University:

    • Master
    • Bachelor Degrees
    • Associate Programs

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  • Penn Foster High School

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  • CDI College

    CDI College responds quickly to information requests through this website.

    Popular programs at CDI College:

    • Certificates

    Campus Locations:

    • Anywhere: Anjou, Burnaby, Edmonton, Laval, Longueuil, Montreal, Point Claire, Richmond, Surrey, Winnipeg
  • Regent University

    Regent University responds quickly to information requests through this website.

    Popular programs at Regent University:

    • Doctoral
    • Master

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