Dental Hygienist: Career Definition, Occupational Outlook, and Education Prerequisites

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

What Is a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists assist dentists in caring for patients' teeth and educating patients on good oral health practices. As part of providing preventative care they examine patients for oral disease, remove tartar and plaque from teeth, and apply fluoride to protect teeth. They are also trained to use a variety of dental tools, including x-ray machines and even lasers. These professionals must document their patients' care, and report findings to the dentist. Dental hygienists may demonstrate proper brushing or flossing techniques, and explain the importance of a good diet to oral health. The following chart gives you an overview about a career as a dental hygienist.

Degree Required Associate's degree most common; certificate and bachelor's degree programs also available
Education Field of Study Dental hygiene
Key Responsibilities Clean patients' teeth; take x-rays and develop images; apply fluoride and sealants to teeth; teach proper dental hygiene
Licensure and/or Certification All states require licensure
Job Growth (2014-2024) 19%*
Median Salary (2015) $72,330*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is the Career Definition of a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists provide preventative dental care by examining and cleaning patients' teeth. They're also responsible for taking x-rays, removing plaque, screening patients for gum disease and oral cancers and stressing the value of good nutrition as it relates to oral health. As a dental hygienist, you'd teach proper brushing and flossing techniques and ensure that dental equipment is in good working order. Depending on which state in which you'd like to practice, you might be qualified to administer local anesthetics and assist with basic dental surgeries, as well as removing sutures or applying temporary fillings.

What Is the Occupational Outlook?

Jobs for dental hygienists were expected to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2024, making it one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that, as of 2014, approximately 200,500 dental hygienists worked in the United States. The BLS attributed the growing need for the services of dental hygienists to an increase in older citizens who were keeping their teeth rather than having them extracted and to newly found correlations between oral health and overall health. The BLS also noted that as interest in dental health grew, more jobs would become available in dentist's offices, since many dentists required the assistance of dental hygienists.

What Prerequisites Must I Fulfill?

A career as a dental hygienist requires that you complete a dental hygiene program, preferably one that has been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which is a branch of the American Dental Association (ADA). Prerequisites for entry to these programs include a high school diploma and the submission of ACT or SAT scores. If you took high school courses in chemistry, biology and mathematics, that can help prepare you for the course of study. Some dental hygiene programs require at least one year of college coursework.

At minimum, you'll need a certificate or a 2-year associate's degree in dental hygiene to practice in a dentist's office. You can find such programs at community and technical colleges and at universities throughout the country. Associate's degree programs consist of classroom, laboratory and clinical instruction, and they generally focus on such topics as inorganic chemistry, dental radiology, clinical dental hygiene, pharmacology, anesthesiology and periodontology.

After completing your educational training, you'll then need to obtain a license. This is a requirement in almost every state. The licensing process will involve taking written and clinical examinations, which are given by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations of the ADA. If you'd like to teach dental hygiene, perform research or work within a public health or school system, you'll have to acquire a bachelor's or master's degree in the subject.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are several related careers that require different levels of education. Dental assistants need a postsecondary non-degree award. They also work with dentists to help take x-rays, record medical histories and schedule appointments. Radiation therapy is a similar field that requires an associate's degree, along with certification or licensure. Radiation therapists administer radiation treatments to their patients battling disease. Registered nurses (RNs) need a bachelor's degree and licensure, and they provide patient care, educate the public and provide support to patients and their families.

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