How Do I Become a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH)?

Research what it takes to become a registered dental hygienist. Learn about degree requirements, salary, employment outlook and licensure 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 Registered Dental Hygienist?

Assisting dentists, registered dental hygienists examine the patient's teeth for evidence of disease or cavities, clean the patient's teeth, provide preventative measures and advise the patient on dental proper care. They use various types of dental equipment, including air polishing devices, x-rays and ultrasonic cleaning and polishing tools. They may provide fluoride and sealing treatments, depending on the state in which they work. An overview of career information, such as education, job duties and licensure requirements, is listed below.

Degree Required Associate's degree
Education Field of Study Dental hygiene
Key Responsibilities Take x-rays; remove stains, tartar and plaque from teeth; educate patients on oral health practices
Licensure All states require licensure for dental hygienists
Job Growth (2014-2024) 19% (for all dental hygienists)*
Median Salary (2017) $57,078 (for all registered dental hygienists)**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **

What Are the Job Duties of a Registered Dental Hygienist?

As a dental hygienist, you would work closely with a dentist, prepping patients for procedures, taking molds of teeth and cleaning teeth during yearly visits. You would maintain and update patient files, take x-rays, counsel patients on dental hygiene and teach them about proper cleaning techniques. Depending on the level of education you complete, you could also be involved in more complex dental procedures, such as filling teeth and removing sutures.

What Education Do I Need?

Most dental hygiene programs in the U.S. are 2-year associate's degree programs; although certificate programs and bachelor's degree programs are also available (master's degree programs are generally designed for those who want to become teachers or administrators of dental hygiene programs). The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) listed 332 entry-level dental hygiene programs in the U.S. in 2017.

Dental hygiene programs typically include introductory coursework in liberal arts, followed by coursework in subjects such as biology and chemistry. Career specific courses include the basics of dental health, pharmacology and local anesthesia. After completing introductory coursework, you would move on the clinical phase of the program, in which you would practice your skills at a dental facility, typically on campus. After you complete the program, you'll be eligible to take the examination to become a licensed dental hygienist.

How Do I Become Registered?

The American Dental Association (ADA), through the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations offers the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. The exam comprises 350 multiple-choice questions. You'll also need to seek licensure in the state where you plan to work. Although requirements vary from state to state, you'll generally be required to pass a clinical exam administered by your state's dental board in order to begin practicing as a dental hygienist.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Armed with an associate's degree in radiation therapy, an individual may qualify to become a radiation therapist. Though requirements may vary, most states require that radiation therapists be certified or licensed. Working with an oncology team that includes radiation oncologists, oncology nurses and medical physicists, their duties include applying x-rays to determine an afflicted area and then operating a linear accelerator to administer radiation to treat, eliminate or reduce a cancer.

Though there are no formal education requirements to become a medical assistant, most employers prefer to hire individuals who have completed a postsecondary program that leads to wither a certificate or an associate's degree. In large practices, medical assistants generally specialize in administrative or clinical duties. In smaller practices, they may be called upon to fill both positions. Administrative medical assistant duties include filling out treatment and patient history forms and scheduling appointments. Clinical medical assistant duties can vary by state, but they can include assisting the physician with patient examinations, performing lab tests and changing dressings.

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