What's the Difference Between a Dental Assistant and Hygienist?

If you want to work in a dental office, you could support dentists in a career as a dental hygienist or dental assistant. Read on and learn the difference between these two professions to determine which is best for you. Schools offering Dental Assisting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Overview of Dental Assistants and Hygienists

Whether you become a dental assistant or dental hygienist, you'll provide support in a dental office. The positions include some similar tasks, such as taking x-rays and blood pressure, screening patients, and advising patients on proper oral health care. There are many differences between the two roles, however. Dental assistants directly assist dentists more than hygienists do, often acting as a second pair of hands. Hygienists spend more one-on-one time with patients.

You need more education and training to become a hygienist than you do to work as a dental assistant. Due to the higher-level job prerequisites and responsibilities, you will probably earn a higher salary as a hygienist than as a dental assistant.

Important Facts About These Occupations

Dental AssistantDental Hygienist
Work SchedulesTypically full-time and can include evening and weekend hoursTypically work part-time with different dentists
Key SkillsDetail oriented, good listening, interpersonal and organizing skillsCompassionate, detail oriented, good dexterity and interpersonal skills, physical stamina
Work EnvironmentDentist officeMainly in dentists' offices, but also in schools and outpatient clinics
Similar OccupationsMedical assistants, pharmacy techniciansPhysician assistants, radiation therapists

Differences in Job Duties

Dental assistants perform a variety of tasks in the dental office, usually directly assisting dentists. You work closely with patients during dental visits, from start to finish. You'll sterilize instruments and materials, and prepare them for dental procedures, as well as make patients feel comfortable in the treatment chair. During procedures, you'll help dentists by handing them instruments and keeping the patient's mouth dry and clear using suction. As a dental assistant, you'll also provide oral care instructions to patients and complete office tasks, such as scheduling appointments, billing patients and ordering supplies.

Dental hygienists, on the other hand, work with patients to provide a wide range of services, mostly in preventive oral health care. You'll assess your patient's oral health and screen for diseases. You'll also remove plaque, stains and tartar from a patient's teeth and apply preventive materials like fluoride and sealants. Creating dental molds are part of your responsibilities, as is teaching patients proper oral hygiene.

Differences in Training

As a dental assistant, you may receive on-the-job training. Most states have no formal education requirements for the profession. You could, however, complete a dental assisting program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) and earn a diploma, certificate or associate degree. The tasks you can perform as a dental assistant are regulated by your state; advanced training and licensing is required to perform expanded functions, such as coronal polishing. Some states require all dental assistants to become certified by passing the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam administered by the Dental Assisting National Board.

If you prefer to work as a dental hygienist, you must earn a degree from a CODA-accredited dental hygiene school, and gain licensure in your state. While some educational programs offer certificates, bachelor's degrees or master's degrees, most grant associate degrees. Before you may begin working as a dental hygienist, you need to pass clinical and written examinations to earn your license.

Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that as of May 2018, dental assistants earned an annual median wage of $38,660 (www.bls.gov). The BLS predicted that between 2016 and 2026, employment of dental assistants would increase by 19%. An increased awareness of the link between oral health and general health will likely contribute to the increased demand for dental services.

According to the BLS, the annual median salary for dental hygienists was $74,820 in May 2018. The BLS projected that job opportunities for dental hygienists would grow 20% between 2016 and 2026. Advancements in oral health technologies may be part of the reason for this expected increase in employment.

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