Dental Hygienist Career Guide

What is a Dental Hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a licensed, oral health professional who works under the general supervision of a licensed dentist. Helping to prevent oral diseases that are linked to dental hygiene issues such as plaque and tartar buildup, a dental hygienist professionally cleans patients’ teeth.

Dental hygienists specialize in cleaning and consulting with patients to improve their overall dental hygiene. They are an instrumental component of oral healthcare as they help to alleviate much of the work load that would otherwise fall entirely on the shoulders of licensed dentists.

What is a Pediatric Dental Hygienist?

A pediatric dental hygienist is a licensed oral health professional who specializes in children’s oral and dental care. These ancillary dental workers are employed by licensed pediatric dentists and perform their tasks solely under their supervision.

Because caring for children in any setting is far more complex and risky than caring for adults, pediatric dental hygienists are trained to work with children in order to provide them with the particular type of care that they require.  They also serve as a kind of oral and dental health educator for children, teaching them how to properly brush and floss on a daily basis.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

A dental hygienist performs all of the care associated with oral hygiene. The most common task a dental hygienist is responsible for is cleaning teeth. There are a number of methods and tools that a dental hygienist has to choose from, and each varies depending upon what he or she prefers, the severity of tartar and plaque buildup, and any other needs the patient may have.

While some have switched to modernized tools such as lasers, most dental hygienists use ultrasonic instruments to clean teeth with a mixture of baking soda, air, and water. After a proper cleaning, dental hygienists will usually apply fluoride and/or other types of sealants to protect the patient’s teeth until his or her next dental appointment.

Dental hygienists also care for the health of patients’ gums. This includes inspecting the gums for sores and lesions, unusual bleeding, and signs of cancer. Dental hygienists are typically the first to spot receding gum-lines, which may indicate a number of various periodontal diseases.

Related Reading: How to Become a Dental Assistant

They are responsible for recording and charting all conditions, tooth and/or gum decay, and signs of disease that they may find. A dental hygienist will then report this information to a fully-licensed dentist so that he or she may make a proper diagnosis and decide on the best course of treatment. A dental hygienist is also qualified to give local anesthetics that numb the gums and alleviate pain associated with procedures.

In addition to cleaning patients’ teeth, a dental hygienist is also responsible for educating patients in regards to how and how often they should brush, floss, and rinse at home. Another component of the essential education that they relay to their patients is the effect that one’s diet can have on their overall oral and dental wellness. Often times they will provide their patients with instructional literature and/or demonstrate how to best care for their own teeth between dental cleaning appointments.

And finally, a dental hygienist is a patient’s most trusted source for advice when it comes to selecting their own personal toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, and type of floss. A dental hygienist also performs other types of oral and dental work, too. For example, they are qualified to snap x-rays and develop the images for a diagnosis to be performed by the licensed dentist for whom they work.

Are Dental Hygienists in Demand?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental hygienists are currently in high demand and that demand is expected to grow further. By 2026, dental hygienist demand and employment is projected to increase by an average of 20%, a rate that is much higher and faster than rates for all other vocations.

As people grow older, their dental needs become complex—and it is even more important that elderly patients take care of their teeth with regular checkups and cleaning. The increase in demand for dental hygienists is due to the increase in overall life expectancy.

What Do You Learn in a Dental Hygienist Degree Program?

  • Oral Health – In a dental hygienist degree program, students learn all about oral health. From their own cleaning roles and responsibilities inside of the dentist’s office to how patients should care for their gums, and teeth at home.
  • Oral Physiology and Anatomy – In addition to learning about oral hygiene in a generalized sense, dental hygienists learn about the anatomy of teeth, gums, the throat, and tongue. Studying physiology, dental hygienists learn how the human mouth functions, what it looks like when it is healthy and what it looks like when it is not.
  • Skills and Tools – Much of a dental hygienist’s education is spent learning about the tools they will be working with and practicing to use them. Because these tools are used on all of their patients, dental hygienists also learn how to take care of these tools and keep them sterilized.
  • Nutrition – Just like all of the other parts of the human body, the mouth is also affected by the kind of diet we keep. Dental hygienists learn about nutrition for the best overall oral health, which foods to stay away from, and which foods are particularly beneficial for patients dealing with certain oral conditions.
  • Periodontal Diseases – Dental hygienists are typically the first to spot the signs of periodontal disease. Dental hygienists learn extensively about the various types of oral, gum, and dental infection and disease. They learn how to spot signs, diagnose, and even treat these conditions.
  • Assistance – One of the primary roles of a dental hygienist is to serve as an assistant to the fully-licensed dentist for whom they work. They will learn how to work with dentists and provide important assistance as they perform significant and invasive dental procedures.
  • Communication Skills – It is imperative that dental hygienists learn how to be effective communicators. During a routine cleaning, the patient is unable to talk, and so a dental hygienist must learn how to select topics to talk about and speak in a way that is calming for patients as they may experience discomfort throughout their procedure.
  • Radiography – As dental hygienists are responsible for taking and developing x-rays of patients, they will learn all about radiography. Dental hygienists learn how to take a proper and clear picture of patients’ mouths and how to properly angle and position patients’ jaws in order to capture the precise image that a licensed dentist needs to examine.
  • Contemporary Issues in Oral Health – As many people do not have medical insurance, dental insurance is even harder to come by. Dental hygienists learn about the various societal and economic factors that may affect their patients’ ability to properly care for their teeth.

How Do You Become a Dental Hygienist?

Educational Requirement

To become a dental hygienist, the first educational requirement is to have earned a high school diploma or GED. Next, dental hygienists are required to complete their undergraduate education by earning an Associate’s degree. Some dental hygiene associate degree programs can be completed in two years, but it is more common that students complete them in three. In the United States, there are over 300 dental hygiene associate degree programs that the Commission on Dental Accreditation approves of and recognizes.

While one objective of a dental hygiene program is to prepare students to provide fully-licensed dentists with professional assistance, a more significant goal is that dental hygienists are sufficiently prepared to perform their own roles and responsibilities as independently as permitted.

Generalized courses aimed at achieving these objectives are oral anatomy and physiology, immunology, microbiology, pharmacology, and even chemistry. In regards to tasks specifically associated for oral care, students will complete clinical science coursework in radiology, dental hygiene, and learn how to use the tools and instruments of their trade.

The requirements for admission to a program depend upon the particular school and/or program to which a student applies. The majority of dental hygiene programs favor applicants who have already attended one year of college where they preferably took classes in speech, chemistry, mathematics, biology, and/or general health and wellness. 

Licensure Requirements

In order to practice, it is mandatory that dental hygienists gain licensure from the state in which they reside. First, the dental hygiene associate’s degree program that they completed must be accredited through the Commission on Dental Accreditation.

Some states may require other types of accreditation such as CPR certification and/or a letter of recommendation. However, nearly every state requires that dental hygienists take and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination which is a written exam that tests candidate competency, skills, and scope of comprehension for oral care and hygiene.

Finally, once a dental hygienist receives licensure, he or she may then sign their name with “R.D.H.” to indicate that they are recognized and state-licensed to practice as a Registered Dental Hygienist.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

To become a dental hygienist, the entire process usually takes between two and four years depending on which level of education is pursued. For example, some dental hygienists hold a four-year Bachelor’s degree. However, to practice, only an Associate’s degree is required, which takes no less than two years to complete and no more than three. Most choose this path because it takes less than half the time; and furthermore, without earning a Master’s, a Bachelor’s degree may not necessarily open up more or better career opportunities.

What Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

  • Fine Motor Skills – In order to become a dental hygienist, candidates should possess fine motor skills. Working inside a person’s mouth with sharp instruments requires a high level of dexterity and hand-eye coordination.
  • Stamina – Throughout a long shift, dental hygienists are primarily standing on their feet for the entire day. Furthermore, they also perform their work while bending at the waist to lean over patients.
  • Perceptive of Small Details – The human mouth is not exceptionally large, and teeth in particular are relatively small. A dental hygienist must be able to pay close attention to small details in order to catch early signs of gum disease, tooth decay, and other conditions related to oral health.
  • Professionalism – Working one-on-one with patients requires a dental hygienist to carry him or herself in a professional and respectable manner. Dental hygienists should maintain a professional physical appearance and take great care of their own personal hygiene.
  • Compassion – As most people not only dislike going to the dentist, but some even have an extreme fear of it, dental hygienists must be aware of these sentiments and exhibit true compassion in order to earn the trust of their patients and help them to relax during dental procedures.
  • Cognitive Skills – Dental hygienists are usually the first to examine and identify oral disease and/or infection. Thus, they must be able to apply working-knowledge in order to differentiate the difference between typical and atypical, assess conditions, and come up with timely solutions.
  • Technical Skills – Nearly every single task a dental hygienist performs is done so with some type of hand-held instrument. Additionally, they also need to have profound understanding of x-ray machines and the radiology-associated tools they use to pose patients and capture particular angles as needed.
  • Interpersonal Skills – During a routine cleaning, patients are unable to speak, and so dental hygienists must find a way to make the situation less awkward and the patient more comfortable. In addition to speaking in a friendly and soothing manner, dental hygienists must also possess excellent listening skills in order to understand patient complaints and questions.
  • Visual Skills – Dental hygienists must possess a certain level of average or above average vision. These visual skills are impertinent for identifying x-ray image subtleties and/or changes in the color of gum tissue and tooth enamel. At the very least, dental hygienists must be able to see in detail a patient’s teeth and gums from no less than 20 inches away.

What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Dental Hygienist?

As with most careers, there are advantages and disadvantages to being a dental hygienist. Below is a list of the profession’s real pro and cons as reported by dental hygienists themselves.


  • Increasing Demand – Demand for dental hygienists is projected to increase by 20% in the next eight years.
  • Competitive Salary – Due to such high demand, dental hygienists enjoy an equally high and competitive salary.
  • Scheduling – Not only may dental hygienists work part-time or full-time, their work days and hours are strictly business; i.e., they are off for holidays, weekends, and very rarely work nights.
  • Short Path – In comparison to most healthcare professions, the path to becoming a dental hygienist is short and may be acquired in just two years.
  • Purpose and Satisfaction – Dental hygienists feel a great sense of purpose and satisfaction in the care that they provide for their patients. Because most people are fearful of dentists, dental hygienists have the opportunity to display great compassion and understanding.
  • Setting – The work setting of a dental hygienist is a comfortable and safe one. Furthermore, as they are required to wear scrubs, dental hygienists never stress about what they will wear to work.


  • Odors – Professionally cleaning teeth and gums means that dental hygienists regularly encounter patients whose teeth are in decay and/or suffer from halitosis. Both of these conditions are accompanied by strong and foul odors.
  • Monotony – The daily work of a dental hygienist is full of repetitive and monotonous tasks. Some dental hygienists complain that their jobs are boring.
  • Stagnant Career – No matter what state a dental hygienist resides, his or her job will always remain the same. The profession offers little to no upward career mobility and/or opportunities for advancement.

How Much Does a Dental Hygienist Make?

As of May 2016, according to the BLS, the median earning for a dental hygienist who works inside a dentist’s office is $72,910 per year. For those who are employed by physicians, dental hygienists may earn $69,410 per year. And finally, dental hygienists working for the government bring in the least annual salary at $57,790. However, these figures are expected to increase along with the overall demand for dental hygienists.

Related Reading

More Resources

$_SESSION['title'] = "Dental Hygienist Degree Programs";
$_SESSION['campusType'] = "BOTH";
$_SESSION['areaOfInterest'] = "DENTAL-HYGIENE";
$_SESSION['degreeOfInterest'] = "";

Copyright © 2023 All Rights Reserved. Program outcomes vary according to each institution's curriculum and job opportunities are not guaranteed. This site is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional help.