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How to Become a Dental Hygienist

By Andrea Delgado

Published:

Are you passionate about oral health and interested in a fulfilling career that promotes smiles? Discover the path to becoming a dental hygienist and unlock a world of opportunity in dental care. In this article, we’ll guide you through the essential steps to launch your dental hygiene career, while shedding light on the attractive salary prospects that await skilled professionals in this rapidly growing industry.

Career Summary

Dental Hygienist Salary

The salary range for dental hygienists can vary significantly depending on different factors.

Here is a general overview of a dental hygienist’s salary range from entry-level to executive positions according to data from glassdoor.com:

  • Entry Salary (US$88k)
  • Median Salary (US$110k)
  • Executive Salary (US$134k)

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income of Dental Hygienists in the United States is generally higher than the national average income for all occupations, which was around US$61,900 in May 2022.

What does a Dental Hygienist do?

Dental hygienists are crucial in maintaining oral health by providing preventive dental care. They perform tasks such as cleaning teeth, examining patients for oral diseases, and educating individuals on proper oral hygiene techniques. With their expertise in dental procedures and patient care, dental hygienists contribute to creating a positive and comfortable dental experience for patients.

Dental Hygienist Career Progression

The career progression of a dental hygienist typically involves advancing from entry-level positions to more senior roles with increased responsibilities and opportunities.

Here’s a general outline of the career progression path:

  • Entry-Level Dental Hygienist: You will typically start your career as an entry-level dental hygienist. In this role, you will perform routine dental cleanings, conduct patient assessments, take dental X-rays, provide oral health education, and assist the dentist in various procedures.
  • Experienced Dental Hygienist: In this stage, you may have the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities, such as performing more complex dental treatments, providing specialized oral care, or taking on leadership roles within the dental team.
  • Lead Dental Hygienist/Team Leader: In this role, you may oversee a team of dental hygienists, coordinate schedules, ensure quality patient care, and facilitate communication between the dental team and management.
  • Practice Ownership/Management: Some dental hygienists aspire to own their own dental practices or take on management roles within existing practices. This involves business management, financial planning, staff supervision, and strategic decision-making.
Dental Hygienist Career Progression

Pros:

  • Meaningful Impact
  • Job Stability
  • Flexibility
  • Competitive Salary
  • Personal Interaction

Cons:

  • Occupational Hazards
  • Physical Strain
  • Patient Anxiety and Difficult Cases
  • Limited Autonomy
  • Fast-Paced Environment and Time Constraints

Useful Skills to Have as a Dental Hygienist

  • Oral Health Assessment
  • Dental Cleaning and Scaling
  • Patient Education
  • Radiography
  • Local Anesthesia Administration

Popular Dental Hygienist Specialties

  • Periodontics
  • Pediatric Dentistry
  • Orthodontics
  • Public Health
  • Dental Education

How to become a Dental Hygienist

Dental Hygienist 5 Steps to Career

To become a dental hygienist, follow these steps:

Education

  • Obtain a high school diploma or equivalent: A strong background in science courses, such as biology and chemistry, is beneficial.
  • Research Accredited Programs: Research and select an accredited dental hygiene program. Accreditation ensures that the program meets the necessary educational standards. You can find accredited programs through organizations like the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
  • Complete a Dental Hygiene Program: Enroll in and complete a dental hygiene program. These programs typically result in an associate degree, although bachelor’s and master’s degree programs are also available.

Average Time and Costs of Obtaining a Degree in Dental Hygiene

The time and costs of obtaining a degree in dental hygiene can vary depending on several factors, including the type of program (associate, bachelor’s, or master’s), the institution, and whether you attend full-time or part-time. Here’s a general overview according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association:

Associate Degree Program
  • Time: Most associate degree programs in dental hygiene take approximately two to three years to complete.
  • Costs: The tuition cost for an associate degree program can range from around $10,000 to $30,000, depending on the institution and whether you qualify for any financial aid or scholarships.
Bachelor’s Degree Program
  • Time: Bachelor’s degree programs in dental hygiene typically take about four years to complete, similar to a standard undergraduate degree.
  • Costs: The tuition cost for a bachelor’s degree program can vary widely, ranging from approximately $20,000 to $60,000 or more, depending on factors such as the institution, location, and financial aid availability.
Master’s Degree Program
  • Time: Master’s degree programs in dental hygiene usually require an additional two years of study beyond a bachelor’s degree.
  • Costs: Tuition costs for master’s degree programs in dental hygiene can range from around $20,000 to $60,000 or more, depending on the institution and financial aid options.

It’s important to note that these figures are general estimates, and actual costs and timelines can vary significantly depending on factors such as in-state or out-of-state tuition, living expenses, textbooks, and other educational materials. Additionally, these estimates may not include fees, clinical supplies, or licensing exam fees. Before enrolling in a program, it’s recommended to research specific schools, compare tuition costs, and explore financial aid options to get a better understanding of the total expenses involved.

Can I Become a Dental Hygienist through Online Education?

While some aspects of dental hygiene education can be completed online, becoming a dental hygienist typically requires a combination of online coursework and hands-on clinical training. 

To become a dental hygienist, you must complete an accredited dental hygiene program. Accredited programs provide the necessary education and training to meet the requirements for licensure. These programs typically include a combination of didactic (theoretical) coursework, laboratory sessions, and clinical rotations.

Many dental hygiene programs offer online didactic coursework, which covers foundational knowledge in subjects such as dental anatomy, oral health, radiography, periodontology, and dental hygiene theory. Online coursework allows flexibility and the ability to study at your own pace but keep in mind that hands-on skills cannot be fully developed through online education alone.

Dental hygiene programs require hands-on clinical training which involves working directly with patients under the supervision of experienced dental professionals. This is crucial to gain proficiency in dental procedures, patient interaction, and infection control practices. It cannot be adequately replicated in an online setting.

Clinical Experience

Gain practical experience through supervised clinical rotations included in your dental hygiene program. These rotations provide hands-on training in performing dental procedures and working with patients.

Internship Opportunities for Dental Hygienists

Internship opportunities for dental hygienists can provide valuable hands-on experience and enhance your skills in a real-world dental setting.

Here are some potential avenues for finding internship opportunities:

  • Dental Hygiene Programs: Many dental hygiene programs require students to complete clinical internships as part of their curriculum. These internships are typically arranged by the program and provide students with supervised practical experience in a dental office or clinic.
  • Dental Offices and Clinics: Reach out to local dental offices and clinics to inquire about internship or shadowing opportunities. Some offices may be open to allowing dental hygiene students or recent graduates to observe or assist in various procedures under the guidance of experienced professionals.
  • Community Health Centers: Community health centers often provide dental services to underserved populations. These centers may offer internship or volunteer opportunities for dental hygienists to gain experience in delivering oral healthcare to diverse communities.
  • Dental Associations and Organizations: Professional dental associations and organizations, such as the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) or local dental hygiene associations, may offer internship programs or resources to connect aspiring dental hygienists with internship opportunities.
  • Research Institutions: If you have an interest in dental research, consider reaching out to research institutions or universities with dental research programs. They may offer internships or research assistant positions where you can work on dental research projects under the supervision of researchers.
  • Networking and Referrals: Utilize your professional network, including faculty, mentors, and dental professionals you’ve connected with during your studies, to inquire about internship opportunities. They may have connections or be aware of openings in dental offices or organizations.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Dental Hygienist

Unleash your arsenal of essential skills as a dental hygienist and embark on a captivating journey into the world of oral health.

Here are the key skills that will empower you to make a lasting impact:

  • Oral Health Assessment: Master the art of comprehensive oral health assessments. With eagle-eyed precision, you’ll examine teeth, gums, and the overall oral condition to unveil hidden issues and craft tailored treatment plans.
  • Dental Cleaning and Scaling: Channel your dexterity in performing dental cleanings and scaling procedures. With finesse, you’ll banish plaque, tartar, and stains from teeth, restoring smiles to their sparkling glory and safeguarding optimal oral health.
  • Radiography: Harness the power of X-rays to unravel the secrets hidden beneath the surface. Your mastery of radiographic techniques and astute interpretation of images will unlock a world of comprehensive diagnosis and precise treatment planning.
  • Local Anesthesia Administration: In jurisdictions that permit it, dive into the realm of local anesthesia administration. Equipped with the skills and knowledge to provide pain control during dental procedures, you’ll elevate your scope of practice, ensuring patient comfort with every gentle touch.
  • Infection Control: Become a guardian of hygiene, armed with an unwavering understanding of infection control protocols. Your expertise in sterilization techniques, impeccable use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and unwavering adherence to infection control guidelines will keep infectious diseases at bay.
  • Periodontal Therapy: Unleash your prowess in periodontal therapy, wielding deep cleanings (root planning) and potent antimicrobial agents. Your skills will champion the battle against gum diseases, fostering a realm of healthy and thriving periodontal landscapes.
  • Patient Education: Embrace your role as an educator and empower patients with the knowledge of proper oral hygiene practices. Your impeccable communication and teaching skills will ignite a passion for brushing techniques, flossing finesse, and mindful dietary habits that breathe life into vibrant smiles.
  • Dental Software and Technology: Embrace the power of dental software and cutting-edge technology to revolutionize your practice. Effortlessly navigate patient records, conquer appointment scheduling, and streamline treatment planning. Staying ahead of the curve with digital radiography and intraoral cameras will elevate the delivery of dental care to unparalleled heights.

Licensing

After graduating from an accredited program, you need to obtain a license to practice as a dental hygienist. Licensing requirements vary by state but typically include passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) administered by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations, as well as a state or regional clinical examination.

Some states may have additional requirements for licensure, such as jurisprudence exams or background checks. Familiarize yourself with your state’s specific requirements and complete them accordingly.

Continuing Education

Dental hygienists are required to engage in continuing education to maintain their license and stay updated with advancements in the field. Participate in workshops, conferences, and continuing education courses to enhance your knowledge and skills.

Web Resources to Follow to Keep Up with the Dentistry News

Here are some reputable web resources that can assist you in developing skills to become a dental hygienist, as well as keeping up with the latest trends in the industry:

  • American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA): The ADHA website provides a wealth of information and resources for dental hygienists. It offers continuing education opportunities, webinars, publications, research articles, and professional development resources.
  • Colgate Professional: Colgate’s professional website offers a variety of educational materials for dental professionals, including dental hygienists. It features articles, clinical resources, videos, case studies, and interactive learning modules to enhance knowledge and skills in oral health care.
  • Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) Magazine: RDH Magazine is a leading publication in the dental hygiene field. Their website provides access to articles, news, product reviews, and professional development resources specifically tailored to dental hygienists.
  • Dentalcare.com: Dentalcare.com is an educational platform sponsored by Procter & Gamble. It offers a range of dental education materials, webinars, and courses for dental professionals, including dental hygienists. The site covers various topics related to oral health, treatment procedures, patient management, and more.
  • National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR): The NIDCR website provides valuable research, publications, and educational resources related to oral health. It covers a wide range of topics, including dental hygiene practices, preventive care, oral diseases, and treatment options.
  • Dental Academy of Continuing Professional Development: The Dental Academy offers online continuing education courses specifically designed for dental professionals, including dental hygienists. They provide a variety of courses on topics such as periodontics, radiology, infection control, and more.
  • Oral Health Education: This website offers a collection of educational resources and materials related to oral health education. It includes presentations, handouts, lesson plans, and activities that can be useful for dental hygienists when educating patients, schools, or community groups.

What’s the Career Outlook for Dental Hygienists?

The future for dental hygienists looks bright! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this profession is expected to experience a rapid growth rate of 9 percent from 2021 to 2031, surpassing the average for all occupations. That’s an estimated 16,300 exciting job openings each year, on average, over the next decade. The demand for dental hygienists stems not only from expanding oral healthcare needs but also from the need to fill positions left by those who transition to new careers or retire, creating ample opportunities for aspiring professionals to step into the spotlight.

Dental Hygienist Popular Career Specialties

Job Opportunities: Popular Dental Hygienist Specialties

Explore these captivating dental hygienist specialties that offer unique paths to follow:

  • Unleash Your Expertise in Periodontics: Enter the realm of gum health as a dental hygienist specializing in periodontics. Dive into the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of gum diseases, working alongside periodontists to conquer complex cases with advanced therapies and techniques.
  • Ignite Smiles in Pediatric Dentistry: Join the ranks of dental hygienists who specialize in caring for the littlest smiles. Dive into the world of pediatric dentistry, providing tailored oral health care and education to children, guiding them through preventive treatments, and creating a warm, comfortable environment that turns dental visits into memorable experiences.
  • Embrace the Art of Orthodontics: Become an essential ally to orthodontists as a dental hygienist specializing in orthodontics. Assist in the assessment, monitoring, and maintenance of orthodontic treatments, educating patients on the intricacies of oral hygiene with braces or aligners, and providing unwavering support throughout their transformative orthodontic journey.
  • Make a Difference in Public Health: Step into the community as a dental hygienist dedicated to public health. Drive oral health promotion and disease prevention initiatives, conducting screenings, implementing preventive programs, and advocating for better oral health within educational settings, community health centers, or government agencies.
  • Educate and Inspire in Dental Education: Combine your love for dental hygiene and teaching by specializing in dental education. Guide future dental hygienists through their training, shape the next generation of professionals and contribute to the advancement of the field through research and innovative teaching methods.
  • Ignite Discoveries in Dental Research: Fuel the future of oral health by becoming a dental hygienist focused on research. Dive into scientific studies, clinical trials, and data analysis, exploring new treatment methods, assessing oral healthcare interventions, and revolutionizing the field through evidence-based insights.
  • Embrace the Wisdom of Geriatric Dentistry: Become an advocate for older adults’ oral health as a dental hygienist specializing in geriatric dentistry. Address the unique oral health needs of the elderly, manage age-related dental conditions, and enhance their quality of life through comprehensive and compassionate care.
  • Champion Special Needs Dentistry: Make a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities as a dental hygienist specializing in special needs dentistry. Adapt dental procedures to accommodate specific needs, utilize behavioral management techniques, and collaborate with interdisciplinary teams to ensure comprehensive oral care.
  • Deliver Smiles with Mobile Dentistry: Take your skills on the road as a dental hygienist in mobile dentistry. Reach underserved populations, provide oral health services to those with limited access, and bring smiles to people’s doorsteps through mobile clinics, community outreach programs, and compassionate home care services.

Top Industries That Hire Dental Hygienists

Embark on an exciting journey into the diverse industries that seek the expertise of dental hygienists.

Explore the top industries where oral health services thrive and dental hygienists play a vital role:

  • Dental Offices: Delve into the heart of dental care by joining dental offices, where private practices and group practices create smiles. As a dental hygienist, you’ll provide preventive care, perform thorough cleanings, conduct oral health assessments, and educate patients, all while contributing to a comprehensive dental experience.
  • Hospitals: Step into hospitals that house dental clinics or departments in their bustling halls. Here, dental hygienists provide oral healthcare to inpatients, outpatients, and individuals with special medical needs, lending their expertise to those seeking care within the healthcare system.
  • Public Health Agencies: Answer the call to serve underserved populations by joining public health agencies, community health centers, and government organizations. As a dental hygienist, you’ll champion oral health initiatives in school-based programs, community outreach initiatives, or even on wheels with mobile dental clinics, ensuring oral health reaches every corner.
  • Educational Institutions: Share your expertise and passion for oral health by becoming a dental hygienist in education. Join dental hygiene programs at colleges, universities, and vocational schools, where you’ll guide aspiring hygienists through their educational journey, teaching courses, supervising clinical practice, and conducting groundbreaking research.
  • Research and Development: Immerse yourself in the forefront of dental innovation by joining dental product manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, or research institutions. As a dental hygienist, you’ll contribute to clinical trials, test new products, and drive advancements in oral healthcare technology, shaping the future of the industry.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Dental Hygienist?

The work-life balance of a dental hygienist can vary depending on factors such as the work setting, schedule flexibility, and personal preferences. Generally, dental hygienists enjoy a good work-life balance as they often have predictable schedules, standard working hours, and the ability to choose part-time or full-time employment. However, occasional overtime or evening/weekend shifts may be required, and balancing patient care responsibilities with personal commitments is essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Should I become a Dental Hygienist?

Do you have a genuine interest in oral health and helping others maintain healthy smiles? Dental hygienists play a crucial role in preventive care and patient education, so a passion for promoting oral health is essential.

Becoming a dental hygienist can be a good choice if you enjoy the precision and meticulous work because dental hygienists must have strong attention to detail to accurately assess oral health conditions, perform thorough cleanings, and identify potential dental issues.

When deciding whether or not to become a dental hygienist, consider the time, resources, and commitment required to complete the necessary education and licensing process. Keep in mind the work environment that suits your preferences, such as the size of the practice, patient demographics, and the potential for teamwork. Assess how the work-life balance aligns with your personal and family commitments.

Ultimately, the decision to become a dental hygienist should align with your interests, strengths, and long-term career goals. Consider shadowing or speaking with dental hygienists to gain insights into their day-to-day responsibilities and the rewards and challenges of the profession.

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Andrea Delgado

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