Oral hygiene is the cornerstone of good dental care. Professional dental cleaning and regular check-ups help prevent serious tooth and gum disease. As a dental hygienist, you can do your part to keep patients' teeth and gums healthy. In return, you can enjoy a stable, high-demand career with flexible hours and generous benefits.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
Dental hygienists are the professional practitioners and advocates of good oral hygiene. They support their patients' oral health by cleaning and polishing teeth and by providing guidance on how to maintain healthy teeth and gums. As a dental hygienist, you can expect to encounter the following responsibilities:
- Teaching patients to brush and floss effectively
- Recommending over-the-counter products that can boost dental hygiene, such as fluoride mouthwash
- Examining teeth and gums for any indications of disease or abnormality
- Using ultrasonic and hand instruments to clean and polish teeth, removing hard and soft deposits such as tartar and plaque
- Administering basic dental therapies and applying anti-caries agents such as fluoride gel and sealants
Dental hygienists with specialized training or certification may also perform other clinical functions to support the dentist. The advanced tasks dental hygienists perform vary by state, but may include:
- Taking X-rays of a patient's teeth and developing the images
- Administering general or local anesthetics
- Creating fillings
- Applying periodontal dressings
- Removing sutures
- Refining (smoothing and polishing) metal restorations
In addition, dental hygienists assist the dentist in a variety of procedures. They may administer clinical laboratory tests and confer with the dentist to analyze results. Like many clinical assistants, dental hygienists fulfill a broad range of job responsibilities.
Steps to Becoming a Dental Hygienist
A career in dental hygiene requires formal education and state licensing. Learn how to become a dental hygienist by following these steps:
- Get a high school diploma. Prepare for your professional training by emphasizing science and math courses in high school. Biology and chemistry courses offer a strong foundation for dental hygiene instruction.
- Get a postsecondary certificate. The most common path is to complete a certificate or college degree from an accredited dental hygiene school. Some dental hygiene programs require applicants to have completed at least one year of college.
- Pursue a license as a dental hygienist. You'll need to follow the guidelines of licensing in your state. Most states require hygienists to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program and pass a written and clinical exam. The American Dental Association's Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations administers the written test.
- Complete on-the-job training. Clinical experience is crucial, and many start out working at a dentist's office, either in the context of an internship or entry-level job.
Formal training is essential to your preparation for a dental hygiene career. There are approximately 300 dental hygiene programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Most programs last two years and lead to an associate's degree. Other options include the one-year certificate program and more advanced bachelor's and master's degree programs. Courses teach you how to become a dental hygienist, covering topics such as anatomy and physiology, periodontology, histology, dental materials, clinical dental hygiene, and pathology.
Use formal education as your springboard into an entry-level dental hygiene job. You can then leverage this training as a foundation for other professional development activities throughout your career.
How to Be a GREAT Dental Hygienist
Now that you've learned how to become a dental hygienist, you're ready to look ahead to the next step in your career: becoming a great dental hygienist. The difference between skilled oral hygiene support staff and an advanced dental hygiene professional depends on the steps you take to develop your expertise and credentials. Take these steps to advance your dental hygiene career:
- Advance Your Degree: A bachelor's and master's degree in dental hygiene opens up a world of advanced career opportunities. With a four-year undergraduate or graduate degree, you qualify for research, teaching, specialized clinical practice, and public health administration roles. For example, a graduate-level dental hygienist may lead a public health campaign or teach students in school health programs.
- Join Professional Associations: In addition to the American Dental Association and American Dental Hygienists' Association, you can find local or specialized dental hygienist groups. These associations are ideal for networking with other professionals and accessing professional resources such as conferences, job lists, and continuing education seminars.
- Teach: Teaching at a dental hygiene program offers a means of connecting with a new generation of practitioners, solidifying your own knowledge, and establishing yourself as an expert in the field.
By developing your expertise and credentials, you can broaden your career opportunities and achieve a greater professional impact in the field of dental hygiene.