Dental hygienists help take care of the oral health of patients, most often working as part of a team alongside dentists, dental technicians and dental assistants. They clean and polish teeth, look for signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, and provide guidance on how to maintain healthy teeth and gums. As professional practitioners in the dental care field, dental hygienists may find this to be a stable, high-demand career with flexible hours and generous benefits.
Day in the Life of a Dental Hygienist
Like many clinical assistants, dental hygienists fulfill a broad range of job responsibilities. On a typical day, a dental hygienist performs the following tasks:
- 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 indications of disease or abnormality, and reporting findings to the dentist
- Using ultrasonic and hand instruments to clean and polish teeth, removing stains as well as hard and soft deposits such as tartar and plaque
- Administering basic dental therapies and applying anti-cavity agents such as fluoride gel and sealants
- Reviewing and recording a patient's history
Dental hygienists with specialized training or certification may also perform other clinical functions to support the dentist. These 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
The vast majority of dental hygienists work in dental offices. Many hygienists work part time and have flexible hours. Depending on the state in which they work and/or the treatment provided, dental hygienists may work without the direct supervision of a dentist. Because dental hygienists treat the same patients on a regular basis, they often develop a familiar rapport with them.
Important Characteristics for a Dental Hygienist
Beyond the technical skills that one can acquire at a dental hygienist school, successful dental hygienists depend on a variety of skills and abilities to care for their patients properly:
- The ability to communicate clearly and accurately with dentists and patients
- A detail-oriented mindset that enables them to follow specific rules and protocols
- Fine motor skills to manipulate precise tools and instruments
- Manual dexterity to work in tight quarters on a small part of the body
- Interpersonal skills to help put patients at ease
- Problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to develop and implement oral hygiene care plans
Typical Steps for Becoming a Dental Hygienist
A career in dental hygiene requires formal education and state licensing. Earning a dental hygiene degree requires a combination of coursework and clinical experience. The steps to meet dental hygienist requirements are as follows:
- Earn a high school diploma. Prepare for your dental hygienist education by focusing on science and math courses in high school. Biology and chemistry courses offer a strong foundation for dental hygiene instruction.
- Earn a postsecondary certificate or degree. The most common path is to complete a certificate or college degree from an accredited dental hygienist school. Some dental hygienist programs require applicants to have completed at least one year of college. Most programs last two years and lead to an associate degree. Other options include the one-year certificate program and more advanced bachelor's and master's degree programs.
Like an associate degree, a bachelor's degree program in dental hygiene prepares you for state licensing and entry-level dental hygiene work, but it can also qualify you for positions in dental hygiene education, research and public health. A bachelor's degree generally takes about four years to complete.
A master's degree in dental hygiene requires an additional year or two years of study after the bachelor's degree and qualifies graduates for jobs in education, research, administration and public health.
- Become licensed as a dental hygienist. All states require that dental hygienists be licensed to practice, but licensing guidelines vary by state. Most states require hygienists to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program and pass a clinical exam and the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) exam. The American Dental Association's Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations administers the written test.
- Complete on-the-job training. Among the crucial dental hygienist requirements is clinical experience, which is why many hygienists start out working at a dentist's office as either an intern or in entry-level position.
- Dental Hygienists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm
- Summary Report for Dental Hygientists, O*NET OnLine, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2021.00