Dental Hygienist Careers

Dental Hygienist—Taking a closer look into this high-demand field

You’ve probably been to the dentist a time or two and experienced having a hygienist clean your teeth. But chances are it was difficult to see what was actually taking place while lying on your back in the tilting chair with that bright light in your eyes, mouth wide open, and shiny metal tools scraping on your teeth. Let’s drill down to the basics; what exactly is the job of a dental hygienist?


Learn more about dental hygienist certification programs.

In a nutshell, hygienists work in dentists’ offices; responsible for the cleaning and maintenance of patients’ teeth and mouths. Here is a more in-depth look at the specific tasks of a dental hygienist:

Regular dental cleanings

Regular dental cleanings are recommended every six months and hygienists are the individuals who perform these cleanings. The Dental Hygienistfirst step for a hygienist in performing a dental cleaning is removing any hardened plaque and stains off the surface of the teeth using hand instruments or an ultrasonic scaler, which is a device that uses ultrasonic waves and water to help remove build-up and stains. The second step for hygienists in conducting a dental cleaning is polishing the teeth, which removes light stains and helps keep the teeth smooth. Plaque is less likely to form on smooth surface areas than rough ones. Finally, cleanings involve the hygienist flossing the patient’s teeth. At the end of the hygienist’s cleaning, the dentist will do an exam to check for cavities, as well as an oral cancer screening that checks for any other abnormalities.

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Deep cleanings for patients with periodontal disease

Patients with periodontal disease, commonly referred to as gum disease, are seen every 3-4 months so the hygienist and dentist can keep a close watch on their gum tissue and overall health of their mouth. For these patients, a more in depth cleaning is required. To determine the type of cleaning needed, x-rays are done and periodontal measurements are taken. These measurements help the doctor and hygienist determine if the patient needs scaling and root planning, which are deep cleaning techniques. This type of cleaning typically involves multiple trips to the dentist’s office and the patient is often given a local anesthetic for comfort. The deep cleaning involves cleaning under the gum tissue and removal of hard deposits on the roots’ surface causing the gum infection. After the patient’s teeth and gums are cleaned, the patient comes back in a month to be educated on their homecare and get their teeth polished. This waiting period allows the gum tissue to heal from the deep cleaning.

Performing x-rays of patients’ teeth

X-rays of patients’ teeth are typically conducted once a year. Many offices now use digital x-rays which involve very little radiation exposure to the patient. This process involves the hygienist covering the patient with a lead shield, positioning the bite tabs in the patient’s mouth, and taking the image. Hygienists use instruments called rods and rings on the x-ray head to help align the x-ray in the correct position to get the needed angle. Different teeth require different angles in order to obtain a clear picture of the root. The picture is then uploaded directly onto a computer screen so there is no longer a need for a dark room with chemicals to process films.

Educate patients on oral hygiene

Hygienists educate their patients on oral health including providing information on how to brush and floss. Some individuals need to be provided with more customized information regarding topics like gum disease, fillings, crowns, root canals, and wisdom teeth extraction.

New advances in dentistry may be discussed as well. These topics may include whitening (both laser and take home), veneers, or cosmetic work.

Hygienists discuss certain topics with parents such as what snacks their children should avoid, which teeth to expect to fall out at what ages, when to expect new teeth to come in, and which toothpastes, rinses and toothbrushes are best.

Learn more about how to become a dental hygienist.

Laser whitening procedures

Offices each have different methods for teeth whitening. In some offices hygienists whiten the teeth and in other offices dental assistants are responsible for these procedures. One method of whitening is called Zoom whitening which can get teeth up to five shades lighter. This process takes about 1 ½ hours and is a one-time event. The patient is provided with take home trays to touch up their whitening as often as they see fit (typically every 3 months).

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