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Dental Hygienist Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Dental hygienists have come to play increasingly crucial and diverse roles in the field of dentistry. As the health care industry continues to shift focus toward preventative care, graduates of the nearly 300 accredited dental hygiene associate degree programs in the U.S. have been called upon to take on a range of professional responsibilities. Far beyond simply cleaning teeth, dental hygienists may also administer diagnostic x-rays, perform oral cancer screenings, teach young patients proper oral care techniques, provide much needed counseling on the correlation between good nutrition and sustained oral health, and more. Simply put, if you've been having regular check-ups, chances are you've spent at least as much time in the care of a licensed dental hygienist as an actual dentist.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), well-trained dental hygienists are also called upon to conduct initial patient screenings, apply sealants and fluoride treatments, create oral casts used to evaluate treatment needs, and perform various documentation and office management activities. Read on to find out how you can become a dental hygienist.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Most aspiring dental hygienists start on the path toward this career by enrolling in an accredited dental hygiene program. According to the BLS, most dental hygienists need only an associate degree to take licensure examinations and qualify for employment. However, dental hygienists who desire to work in research, teaching or clinical practice can also pursue a bachelor's or master's degree in dental hygiene. Requirements for admission to a dental hygienist program may vary from school to school, but the following requirements are most common according to the American Dental Association:

  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Prerequisites including health, biology, chemistry, mathematics, psychology and speech
  • Preference may be given to students who have completed one year of college

Students who enroll in dental hygiene programs can also expect to take courses in liberal arts, basic sciences and clinical sciences. In addition to the classroom component of their studies, dental hygiene students should also expect to complete a clinical rotation where they will learn the hands-on skills required to perform basic dental procedures and participate in supervised patient care experiences.

Dental hygienist degree programs

According to the American Dental Association, dental hygienists generally receive their associate or bachelor's degree in dental hygiene by attending dental hygiene programs offered by community colleges, universities or technical schools. A few schools may offer dental hygiene certification programs, but they generally require the same amount of study as associate degree programs. Upon completion of a dental hygiene program, students must then take the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and apply for licensure in their state. Other requirements for licensure vary from state to state, but can include:

  • Graduation from an accredited dental hygiene program
  • Passing grade on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Passing grade on any applicable regional or state clinical board examination
  • Proof of CPR certification
  • A recommendation letter from dentists in the state where you plan to work
  • High school and college transcripts
  • Official letters from board of dentistry

The ADA notes most certification programs prefer applicants who have completed at least one year of college and who have taken courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, psychology and speech.

Dental hygienist schools

Dental hygienist programs address the twin challenges of thoughtfully counseling patients while providing professional treatment of a technical nature by emphasizing a wide range of subjects for training and study. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), dental hygienist schools should offer laboratory, clinical and classroom instruction, in which hygienists study anatomy, physiology, nutrition, radiography and periodontology.

A supervised internship working with patients under the supervision of a dental hygienist is an integral part of many programs. The ADA points out that a well-rounded course of study for dental hygienists also includes classes in the liberal arts (English and sociology); basic science (anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, immunology, and pathology); and specific clinical sciences (including radiology). Other specific areas of concentration include:

  • Oral hygiene
  • Nutrition and health
  • Behavioral science
  • Equipment operation and maintenance
  • Patient education and counseling
  • Office management
  • Dental materials
  • Community dental health service

Dental hygienist license

Every state requires a dental hygienist to be licensed in order to practice. Becoming licensed as a dental hygienist not only makes a career in dental hygiene possible, but it also protects the dental industry and dental patients by ensuring high standards and uniformity for all dental procedures and basic care. This is handled by the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA). In order to earn this license the ADHA recommends you complete the following steps:

  • Graduate with a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program
  • Take the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Complete a state or regional clinical board exam
  • Earn CPR certification
  • Submit high school and postsecondary transcripts, as well as letters of recommendation from licensed dentists in the state you wish to earn your license
  • Letters from your state or regional board of dentistry

As each state has particular requirements you should visit their individual boards of dentistry to find out which steps you need to take to obtain your license. Completion of all licensing requirements in your state typically means you are then allowed to use "R.D.H." after your name in order to show that you are a Registered Dental Hygienist. This designation should be displayed with pride since it shows that you have completed all licensing requirements and displayed your proficiency and knowledge of dental hygiene and patient care.

Dental hygienist career advancement

For further career advancement, bachelor's (BS) and master's (MS) degrees in dental hygiene, which generally entail an additional two-to-four years of schooling, are available. These degrees are required for work in the rapidly expanding research, educational and administrative/managerial sectors of the field.

Dental hygienist skills and qualities

In addition to looking for employees with a broad base of knowledge, dental offices also prefer to hire candidates who exhibit excellent "soft skills." According to the BLS, those skills can include compassion for patients who might need to undergo painful procedures, a gentle and welcoming bedside manner, and/or interpersonal skills that help them work effectively with others in the office.

Other helpful skills include dexterity and physical stamina, which are both a requirement for a career in dental hygiene since the majority of working hours are spent standing up and working with patients. An excellent attention to detail is also a must since dental hygienists are required to remember and adhere to specific rules and protocols and work without any direct supervision.

Dental Hygienist Salary and Career Outlook

Dental hygienists are responsible for cleaning patients' teeth, taking dental x rays, and educating people about proper hygiene. Typically dental hygienists are paid by the hour rather than salaried. There are some dental practices that pay hygienists on a commission plan where they also earn a percentage of the profits from what they sell or how much work they produce in a day.

Another potential positive draw for this line of work is how quickly you may be able to enter the workforce. A two year associate degree is the minimum requirement needed to practice, which could mean that you are able to begin earning sooner than careers that require a higher degree.

As with any profession, salaries for dental hygienists and similar occupations vary due to factors like experience, level of education, and location. Here’s a snapshot of a salary you might expect:

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Dental Hygienists$74,680$51,180$101,330
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

As technology advances in the field of dental health demand for qualified people to fill these roles may occur. Here’s an idea of what job growth could look like for these dental professionals in the coming years:

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Dental Hygienists211,60019.6%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Sources:

  • Career: Dental Hygiene, The College Board Big Future, 2014, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/careers/health-technology-dental-hygienists
  • Career Paths, American Dental Hygienists Association, 2014, https://www.adha.org/professional-roles
  • Dental Hygienist Job Description, American Dental Association, 2014, http://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-hygienist
  • Dental Hygienist Education and Training Requirements, American Dental Association, 2014, http://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-hygienist/education-training-requirements-dental-hygienist
  • Dental Hygienist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm
  • Dental Hygienist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292021.htm
  • Dental Hygienist Education and Training Requirements, American Dental Association, 2014, http://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-hygienist/education-training-requirements-dental-hygienist
  • Licensure, American Dental Hygiene Association, 2014, http://www.adha.org/licensure
  • Dental Hygienists Education and Training Requirements, American Dental Association, 2014, http://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-hygienist/education-training-requirements-dental-hygienist
  • Licensure, American Dental hygienists' Association, https://www.adha.org/licensure

Dental Hygienist Schools