How to Become a Dental Hygienist
Although many dental hygienists begin their journey with minimal education, the field offers many opportunities for career growth.
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The Definitive Guide to Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Are you considering a career as a dental hygienist? There are plenty of reasons to enter this rewarding field.

Dental hygienists have excellent salaries and high overall job satisfaction, which is why it's not surprising that this career is on the rise. In this definitive guide on how to become a dental hygienist, we're going to cover everything you need to know.

What Is a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists work closely with dentists and focus on assisting patients with preventative oral care. They are responsible for performing many tasks, some of which include:

  • Performing cleanings on a patient's teeth and assessing oral health
  • Conducting and developing dental x-rays
  • Assisting the dentist as needed, especially by carrying out preliminary patient exams and communicating their findings
  • Applying local anesthetics to patients before procedures
  • Teaching patients about proper oral hygiene
  • Using sealants and fluorides on the patient's teeth

Aside from possessing the relevant technical knowledge, dental hygienists spend all day face-to-face with patients. As such, they need to be experts at interpersonal communication, have lots of patience, and have an innate talent for connecting with others. In addition, soft skills like attention to detail, the ability to think on your feet, and positivity are also essential.

Dental hygienists must also have a baseline level of physical stamina and dexterity, as this profession is physically demanding. It's critical to understand that you will spend your days bent over patients and working with tools.

Is a Dental Hygienist the Same as a Dental Assistant?

The professions may sound the same, but the terms refer to two different jobs with distinct qualifications. In short, a dental hygienist can perform all of a dental assistant's duties, but a dental assistant has less training and is not licensed to perform a hygienist's duties.

Instead, the function of a dental assistant is to ensure that the dental practice runs smoothly. Some of their tasks include:

  • Recordkeeping and appointment scheduling
  • Handling patient billing
  • Sterilizing dental equipment and giving the dentist tools during procedures
  • Preparing the exam room and ensuring materials are stocked

How Much Do Dental Hygienists Make?

The salary of a dental hygienist depends on several factors, namely your experience level and the cost of living in your area. On average, you can expect to make around $77,000 a year. However, more experienced dental hygienists make $90,000 or more annually in some places.

Additional Benefits

Besides a high salary, the demand for dental hygienists is expected to increase 11% through 2030. At the same time, hygienists often have flexible schedules. It's not unusual for people in this profession to work just part-time while still earning enough to support themselves.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Education Requirements

All states require dental hygienists to have a license, though these requirements vary from state to state.

Dental hygienists must complete an associate degree in dental hygiene regardless of their location. Some people also choose to complete a bachelor's or a master's degree during their studies.

Let's take a closer look at the education requirements.


The first step to becoming a dental hygienist is finding and enrolling in an accredited dental hygienist program. Accreditation is critical, as only these programs are officially authorized or recognized by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

Where You Study

You can find accredited dental hygienist programs at many places, such as community colleges, universities, dental schools, and even online programs.

What You Study

CODA mandates that accredited dental hygiene programs cover four educational areas: general education, dental science, dental hygiene science, and biomedical sciences. Therefore, no matter what degree length you pursue, you will study all of these topics. However, if you undertake an advanced degree, you'll have more time to cover these topics in greater detail.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Types of Degrees

An associate's degree is the minimum level of education required to become a dental hygienist, but you are free to complete more if you wish. Many dental hygienist hopefuls choose to enroll in a bachelor's or master's degree. These programs take longer to finish, but they may allow for further career advancement in the future.

Here's a brief overview of what you can expect from each degree.

Associate's Degree

Associate's degree programs are two years long, and community colleges typically offer them. Candidates undertake general coursework in oral health, and they are also expected to complete supervised clinical experience. You may have anywhere from eight to twelve hours of hands-on training the first year, which increases to twelve to sixteen hours the second year.

Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs last four years, an option that is best for anyone who wants a more in-depth curriculum than a two-year program offers. You take the mandated classes and complete supervised clinical practice, but you also receive a liberal arts education.

Aside from getting a more well-rounded education, a bachelor's degree may be ideal if you want to work in some form of specialized care (such as in school settings or public health). And if you already have an associate's degree, you may be well on your way to obtaining your bachelor's. Many dental hygienists find themselves in this situation and finish in less time.

Master's Degree

Master's degrees are for anyone interested in teaching, working in administration, or conducting research. Program length depends on the institution, but they usually last between one and two years and include a mandatory capstone project. Class time also varies, but master's programs are generally rigorous and require a lot of dedication and effort.

How to Get Licensed as a Dental Hygienist

Once you finish your accredited program, you must obtain a license to work as a dental hygienist. Again, your school or institution will provide guidance when the time comes.

Though licensure requirements vary by state, you will have to take the written national board exam first in most instances. This exam is usually given at your program site, and it includes two parts: a discipline-based section and a case-based section. Candidates must respond to 350 multiple-choice questions and score at least a 75 (graded on a 49-99 scale) to pass.

There is also a clinical exam, where you will be required to demonstrate your knowledge of things like hygiene procedures and anesthesia. The clinical exam takes place at an authorized test site, and you will be required to attend with a patient on a specific day/time. You may also have to take a drug and law exam particular to the regulations in your state.

Once you've passed all the required exams, you will receive your license as a registered dental hygienist (RDH). Licenses are valid for one to three years. To renew, you will have to demonstrate that you have completed the continuing education hours required in your state.

Finding a Job as a Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists can find work in several different settings, which may include:

  • Private offices
  • Hospitals
  • Dental schools
  • Advanced practices
  • Public health clinics
  • Nursing homes

When the time comes to apply for a job in your preferred setting, having a solid skill set will set you apart from other candidates. This strong skill set begins with your degree and training, which should include supervised clinical training and any hands-on experience you might have.

You should also be able to demonstrate the skills mentioned above, like expertise in dentistry, interpersonal skills, and strong communication skills. Additionally, having an advanced degree usually increases your chances of finding employment.

An excellent place to begin your search is on the American Dentistry Association's online career center. Search using different parameters (location, company, salary) to meet your needs.

Related Careers in Dentistry

Dental hygiene is just one way to break into dentistry. There are many rewarding careers in the field that you may want to consider.

  • Dental assistant. Dental assistants have a lower salary than dental hygienists, but the training period is much shorter. As a result, it's not uncommon for dental assistants to choose to complete hygienist training after some years to increase earning potential.
  • Lab tech. Lab technicians also make less than dental hygienists, as the role is less patient-focused. However, these individuals form a critical part of any practice. They take molds of a patient's teeth to create devices like dentures and bridges.
  • Pediatric dental hygienist. Pediatric dental hygienists specialize in working with children. If you are passionate about kids and teaching them how to care for their teeth, you may decide to pursue this path.
  • Dentist. Becoming a dentist requires much more extensive schooling. It's not uncommon to find dentists who started their careers as hygienists and later undertook the necessary training. To do so, you must complete a four-year bachelor's degree and then attend dental school.

Career Growth

Now that you know how to become a dental hygienist, you may have noticed that completing a dental hygiene program is a fantastic launching point for other rewarding, well-paying jobs.

Although many dental hygienists begin their journey with minimal education, the field offers many opportunities for career growth. If you wish, you can pursue training to enter specialized roles or high-level ones, where your earning potential will increase.