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Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Could be a lucrative and stable career choice

What does a dental hygienist do? Dental hygienists provide preventative dental care for patients and examine them for signs of oral diseases. They also discuss home care with patients and may provide dental recommendations for toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, and daily dental care. Some specific tasks that dental hygienists might do in a typical day include:

  • Assessing patients’ oral health and reporting findings to dentists

  • Documenting patient care and treatment plans per the dentist’s recommendations

  • Cleaning teeth by removing tartar, stains, and plaque

  • Applying sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth

  • Taking and developing dental x rays

  • Teaching patients about oral hygiene techniques, such as how to brush and floss

Some states allow hygienists with additional training, or dental therapists, to provide certain restorative services. For example, some dental therapists might extract primary teeth and place temporary crowns. How long does it take to become a dental hygienist? To become a dental hygienist, you must first complete educational and training requirements and then pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. Most hygienists accomplish this by attending an associate’s school and earning a two-year degree in dental hygiene. After graduation, aspiring dental hygienists must then take and pass their licensure exam. After receiving their license, dental hygienists can use “R.D.H.” after their names to signify recognition by the state as a Registered Dental Hygienist. How long is dental hygiene school? Most dental hygiene programs last two years, though some university-based baccalaureate or master’s programs may take four years or longer. How much does a dental hygienist make? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for dental hygienists was $74,820 in 2018, which is much higher than the median annual wage for all workers ($38,640). This works out to an average of $35.97 per hour and is a significant wage for only two years of schooling. The job outlook for dental hygienists is expected to grow by 11% between 2018 and 2028. This job growth is much greater than the national average of 5%, which works out to an additional 23,700 dental hygienist jobs over the course of the decade. If you’re thinking about switching into dental hygiene, the future definitely looks bright. What is the difference between a dentist and a dental hygienist? While dental hygienists often spend more face time with patients, there are certain procedures and treatments that can only be performed by accredited dentists. The dentists supervise the clinic or practice and provide treatment plans. For example, a registered dental hygienist may make recommendations, but a dentist ultimately decides whether or not a tooth needs cavity fillings. The dentist acts as the primary provider for dental procedures, such as fillings, crowns, and tooth removals, though they will likely have a hygienist on hand to assist them. While dentists make much more money — in 2018, the median annual pay was $156,240 per year — they also must complete at least eight years of schooling, so they usually have more debt. What's the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist? Another position that you might find in a dental office is a dental assistant. While the title is similar to that of a dental hygienist, and some of their duties overlap, dental assistants aren’t interchangeable with dental hygienists. Dental assistants have less schooling (usually a one-year training program) and help with less complex, less technical tasks. For example, a dental assistant might be responsible for preparing an exam room or sterilizing equipment. They may also perform administrative work, such as managing patient billing and ordering supplies. In 2018, the median annual pay for a dental assistant was $38,660 per year, which is much lower than that of a dental hygienist. If you’re contemplating a career in dental hygiene, the outlook is great. Since it only requires two years of schooling to get started, you’ll be suited up in your dental scrubs in no time.

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