How To Become A Dental Hygienist

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Did you know that the median pay for dental hygienists is over thirty thousand dollars more than the median annual wage? Dental hygienists earn close to forty dollars an hour working in dentists’ offices. In this article, we’ll detail how to become a dental hygienist, what their days are like, job outlook over the next decade, and more. Let’s dive in!

What is a Dental Hygienist? 

Dental hygienists are responsible for preventing and treating oral diseases. They must be state licensed. Dental hygienists are permitted to perform their work independently, without the direct supervision of a dentist, though they do work on dentist-led teams. 

In their work assisting dentists, dental hygienists perform a wide variety of tasks. They handle cleanings, yes, but their job doesn’t begin and end with oral hygiene. The exact tasks that dental hygienists are responsible for vary from state to state, but they’re often responsible for exams, x-rays, documentation, and treatment plans as well.

What Do Dental Hygienists Do?

Nearly all dental hygienists work in dentists’ offices. In the course of their daily work, dental hygienists wear surgical masks and gloves. They’ll often wear safety glasses as well. Dental hygienists use a wide variety of tools to clean and polish teeth and remove stains. 

Dental hygienists are often responsible for these tasks:

  • Cleaning teeth by removing tartar, stains, and plaque 
  • Making impressions for casts
  • Taking and developing dental x-rays
  • Applying sealants to help prevent cavities 
  • Educating patients about brushing and flossing techniques
  • Assessing patients’ oral health and documenting findings
  • Screening patients for oral cancers
  • Working with dentists to develop treatment plans

These other tasks may require the direct supervision of a dentist, depending on state regulations:

  • Administering nitrous oxide or local anesthesia
  • Placing and removing periodontal dressings
  • Removing dead or inflamed gum tissue
  • Placing and removing sutures
  • Applying sealants to pits and fissures 

Many dentists only need dental hygienists to work part of the week, so it’s common for dental hygienists to either work part time or for multiple dentists at the same time. 

How to become a dental hygienist

Watch this video to get more information on how to become a dental hygienist!

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

In most places, you’ll need an associate’s degree to become a dental hygienist. Many people opt to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Dental Hygiene. All states require dental hygienists to be licensed, but timelines and requirements vary by state.

Important Qualities

If you want to become a dental hygienist, you’ll need to be proficient in biology, chemistry, and math. These are often prerequisites to dental hygiene programs. You’ll need critical thinking and problem-solving skills in order to evaluate the oral health of your patients and develop care plans. Dental hygienists are detail oriented and take precise notes.

In addition to knowledge and critical thinking, you’ll need dexterity and interpersonal skills. Great care and excellent fine motor skills are required to maneuver small tools in patients’ mouths. You should also enjoy working with people since dental hygienists work with a large number of clients. Good communication skills are required both to educate patients and to coordinate care with dentists. 

Education

In the course of your education to become a dental hygienist, you can expect to take courses in biology, physiology, microbiology, anatomy, biochemistry, and pathology. Most programs also include more specialized courses that cover the following subjects:

  • Dental anatomy
  • Head and neck anatomy
  • Radiology
  • Periodontology
  • Oral health education
  • Community dental health
  • Clinical periodontics
  • Ethics for the healthcare professional
  • Dental health education and methods
  • Dental hygiene practicum

There are over three hundred entry-level dental hygienist programs offered in the United States. Most of these are associate degree programs, but there are also dozens of bachelor’s degree programs available. 

Here are some of the top schools for prospective dental hygienists:

  • The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in Houston, TX
  • The University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA
  • New York University in New York, NY
  • Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, CA
  • University of Minnesota Twin Cities in Minneapolis, MN
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, NC
  • Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, MA
  • University of Michigan Ann Arbor in Ann Arbor, MI
  • University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Campus in Pittsburgh, PA
  • Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, WA
  • Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR

Licensing

Once you’ve completed a program, you’ll need to be licensed by The American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation and, depending on location, possibly also by the state. To do this, you must pass written and clinical examinations. 

The written exam includes questions on the scientific basis for dental hygiene practice, the provision of clinical dental hygiene services, and various community health principles. The exam* will also assess your ability to perform tasks such as interpreting radiographs and assessing a patient’s oral health. In addition to the written exam, prospective dental hygienists will need to pass a practical examination. 

Some states have additional requirements. California, for example, requires fingerprints and a Law and Ethics examination in addition to graduating from an accredited dental school and passing national and state exams. In some states, such as Texas, you must be at least twenty-one years of age. Alabama requires two letters of recommendation from licensed dentists or dental hygienists. Arizona requires candidates to show proof of the completion of at least 1,000 hours of professional work experience in the past two years. 

You’ll need to look into the exact requirements for the state where you intend to live and work as a dental hygienist. This site lists the steps for each state in the U.S.

You’ll also need complete continuing education requirements in order to maintain your license. Topics of study include infection control, nutrition, vulnerable populations, and periodontology.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienist programs take an average of three years to complete. At some schools, you can earn your associate’s degree and become fully qualified in as little as two years, while earning a bachelor’s degree generally requires four years of study. 

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Career Outlook

The job outlook for dental hygienists is excellent. Employment of dental hygienists is expected to grow nine percent this coming decade, which is significantly faster than the five percent growth expected for all occupations.

Where Do Dental Hygienists Work?

Dental hygienists work for dentists. In 2020, Registered Dental Hygienist Magazine reported that 85 percent of dental hygienists work in private practice settings, while 10 percent work for larger dental corporations. Only about five percent of dental hygienists work in other settings. 

A large number of dental hygienists work part time, but the majority do work full time. In private practice settings, 64 percent of dental hygienists work full-time. This number is higher in corporate dentistry settings, around 85 percent. The vast majority of dental hygienists are women; 97 percent of respondents to the study above were women.

How Much Do Dental Hygienists Make?

The median annual wage for dental hygienists in May of 2021 was $77,810, while the mean annual wage was $81,360. Even the lowest ten percent of dental hygienists earn around sixty thousand dollars per year. The highest ten percent earn over one hundred thousand dollars per year. 

For comparison, dental assistants earn an average of $38,660 per year, while dentists earn $163,220 on average. The average for all occupations was $45,760 in May of 2021.

Like any profession, salary is heavily dependent on location. In major cities in California, such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the average hourly wage is between 53 and 60 dollars. The average annual salary for dental hygienists in California, Alaska, and Washington D.C. is over one hundred thousand dollars. Washington state and Oregon are both above the national average as well, both coming in around ninety thousand dollars.

Here are the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ reported wages for dental hygienists in each state as of  May of 2019. The range shows the fiftieth to ninetieth percentiles. 

  • Alabama: $49,040 – $61,160 ($23.58 – $29.40/hour) 
  • Alaska: $117,750 – $154,620 ($56.61 – $74.34/hour) 
  • Arizona: $87,460 – $101,580 ($42.05 – $48.84/hour) 
  • Arkansas: $71,190 – $95,440 ($34.22 – $45.88/hour) 
  • California: $107,530 – $132,930 ($51.70 – $63.91/hour) 
  • Colorado: $88,450 – $101,650 ($42.52 – $48.87/hour)
  • Connecticut: $86,150 – $102,890 ($41.42 – $49.46/hour)
  • Delaware: $84,420 – $99,960 ($40.59 – $48.06/hour)
  • District of Columbia: $104,500 – $133,360 ($50.24 – $64.11/hour)
  • Florida: $68,600 – $83,190 ($32.98 – $39.99/hour) 
  • Georgia: $64,710 – $93,680 ($31.11 – $45.04/hour)
  • Hawaii: $84,480 – $100,090 ($39.65 – $48.12/hour)
  • Idaho: $82,480 – $100,090 ($36.30 – $46.57/hour) 
  • Illinois: $73,490 – $96,280 ($35.33 – $46.29/hour) 
  • Indiana: $70,770 – $90,160 ($34.02 – $43.34/hour) 
  • Iowa: $71,230 – $82,510 ($34.24 – $39.67/hour) 
  • Kansas: $70,250 – $82,760 ($33.78 – $39.79/hour) 
  • Kentucky: $61,700 – $77,340 ($29.66 – $37.19/hour) 
  • Louisiana: $67,460 – $89,240 ($32.43 – $42.90/hour)
  • Maine: $67,250 – $81,470 ($32.33 – $39.17/hour) 
  • Maryland: $90,280 – $105,320 ($43.41 – $50.63/hour) 
  • Massachusetts: $86,560 – $101,350 ($41.62 – $48.73/hour) 
  • Michigan: $65,780 – $80,970 ($31.63 – $38.93/hour) 
  • Minnesota: $75,050 – $93,870 ($31.63 – $38.93/hour) 
  • Mississippi: $57,860 – $73,480 ($27.82 – $35.33/hour) 
  • Missouri: $70,180 – $89,760 ($33.74 – $43.15/hour)
  • Montana: $75,730 – $95,840 ($36.41 – $46.08/hour)
  • Nebraska: $69,110 – $79,390 ($33.23 – $38.17/hour) 
  • Nevada: $89,570 – $102,120 ($43.06 – $49.10/hour) 
  • New Hampshire: $80,620 – $100,640 ($38.76 – $48.39/hour) 
  • New Jersey: $89,930 – $101,960 ($43.23 – $49.02/hour) 
  • New Mexico: $78,120 – $104,280 ($37.56 – $50.14/hour) 
  • New York: $77,790 – $100,390 ($37.40 – $48.26/hour) 
  • North Carolina: $71,450 – $88,990 ($34.35 – $42.78/hour)
  • North Dakota: $72,270 – $93,280 ($34.75 – $44.85/hour) 
  • Ohio: $68,700 – $83,290 ($33.03 – $40.04/hour) 
  • Oklahoma: $79,410 – $100,090 ($38.18 – $48.12/hour) 
  • Oregon: $88,620 – $104,910 ($42.61 – $50.44/hour)
  • Pennsylvania: $67,910 – $88,120 ($32.65 – $42.37/hour)
  • Rhode Island: $74,710 – $89,760 ($35.92 – $43.16/hour)
  • South Carolina: $62,530 – $83,010 ($30.06 – $39.91/hour) 
  • South Dakota: $68,800 – $81,560 ($33.08 – $39.21/hour)
  • Tennessee $69,970 – $83,290 ($33.64 – $40.04/hour)
  • Texas: $76,830 – $98,770 ($36.94 – $47.49/hour) 
  • Utah: $71,030 – $81,880 ($34.15 – $39.37/hour) 
  • Vermont: $73,350 – $83,970 ($35.26 – $40.37/hour)
  • Virginia: $81,760 – $102,700 ($39.31 – $49.38/hour)
  • Washington: $95,080 – $119,820 ($45.71 – $57.61/hour) 
  • West Virginia: $58,450 – $83,420 ($28.10 – $40.11/hour)
  • Wisconsin: $69,050 – $80,100 ($33.20 – $38.51/hour) 
  • Wyoming: $71,170 – $81,630 ($34.22 – $39.24/hour) 

Many dental hygienists only work part time, which may preclude them from receiving benefits such as paid vacation time and sick leave. Offices with multiple dentists are more likely to employ full-time dental hygienists. 

Hourly pay is the norm. This hourly base pay is supplemented by a commission in many practices to encourage efficiency. The commission may be as high as thirty percent of the commission of patients billed once the day’s baseline goal is passed. Some practices even pay dental hygienists a straight commission that includes every patient they work on, while others may use a bonus system that pays out ten to twenty percent of the total income to hygienists. 

Overview: How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Overall, dental hygiene is a promising career that’s expected to have plenty of openings available to new workers in the coming decade. Here are some pros and cons to becoming a dental hygienist:

Pros:

  • Takes as little as two years 
  • High salaries
  • Flexible hours

Cons:

  • Repetitive tasks
  • Part-time positions may not provide benefits

Still not sure which career path is right for you? This trade series also features articles on becoming a medical sonographer, MRI technician, or respiratory therapist. Stay tuned!

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