How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Career Outlook

January 8, 2024
7 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 1/8/24

Are you considering a career as a dental hygienist and want to know more about how to enter this medical profession? If you do, read on to find out everything you need to know about how to become a dental hygienist.

Dental hygienists play a crucial role in dentistry to help patients maintain good oral health.

If you’ve considered becoming a dentist but were deterred by the time commitment or the prospect of writing the dreaded DAT, your next best bet might be becoming a dental hygienist. Becoming a dental hygienist takes a fraction of the time but still lets you provide direct dental care while receiving a great salary!

This guide will go into further detail about the steps required to become a dental hygienist, their roles, career outlook, and more!

image of dots background

How Hard Is it to Become a Dental Hygienist?

Becoming a dental hygienist can be quite challenging due to a few key reasons. Firstly, dental hygiene programs are often selective when it comes to accepting students. There are limited spots available, and applicants must meet specific prerequisites and testing requirements to gain admission.

Secondly, the training itself is demanding and rigorous. Students in dental hygiene programs undertake a comprehensive curriculum that covers various dental and medical subjects. This includes dental anatomy, radiography, periodontology, and patient care. The clinical training portion is hands-on and involves treating patients, which can be physically and mentally taxing.

Lastly, to practice as a dental hygienist, individuals must obtain state licensure. This requires passing both written and clinical board exams, which can be quite challenging.

However, for those who are determined and passionate about oral health, success in dental hygiene school is achievable. It's a career path that offers the opportunity to make a positive impact on patients' oral health and overall well-being.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygiene associate programs usually take about two to three years to complete. So, it's a significant commitment, but it's a crucial step in your journey. When you're looking for a program, make sure it's accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. 

These programs cover a wide range of subjects, from medical ethics to anatomy and periodontics (that's the study of gum disease). It's a well-rounded education that sets you up for success in the dental hygiene field. 

empty dentist chair

Is a Dental Hygienist Right for You? How to Decide

So, you're thinking about becoming a dental hygienist? It's a good idea to consider a few things to see if it's the right fit for you:

  1. Interest in Dentistry: Do you find teeth and oral health interesting? If you're into dentistry and like the idea of helping people with their dental care, this could be a good fit.
  2. Hands-On Work: Dental hygienists use tools and work with their hands a lot. If you're comfortable with that and have good hand-eye coordination, you're on the right track.
  3. Helping People: This job is all about helping patients maintain healthy teeth and gums. If you enjoy making a positive impact on people's health, it's a big plus.
  4. Team Player: You'll be part of a dental team, so being a good team player and communicator is important.
  5. Education and Licensing: You'll need to go through a dental hygiene program and get a state license. Consider if you're ready for the commitment.
  6. Physical and Emotional Stamina: You'll be on your feet a lot and might have to handle patients who are in discomfort. Can you handle that physically and emotionally?
  7. Career Prospects: Check out the job market in your area. Are there job opportunities, and does the salary potential meet your expectations?
  8. Work-Life Balance: Dental hygienists often have flexible schedules, which can be great for work-life balance. Does that fit your lifestyle?
  9. Continuing Education: Dental hygiene is always evolving. Are you willing to keep learning and stay up to date with the latest advancements?
  10. Personal Fulfillment: Think about your personal and professional goals. Will this career bring you satisfaction and fulfillment?

Take some time to research, talk to dental hygienists, and maybe even try shadowing or volunteering in a dental office. Career counselors can also offer guidance based on your interests and goals. In the end, it's about making sure this career aligns with what you enjoy and where you want to go professionally.

Steps to Becoming a Dental Hygienist

You can become a dental hygienist by following these few steps:

Step One: Maintain High Grades In High School

Most dental hygiene programs are competitive, so you’ll have to maintain a high GPA in high school to have a good chance at gaining admission to your top choices. 

Most dental hygiene programs will also require biology and chemistry prerequisites, so ensure you take these courses during high school. You will likely need to meet a minimum grade in these courses, so make sure you put extra effort into them!

Step Two: Obtain an Associate’s Degree or Bachelor’s Degree

In order to practice as a dental hygienist, you’ll have to acquire the correct training and education. The American Dental Hygienists Association recognizes both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene as adequate education for entry-level dental hygienist jobs.

An associate’s degree will take two years to complete, whereas a bachelor’s degree will typically take four. 

There are pros to both types of degrees. For instance, getting an associate’s degree allows you to begin working in the field as soon as possible, and you’ll be fully licensed for any entry-level dental hygienist job. 

On the other hand, obtaining a bachelor’s degree can open more doors as you’ll be considered to have a more specialized and advanced education. This degree is particularly useful for those considering going into teaching or who want the option to work in non-clinical roles.

A bachelor’s degree will go beyond the fundamentals and will allow you to specialize in areas like health management, education, and research.

It is also reported that dental hygienists with bachelor’s degrees typically earn more than those with associate’s degrees and have higher employment rates, likely because they are able to fill more roles. 

The majority of dental hygienists that pursue a bachelor’s degree do so after completing an associate’s degree and working in the field. 

This option allows you to gain experience before deciding if you want to advance your career. It also gives you some transferrable credits that will allow you to complete your bachelor’s degree in less time. 

Gaining work experience as a licensed dental hygienist may also help you finance your degree, as many employers will pay for their employees to further their education. 

Regardless of which degree you choose to pursue, all accredited dental hygiene programs end in clinical externships to ensure you’re prepared to start working post-graduation. 

dental hygienist working on patient

Step Three: Pass the Necessary Licensing Exams

After completing your degree, the last step before entering the field is passing a national and regional exam. In order to assess your competency, you’ll have to complete and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE). The NBDHE is a nine-hour exam that consists of 350 multiple-choice questions.

You must also complete a regional clinical exam specific to the area you plan on working in. These exams will be patient-based and clinical-based. You will work on fake patients for some parts of the exam and simulated mouths for others. Parts of the exam will also consist of multiple-choice questions.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Now that you know exactly how to become a dental hygienist, it’s important to know what the job entails.

As a dental hygienist, you’ll be responsible for providing a range of dental services:

  • Dental assessments
  • Plaque removal
  • X-rays: dental hygienists can perform x-rays and interpret them but cannot provide a diagnosis to patients
  • Oral cancer screenings
  • Dental scaling
  • Root planing
  • Administer local anesthetics: only in certain states
  • Counsel patients on good oral care
  • Document patient care and treatment plans
  • Polish teeth
  • Apply topical fluoride and sealants

Dental hygienists can provide more services depending on what the dentist they collaborate with permits. As such, dental hygienists constantly learn on the job and have the opportunity to take on more roles with more experience.

Certification Required to Become Dental Hygienists

To become a dental hygienist, you'll need to follow a specific path:

Required Education

  • Typically, you'll need at least an associate degree in dental hygiene, which usually takes 2-3 years to complete.
  • Some opt for a bachelor's or master's degree in dental hygiene, which can lead to more advanced roles and teaching opportunities.
  • You'll start by earning a high school diploma and may need to complete some additional education beyond high school before entering a dental hygiene program.
  • Certain colleges or universities may require general education courses in subjects like psychology, sociology, and English before you can join their dental hygiene program.
  • In dental hygiene programs, you'll study various subjects including anatomy, physiology, immunology, pharmacology, microbiology, and more.
  • Clinical training is a significant part of these programs, giving you hands-on experience in patient care.

Certification and Licensure

  • To work as a dental hygienist, you must be licensed, but the requirements vary by state.
  • In most states, you'll need to:

  1. Graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program.

  2. Pass the National Board of Dental Hygiene exam (a written test).

  3. Pass a regional or state clinical board exam (evaluating your practical skills).

  • Keep in mind that each state may have its specific criteria, so check with your state's licensing authority for exact details.
  • Staying updated with the field's changes can be done through organizations like the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) and checking the American Dental Association (ADA) website for conferences and continuing education opportunities.

Work Experience

  • While some employers might prefer candidates with 1-2 years of experience after graduation, your clinical training during your education can provide a foundation for real-world work.

Becoming a dental hygienist involves completing an accredited program, passing exams, obtaining a license, and potentially pursuing further education or specialization. Remember that specific requirements can differ by state, so always verify with local authorities for the most accurate information.

dental hygienist cleaning patient's teeth

Dental Hygienist Salary and Career Outlook

People will always need to get their teeth cleaned and cared for! So, dental hygienist jobs will always be required and in demand. 

Currently, there is a need for more dental hygienists across America. This demand is only likely to increase, as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the job market for dental hygienists to increase by 7 percent within the next decade. 

About 16,300 openings for dental hygienists are expected to open each year within the next decade, meaning you’ll have high job security if you pursue this career!

Not only is this career in high demand, but it is also high-paying. Despite only needing an associate’s degree to work in this career, dental hygienists make $81,400 a year on average or $39.14 per hour. 

Alaska currently has the most job opportunities for dental hygienists and pays the most, with its mean salary being much higher than the national average at $113,770, or $54.70 an hour. 

Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant: What is the Difference

While exploring your options in the dentistry field, you likely came across the job title dental assistant and wondered what the difference between dental assistants and dental hygienists is. Many mistake these two for the same role and assume they perform the same duties.

However, there are stark differences between these jobs:

The Required Education

As we’ve discussed, you must complete an associate’s degree at minimum to become a dental hygienist. However, to become a dental assistant, you generally do not require any form of higher education. Many states allow dental assistants to work in dental clinics with just a high school diploma, as they are trained on-site.

But, in most cases, dental assistants have either a certification or diploma in dental assistance or have taken some accredited courses in dental assistance. These forms of training are typically completed in less than a year. 

Their Roles

Dental hygienists are considered highly trained health professionals and thus perform various clinical roles within dentist offices. 

On the other hand, since most dentist assistants have little to no clinical training, they mainly perform administrative tasks such as booking appointments, handling correspondence and setting up the dentist rooms to ensure the dentist and dental hygienists have everything they need before seeing the patient. 

While dental assistants mainly perform administrative duties, they also assist dental hygienists and dentists wherever needed.

For instance, they might remain in the dental room to provide chairside assistance to the dentist. They may also help prepare the patient for surgeries, sterilize equipment, assist with simple procedures, and make dental impressions. 

Their Pay and Job Outlook

Another major difference between dental hygienists and dental assistants is their pay. Since dental assistants have little specialized education and training, they are paid around $44,820 per year, or $21.55 an hour. 

However, much like dental hygienists, this career is in high demand and is projected to grow within the next decade. It’s projected that there will be about 56,400 openings for dental assistants each year over the next ten years, with an 8 percent increase in their employment. 

Dental assistants are paid the most in California, where the average annual salary is $48,990, or $23.55 an hour.

Top 10 States with Highest Salary for Dental Hygienists

Here's a breakdown of the top 10 states with the highest salaries for dental hygienists, along with key employment and salary figures:


  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $115,050
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $55.31
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 610


  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $109,970
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $52.87
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 17,880


  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $95,450
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $45.89
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 6,290

District of Columbia

  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $94,650
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $45.50
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 180


  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $89,360
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $42.96
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 2,430

New Jersey

  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $88,150
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $42.38
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 5,820


  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $87,540
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $42.09
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 3,730


  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $87,140
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $41.89
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 3,650


  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $86,970
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $41.81
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 980


  • Yearly Mean Compensation: $86,450
  • Hourly Mean Wage: $41.56
  • Employed Dental Hygienists: 3,310

These states offer some of the highest salaries for dental hygienists, with the potential for six-figure annual earnings in the top-ranked states. 

Keep in mind that the specific salary figures may vary based on factors such as experience, location within the state, and individual employment settings. Dental hygienists looking for competitive compensation should consider these states as potential career destinations.

FAQs: Becoming a Dental Hygienist

We’ve covered the basics of becoming a dental hygienist and what to expect in this role. However, for any remaining questions, here are the answers to frequently asked questions about this profession.

1. What Education is Required to Become a Dental Hygienist?

An associate’s degree is required at the minimum to become a dental hygienist. However, you can also complete a bachelor’s degree for more opportunities and a higher salary.

2. What Major is Best to Become a Dental Hygienist?

If you pursue a bachelor’s degree, you will have to complete an accredited major in dental hygiene to become a dental hygienist.

3. Where are Dental Hygienists Paid the Most?

Dental hygienists are paid the most in Alaska, where they are paid $ 113,770 a year on average.

4. Are Dental Hygienists and Dental Assistants the Same?

No, dental hygienists and dental assistants play different roles within a dentist clinic, require different levels of education, and have different salaries.

Final Thoughts

Considering the expected growth and career outlooks for dental hygienist positions now is the perfect time to begin pursuing your career in this field! As a dental hygienist, you can use your passion for dental care and get well compensated for it - a win-win scenario! 

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Schedule A Free Consultation

Plan Smart. Execute Strong. Get Into Your Dream School.
Get Free Consultation
image of dots background

You May Also Like