How to Become a Dental Hygienist

August 30, 2023


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 01/03/23

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!

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Steps to Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Considering becoming a dentist takes at least eight years, you’re likely asking yourself, “how long does it take to become a dental hygienist?” You can become a dental hygienist in as little as two years 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. 

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.

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 11 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 $77,810 a year on average or $37.41 per hour. 

California 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 $108,200, or $52.02 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 $38,660 per year, or $18.59 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 $46,060, or $22.15 an hour.

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. Is Becoming a Dental Hygienist Hard?

Yes, becoming a dental hygienist is challenging. Not only are dental hygienist programs competitive to get into, but they have rigorous curriculums that require commitment and hard work to complete. Additionally, the national and regional licensing examinations are extensive! The national exam itself is nine hours long.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

It will take at least two years to complete the minimum education requirements, an associate’s degree to become a dental hygienist. After this, you will have to pass your national and state exams, which may take several months to prepare for. 

5. Where are Dental Hygienists Paid the Most?

Dental hygienists are paid the most in California, where they are paid $108,200 a year on average.

6. 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! 

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