How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Whether you’re looking to shift into a new career or you are just finishing high school and contemplating your first real job, consider becoming a dental hygienist. This is a healthcare career that doesn’t require a medical or dental degree or even a four-year degree. And, it will allow you to work closely with patients, making a real difference in their lives.

All states in the U.S. have some educational and licensing requirements for dental hygienists, but they vary. Generally, you will need to earn a post-secondary degree in dental hygiene, gain some hands-on work experience and pass certification exams. All of this typically takes three years or less, so you can start working and earning quickly. Learn how to become a dental hygienist in your state to get started working toward this great career.

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What is a Dental Hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a licensed dental professional who works most often in dental offices and in direct patient care. They provide preventative cleaning services, education for patients and other hands-on services. Dental hygienists support the work of dentists by helping to prevent tooth decay and other oral health issues and by assessing and reporting on any existing problems patients have.

What Dental Hygienists Do

The role of a dental hygienist is very similar across all employers. They screen patients and assess their oral health by reviewing their dental and health histories, checking for oral cancer, performing dental charting and asking important questions about dental health and any symptoms. They communicate their findings to the dentist. Dental hygienists are also responsible for:

  • Taking and developing X-rays
  • Performing cleanings to remove plaque, calculus and stains
  • Applying fluoride treatments and sealants to prevent cavities
  • Educating patients about good oral hygiene and health
  • Teaching patients about the impact of nutrition on oral health
  • Taking tooth impressions so dentists can develop individual patient treatments
  • Keeping patient documentation up to date

To do their work, hygienists use a variety of tools, including hand tools, ultrasonic and power tools, X-ray machines and even lasers in some cases. They play an important role in communicating between dentists and patients, helping patients to understand what they need to do to maintain good oral health.

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Benefits of Working as a Dental Hygienist

There are many great reasons to become a dental hygienist. If you are interested in a career in healthcare that allows you to make a real impact and work hands-on with patients, this is a great choice. Hygienists work closely with patients every day, but to get into this career does not require a four-year degree or a graduate level education. It’s a faster way to get into a patient-centered healthcare position. Some of the many great benefits of this career include:

  • Being able to work closely with people on the job
  • Making a real difference with people by helping them feel more comfortable and enjoy better oral health
  • Meeting a wide range of people on the job
  • Great job security with growth in the industry expected to continue
  • Competitive salaries
  • Minimal schooling and training required, so you can get started working sooner
  • Variety in working days, with no single day being the same as the one before
  • Flexible scheduling, with part-time and full-time work, as well as evening and weekend hours, available in most places

What Are Salaries Like for Dental Hygienists?

A big draw for working as a dental hygienist is the salary. Although this is not enough of a reason to get into this career, it is an important component. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for hygienists across the U.S. was $74,820 in 2018. The median hourly rate was $35.97. The top ten percent of workers in this career make more than $101,000 a year.

Salaries vary depending on location, employer, years of experience, certifications, education level and any areas of specialization. The states reporting the highest salaries for dental hygienists are Alaska, California, Washington, New Mexico and Maryland. You may earn more as a dental hygienist working for a large dental office, with more experience and with areas of specialty licensing.

Job Growth and Career Outlook

Job growth is another reason to consider becoming a dental hygienist. Demand is high, so you can expect to find jobs easily if you meet all the qualifications. You will also enjoy good job security, as the growth in these careers is expected to continue at least through 2028 but probably much longer.

Currently, according to the BLS, job growth for hygienists is 11 percent. This is much faster than average job growth. Projections indicate that between 2018 and 2018 there should be more than 23,000 new positions for qualified and certified dental hygienists throughout the U.S. Some of the states with the highest amount of growth in the field are Georgia, Florida, Alaska, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia.

Education Requirements for Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Although the specific requirements vary by state, to work as a hygienist, dental education is definitely the important first step. Check with your state’s dental board or the dental board in the state in which you hope to work. This will ensure that you start out on the right path and that you choose a program and a school that meet the qualifications.

All states require that you receive some degree and type of education before working in this career. To do it well and to help patients, you need to have a foundation of knowledge and certain skills. On-the-job training isn’t generally an option. In most states, a two-year associate’s degree in dental hygiene is adequate after you have either finished high school or earned a GED.

There are many dental hygiene programs across the U.S., some which may be partially online. Check with community colleges, vocational and technical schools, and also universities that have dental schools. To gain admittance to a dental hygiene program, you will need to check with the specific requirements of a program. They typically include completion of basic science classes and a minimum grade point average. Some programs are highly competitive and may require that you first complete a year of college general education classes before being accepted.

Dental hygiene programs usually include some basic education courses in liberal arts. You may also have to take several science classes, including anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, chemistry, pathology and microbiology. Some examples of dental hygiene courses included in most programs include:

  • Dental materials
  • Oral pathology
  • Nutrition and health
  • Oral anatomy
  • Periodontics
  • Pain management
  • Preventive dentistry
  • Principles of dental hygiene

Most programs also offer hands-on practice in dental hygiene. Additionally, some may require that you complete a working externship so that you get actual clinical experience in a real-life setting.

While most states only require that you complete an associate’s degree program to begin working as a qualified dental hygienist, some schools offer a bachelor’s degree. These longer programs are generally designed to prepare students for more specialized careers, for instance in research, education, public healthcare or health management.

Some states require that the program you complete in dental hygiene be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). There are a few hundred of these programs across the U.S., so finding one shouldn’t be difficult. Even if your state does not require it, completing an accredited program will give you the best education and training and be more desirable to future employers.

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National Testing for Dental Hygienists

Although it is the lengthiest part of becoming a dental hygienist, education is only one of a few requirements most states have. Each state has its own requirements, and these include passing an exam in order to work as a dental hygienist.

To be licensed, you must typically complete a CODA-accredited education program and pass the American Dental Association National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE). Whether or not a state uses the NBDHE for licensing, all do require that testing encompass both written and clinical components. The NBDHE is most often used for the written part of a licensing exam.

There are several ways to qualify to take the NBDHE: be a current student in a CODA-accredited dental hygiene program and approved by the director to take the exam; be a graduate of an accredited program; be a graduate of a non-accredited dental hygiene program as long as the coursework was equivalent to an accredited program; or be a dental student or dentist.

To take the NBDHE if you qualify, there are steps to follow:

  • Read the NBDHE guide.
  • Complete the application for the exam.
  • Request testing accommodations, if necessary.
  • Schedule a testing time with Pearson VUE.
  • Use the exam preparation materials and practice tests to study.
  • Take the exam.
  • Request results.

State Dental Hygienist Licensing

All states require that dental hygienists be licensed through their state dental board. The requirements vary by state but generally include completion of an accredited dental hygiene program, a passing score on a written exam (typically the NBDHE) and a passing score on a clinical exam administered by the state or a regional authority. Some states use the term “registered dental hygienist,” while others use “licensed dental hygienist.”

States may have a few other requirements beyond education and testing for licensure. These may include a passing score on a jurisprudence exam, a criminal background check and a physical exam and getting specific vaccinations for infectious diseases, like hepatitis B. Some states may also offer extra licenses for dental hygienists, such as being certified in local anesthesia and nitrous oxide analgesia.

Once you are licensed, you will be expected to renew it regularly. Many states require that dental hygienists take continuing education courses in order to renew their license. Your state dental board can tell you how many credits you need and which courses are accepted.

As an example of what you may need to become licensed, these are the requirements for dental hygienists as set by the Florida Board of Dentistry:

  • Be at least 18 years old.
  • Complete a dental hygiene program accredited by CODA or complete a non-accredited dental program with four years of post-secondary education and a degree equivalent to a D.D.S.
  • Earn a passing score on the Dental Hygiene National Board Examination.
  • Earn a passing score on the Florida ADEX Dental Hygiene Licensing Examination.
  • Earn a passing score on the Florida Laws and Rules Examination.
  • Provide proof of CPR training and automatic external defibrillator training.

Career Options as a Dental Hygienist

The vast majority of dental hygienists work in dental offices, but there are other career options and areas of specialty available. For instance, you may become an educator, training others to become hygienists, or you may be hired to work in research or in clinical practices in public health settings. Some of these alternative careers may require that you earn a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree. Other possible careers or jobs as a licensed dental hygienist include:

  • Pharmaceutical or dental supply sales
  • Manager or administrator of a dental office
  • Instructor in a dental hygiene program
  • Local or state dental public health officer
  • Administrator of a community clinic

Becoming a Dentist

Another option to consider after working as a licensed dental hygienist is to work toward becoming a dentist. If you earned an associate’s degree in dental hygiene, you can use those credits toward a four-year bachelor’s degree.

A four-year, pre-dentistry degree is required to be accepted into a dental school. The courses required will depend on the dental school, so be sure you know what will be accepted before choosing a program. After completing dental school, you must become licensed through a state dental board to begin working as a dentist.

Becoming a dental hygienist will require some dedicated time, effort and money, but it takes a lot less than many other healthcare careers. In just a few years you could be ready to work and earn a living in this satisfying role helping dental patients and assisting dentists.

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