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Dental Hygienist Career Guide

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist is like a superhero for your teeth! They work with dentists to keep your smile healthy. Their main job is to stop tooth decay and gum disease before they start. They also keep the tools your dentist uses clean and germ-free.

Duties and responsibilities

Think of dental hygienists as detectives for your mouth. They look inside your mouth, take X-rays, and figure out if anything is wrong. They also do a super cleaning of your teeth, getting rid of all the stuff brushing misses. Plus, they give you tips on how to brush and floss better and make smart food choices for healthy teeth. In some places, they can even give numbing medicine for dental treatments.

Work environment

Most dental hygienists work in dentist offices, but you can also find them in hospitals and schools. They always make sure everything is super clean to keep you safe from germs.

Typical work hours

Dental hygienists often work regular hours, like a typical 9-to-5 job, but some might work evenings or weekends. This depends on the dentist office and the patients’ needs. Some hygienists work in more than one office if they’re in high demand.

How to become a dental hygienist

Becoming a dental hygienist involves a combination of education, licensure, and practical experience. Read on to discover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal.

Step 1: Complete schooling

Start by studying in a dental hygiene program, usually found in community colleges or vocational schools. You’ll learn about tooth anatomy, how to spot gum diseases, and how to care for teeth. It takes about 2-3 years to finish.

Step 2: Get licensed

After school, you must pass two big tests—a written one and a hands-on one where you show your teeth-cleaning skills. Every state has different rules, so check what your state needs for you to become a licensed dental hygienist.

Step 3: Take additional courses to boost your resume

There are online courses to learn even more. For example, the University of Pennsylvania has a cool class on Coursera about dental stuff, and Udemy offers a course on how to safely use laughing gas during dental treatments.

Step 4: Find a job

You can work in dental offices, schools, or hospitals. Be ready to send out your resume and go for interviews.

Step 5: Maintain your license and learn more

Hygienists need to keep learning to stay up-to-date with new dental tricks and tools. You can take courses on keeping things clean, using X-ray machines, or treating gum diseases.

Step 6: Grow your career

You may want to focus on treating kids or teaching others about dental hygiene. You could also go back to school for higher degrees, which can open doors to teaching, researching, or leading in the dental field.

How much do dental hygienists make?

There are many variables that go into determining how much dental hygienists earn, from company size to experience to education, just to name a few.

Highest paying states

  • Alaska: $114,000
  • California: $106,000
  • Washington: $93,000
  • Oregon: $92,000
  • Nevada: $89,000

Browse dental hygienist salary data by market

Types of dental hygienists

Let’s take a closer look at the different types and specializations of dental hygienists.  You can choose from working in various settings and specializing in different areas, depending on your interests and expertise.

  • General dental hygienist: They mostly work in private dental offices. Their job includes routine cleanings, teaching patients how to take care of their teeth, and applying treatments like fluoride.
  • Pediatric dental hygienist: These hygienists specialize in caring for kids’ teeth. They teach children good dental habits and make sure the little ones are comfortable during their visits.
  • Geriatric dental hygienist: They work with older adults, often in nursing homes or facilities for seniors. Their focus is on the special dental needs of the elderly, such as gum diseases and the effects of certain medications.
  • Orthodontic dental hygienist: They’re found in orthodontic offices, where they help with braces and aligners. They assist in adjustments and cleaning of orthodontic devices and educate patients on keeping their teeth clean with braces.
  • Periodontal dental hygienist: These hygienists work with patients who have gum diseases. They provide deep cleanings and other treatments to prevent or manage gum problems.

Top skills for dental hygienists

Certain skills are super important to succeed as a dental hygienist:

  • Technical skills: This means being really good at using dental tools and techniques. These skills help you do your job well, making sure your patients have healthy teeth and gums.
  • Interpersonal skills: This is about how well you connect and talk with patients. Good communication makes patients feel comfortable and helps them trust you. 
  • Critical thinking skills: This skill is all about making smart decisions for your patients’ dental health. It helps catch problems early and plan effective treatments.
  • Commitment to patient care and education: When you’re really invested in your patients’ well-being, it shows. Teaching them good dental habits can have a big impact on their overall health.

Dental hygienist career path

Starting out

Many start as part-time or full-time dental hygienists. They work under experienced dentists or hygienists, doing basic dental care and teaching patients about oral health.

Gaining experience

As they get more experienced, they start doing more complex tasks like patient screenings and dental X-rays. They can choose to focus on areas like kids’ dentistry, gum care, or orthodontics, which might need extra training.

Career advancement

Experienced hygienists can move up to supervisory or management positions in dental practices or groups. Some may go into teaching, research, or roles in public health. Others might teach dental hygiene, research dental products, or work in community dental health.

The dental hygienist profession is evolving and growing thanks to several trends:

  • New technologies: Dental technology, like digital imaging and laser treatments, is getting better and better. These advancements make their work more efficient and patient-friendly.
  • Team-based care: There’s a shift toward collaborative care in dental practices. Hygienists are working more closely with dentists and other health professionals, offering well-rounded care to patients.
  • Preventive care and early detection: There’s a bigger emphasis on stopping dental problems before they start and catching them early. This increases the need for skilled dental hygienists.
  • Aging population: As people live longer, they need more dental care throughout their lives. This also boosts the demand for hygienists.
  • Expanding role: More states are allowing hygienists to work without being directly supervised by a dentist. This opens up more job possibilities and allows them to have a greater impact in their field.

Employment projections for dental hygienists

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in this field is projected to grow 9% through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is attributed to the increasing demand for preventive oral health services and the need for effective dental care. 

Dental hygienist career tips

Keep up with industry advancements

Keep learning about new practices and technologies in dental hygiene. Stay informed by attending conferences, reading industry publications, and joining online forums.

Hone your communication skills

Good communication is key for educating patients and addressing their concerns. Practice active listening and learn to adjust how you talk to meet different patient needs.

Improve time management and organization

Efficient time management is crucial when you’re seeing many patients daily. Use scheduling tools and plan well to provide great care without feeling rushed.

Be gentle and empathetic

Understand that some patients may feel nervous. Be kind and patient, and make them feel comfortable and heard during visits.

Build a professional network

Connect with other dental professionals to learn and find opportunities. Join groups like the American Dental Hygienists’ Association or the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.

Maintain a high standard of infection control

Infection control is super important in your work. Always follow the latest guidelines to keep everyone safe.

Work well with your team

Dental care is a team effort. Collaborate and share knowledge with dentists, assistants, and office staff for the best patient care.

Where the dental hygienist jobs are

Top companies

  • Aspen Dental
  • Heartland Dental
  • Pacific Dental
  • Great Expressions Dental Centers
  • DentalOne Partners

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • DentalPost
  • iHireDental
  • SimplyHired
  • LinkedIn


What are the primary responsibilities of a dental hygienist?

They are responsible for providing preventative dental care to patients, including cleaning teeth, taking X-rays, and educating patients on proper dental hygiene practices. Additionally, they may assist dentists with more complex procedures and treatments, such as fillings and extractions.

What skills and qualifications are typically required for a dental hygienist role?

Typically, employers require job candidates to have an associate’s degree in dental hygiene and licensure from the state where they practice. They must also have strong communication and interpersonal skills, attention to detail, and the ability to work effectively as part of a dental care team.

What are some effective strategies for educating patients on proper dental hygiene practices as a dental hygienist?

Effective strategies include using visual aids, such as diagrams or models, to demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques and providing personalized recommendations based on each patient’s specific dental needs and concerns. Explaining the potential consequences of poor dental hygiene, such as cavities, gum disease, and tooth loss, can also help to motivate patients to take better care of their teeth.

How important is patient comfort and anxiety management for a dental hygienist?

These skills can help to reduce patient stress and discomfort during dental procedures and improve the overall patient experience. They may use distraction, relaxation, and pain management techniques to help patients feel more comfortable during procedures.

How can dental hygienists effectively communicate with dentists and other dental care team members?

Using clear and concise language, actively listening to others, and collaborating closely to ensure patient needs are met and treatments are effectively coordinated are excellent communication strategies. It’s also vital to effectively document patient information and communicate it to other team members as needed.

What are some common challenges that dental hygienists face in their role?

Common challenges include managing patient anxiety and discomfort, keeping up-to-date with evolving dental technologies and best practices, and maintaining accurate and thorough patient records. These professionals may also need to work with patients with complex medical histories or special needs. They must be able to adapt their approach to meet each patient’s unique needs and concerns effectively.

How important is continuing education and professional development for a dental hygienist?

Continuing education and professional development help guarantee that dental hygiene practices are up-to-date and effective and that patients receive the highest quality of care. Additionally, continuing education can enhance career opportunities, keep pace with evolving technologies and best practices, and ensure compliance with changing regulatory requirements.

What are some effective strategies for managing patient anxiety and discomfort as a dental hygienist?

Practical strategies include using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, music, or guided imagery and providing a distraction. This could entail engaging in conversation or using TV or other media. Pain management techniques such as local anesthesia or nitrous oxide can also help reduce patients’ discomfort and anxiety during procedures.

How important is patient education and preventative care for a dental hygienist?

These considerations play a critical role in helping patients maintain good oral health and prevent more serious dental problems from developing. By educating patients on proper brushing and flossing techniques and other preventative measures such as fluoride treatments and sealants, they can help patients maintain healthy teeth and gums and avoid future invasive and costly treatments. 

Additionally, by performing regular check-ups and cleanings, these professionals have an important role in identifying potential dental problems early on and addressing them before they become more serious. Patient education and preventative care are essential for promoting good oral health and improving patients’ overall health and well-being.