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Dental Hygienist Career Guide

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a licensed healthcare professional specializing in oral healthcare and preventive dental services. These professionals work closely with dentists to assess, diagnose, and treat oral health issues, primarily focusing on maintaining patients’ oral hygiene and preventing dental problems, such as tooth decay and gum disease. They are crucial staff members of nearly every dental office, providing a safe patient experience by sterilizing and sanitizing dental equipment and instruments. 

Duties and responsibilities

Dental hygienists are responsible for conducting patient assessments, reviewing their medical and dental histories, examining the oral cavity for signs of disease or abnormalities, and taking dental x-rays. They also provide preventive care, including teeth cleaning, scaling, and polishing, as well as applying sealants and fluoride treatments. These professionals guide patients on proper oral hygiene practices, such as brushing, flossing, and dietary choices affecting oral health.

In some cases, they may also be involved in administering local anesthesia, depending on their licensing and the regulations in their jurisdiction. Their duties include maintaining accurate patient records, updating dentists on any issues or concerns, and assisting with dental procedures as needed.

Work environment

Dental hygienists typically work in dental offices or clinics alongside dentists and other dental professionals. They may also find employment in hospitals, educational institutions, and public health organizations. 

Their work environment requires strict adherence to infection control protocols, as they are frequently exposed to blood and saliva during procedures. Professionals in this role spend a significant amount of time standing and bending over patients. As a result, having good physical stamina and dexterity are essential for this job.

Typical work hours

The typical work hours for a dental hygienist can vary depending on the dental practice’s schedule and the specific needs of their patients. Many hygienists work full-time, often during standard business hours, from Monday through Friday. 

However, some may work part-time or have flexible schedules, including evenings and weekends, to accommodate the needs of their patients and the dental practice. Depending on the demand for their services, some may also work in multiple dental offices.

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 an accredited dental hygiene program

The first step is to complete an accredited dental hygiene program. These programs are typically offered at community colleges, vocational schools, or dental schools and lead to an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. 

You’ll study anatomy, periodontology, dental materials, radiography, and clinical practice courses. Most programs take about two to three years to complete.

Step 2: Obtain licensure

After completing an accredited program, you must pass a written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and a clinical board examination to become a licensed hygienist. The clinical exam evaluates your ability to perform dental hygiene procedures, such as removing plaque and calculus from teeth and assessing a patient’s oral health. Licensure requirements vary by state, so consult your state’s dental board for specific details.

Step 3: Take additional courses to boost your resume

There are excellent online courses available that can help boost your resume. Learn more about specific dental topics or general tips and tricks that can make you better at your job. Here are a few recommendations:

  • The University of Pennsylvania offers a Introduction to Dental Medicine through Coursera. The class reviews topics that are important to oral healthcare and dental medicine. Learn more about the anatomy, pathology, and treatment of the mouth, jaw, and teeth.
  • Take Udemy’s Nitrous Oxide Course for Dentists and Dental Hygienists for a complete refresher on administering nitrous oxide sedation. It’s a comprehensive workshop with all the knowledge on how to use PAN, also known as minimal sedation,  typically used in minor medical or dental procedures.

Step 4: Find employment as a dental hygienist

Once you earn your license, you can begin searching for employment opportunities. Hygienists work in various settings, including private dental practices, public health clinics, hospitals, and educational institutions. Consider your interests and preferences when choosing a work setting, and be prepared to submit job applications and participate in interviews.

Step 5: Maintain licensure and pursue continuing education

Dental hygienists must maintain their licensure and complete a specified number of continuing education hours, as determined by their state. These requirements help you stay current with evolving dental practices, techniques, and technologies. Continuing education courses can cover infection control, radiology, or periodontal therapy.

Step 6: Consider specializing or advancing your career

As your career progresses, you may specialize in a specific area, such as pediatric dental hygiene, periodontal therapy, or dental hygiene education. Specializing can help you stand out as an expert in your field and may lead to additional career opportunities or increased earning potential. 

You may also consider advancing your career by pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene or a related field, such as dental hygiene education or public health. These advanced degrees open up opportunities for teaching, research, or administration roles.

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

General dental hygienists work in private dental practices, performing routine cleanings and providing preventive oral care to patients. These individuals collaborate with dentists to identify and treat oral health issues, educate patients about proper oral hygiene, and administer fluoride treatments or dental sealants when necessary.

Pediatric dental hygienist

These professionals specialize in working with children, from infants to adolescents. They focus on early prevention and education, helping young patients establish good oral hygiene habits. In this role, it’s valuable to be skilled in working with children, helping them feel comfortable and at ease during dental appointments.

Geriatric dental hygienist

Professionals in this role focus on the oral health needs of elderly patients. This work occurs in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, or private dental practices catering to older adults. These hygienists are well-versed in the unique challenges of aging, such as periodontal disease, tooth loss, and the effects of medications on oral health.

Orthodontic dental hygienist

Hygienists in this specialization work in orthodontic practices, supporting orthodontists in caring for patients with braces, clear aligners, or other orthodontic appliances. Their daily tasks may include assisting with adjustments, cleanings, and patient education on proper oral hygiene during orthodontic treatment.

Periodontal dental hygienist

Periodontal dental hygienists specialize in treating and preventing periodontal (gum) disease. These individuals work closely with periodontists, providing deep cleanings, scaling and root planing, and other treatments for patients with gum disease. Their day-to-day work may also entail educating patients on the importance of maintaining periodontal health to prevent tooth loss and other complications.

Top skills for dental hygienists

To excel in this role, dental hygienists need a balance of technical, interpersonal, and critical thinking skills and a solid commitment to patient care and education.

Technical skills are essential, as you must be proficient in using various dental instruments, equipment, and techniques to perform the job effectively, including scaling and polishing teeth, taking dental X-rays, and applying fluoride treatments. Strong technical skills enable you to provide thorough and efficient dental cleanings, ensuring optimal oral health for your patients.

Having excellent interpersonal skills for this role is valuable, as you’ll interact with patients daily. It’s helpful to have the ability to establish rapport, communicate effectively, and put patients at ease during dental procedures. By building strong relationships with patients, you can help create a positive dental experience and encourage patients to maintain regular dental visits.

Critical thinking skills are also crucial, as you must assess patients’ oral health, identify potential issues, and develop appropriate treatment plans. This includes evaluating dental X-rays, recognizing signs of oral diseases, and understanding the relationship between oral health and overall health. Professionals with strong critical thinking skills can provide comprehensive care and contribute to the early detection and prevention of oral health problems.

A commitment to patient care and education is a key attribute of successful hygienists. It’s important to be dedicated to providing your patients with the highest level of care and be passionate about educating them on proper oral hygiene practices. This includes explaining the importance of regular dental cleanings, demonstrating correct brushing and flossing techniques, and providing guidance on diet and lifestyle choices that can impact oral health. When you prioritize patient care and education, you can significantly impact your patients’ overall well-being and quality of life.

Dental hygienist career path

Early in their careers, dental hygienists may start as part-time or full-time employees, working under the supervision of a dentist or a senior hygienist to provide preventive dental care and education to patients. As they gain experience, they may take on additional responsibilities, such as patient screening, dental X-rays, and dental health assessments.

Over time, they may choose to specialize in a particular area, such as pediatric dentistry, periodontal care, or orthodontics. These specializations may require additional training or certification.

Individuals with strong leadership skills and extensive experience can advance to supervisory or management roles within a dental practice or a larger dental group. Some professionals may also pursue education, research, or public health roles. Others work as dental hygiene educators, dental product researchers, or community dental health coordinators.

Advancements in dental technology, such as digital imaging and laser treatments, have improved how dental hygienists perform their tasks, making treatments more comfortable and efficient for patients. Additionally, there is a growing trend toward collaborative care models in dental practices, where hygienists work closely with dentists and other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive care to patients.

An increased focus on preventive dental care, early detection of oral diseases, and the aging population’s need for dental care are driving the demand for this profession. With an increasing number of states allowing hygienists to provide services without direct supervision from dentists, their role is expanding, creating more opportunities in the 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

Stay current on dental hygiene advancements

In this role, staying informed about the latest advancements in dental hygiene practices, technology, and research is essential. This will enable you to provide the best possible care to your patients and stay ahead in your profession. Attend conferences, subscribe to industry publications, and participate in online forums to remain updated on the latest developments.

Develop strong patient communication skills

Effective communication skills are crucial for this profession, as you’ll need to educate patients on proper oral hygiene practices and address their concerns. Strengthen your verbal and non-verbal communication abilities, practice active listening, and learn to adapt your communication style to different patient needs.

Master time management and organization

Hygienists often work with multiple patients daily and need to manage their time efficiently. Develop strong organizational and time management skills to ensure you can provide optimal care to each patient without feeling rushed. Use tools like appointment scheduling software to stay organized and allocate adequate time for each appointment.

Cultivate a gentle and empathetic approach

Many patients may feel anxious or uncomfortable during dental procedures, so a gentle, empathetic, and patient-centered approach helps ease their concerns and makes their experience more positive. Build rapport with your patients by asking about their preferences and providing reassurance when needed.

Build a professional network

Networking is essential to stay informed about industry trends, share best practices, and discover new opportunities. Join professional associations and networks to connect with other dental professionals, learn from their experiences, and enhance your career prospects. Some relevant associations and networks include:

  • American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA)
  • International Federation of Dental Hygienists (IFDH)
  • National Dental Hygiene Association (NDHA)
  • American Dental Association (ADA)

Maintain a high standard of infection control

Infection control is a critical aspect of dental hygiene practice. Familiarize yourself with the latest guidelines and protocols for infection control, and ensure that you adhere to these standards consistently. Regularly review and update your procedures to minimize the risk of cross-contamination and protect both patients and staff.

Promote a teamwork-oriented approach

Professionals in this role often work closely with dentists, dental assistants, and administrative staff. Promoting a teamwork-oriented approach by actively collaborating with your colleagues, sharing knowledge, and supporting each other in providing high-quality patient care will contribute to a more efficient and positive work environment.

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?

Hygienists 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 are essential for hygienists, as they 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 are essential as they 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 for helping patients to feel calm and comfortable 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 are essential for hygienists, as they 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.