How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists work side by side with dentists to ensure the health of patients’ teeth and mouths. As one of the best jobs in the healthcare industry that doesn’t require too much schooling, economists believe dental hygiene jobs will continue to grow into the foreseeable future.

how to become a dental hygienist
How to become a dental hygienist – steps and training pathways

What is a Dental Hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a licensed healthcare professional who directly provides preventative, educational, and therapeutic services to patients. Dental hygienists have finished a dental hygienist program and have become accredited in their state. 

Dental hygienists assist patients in their dental care and educate them on how to take care of their teeth and mouths. Hygienists learn how to respond to specific emergencies that may occur in the dental office, such as allergic reactions. 

The primary duties that a dental hygienist must perform are:

  • Cleaning and removing stains and plaque from patient’s teeth
  • Performing and developing dental x-rays on patients
  • Conducting preliminary dental exams before the dentist examines the patient
  • Assisting the dentist
  • Administering local anesthetics
  • Applying fluorides and sealants to patient’s teeth 
  • Documenting a patient’s treatment plan as outlined by the dentist
  • Assessing a patient’s dental health 
  • Educating patients on how to care for their dental health 
  • Using tools like polishers and scrapers

Experts believe the dental field will grow more in the next five years than other jobs, and hygienists make an average of $77,090 a year, which is above the total average salary in the United States.  

Required Education

The minimum education required for a dental hygienist is an associate’s degree at an accredited program. In the United States, CODA has to have given the program accreditations for the graduate to pursue their licensure. 

There are several options for where you can complete your dental hygienist program: 

  • A community college
  • A dental school
  • A technical institution
  • A university
  • Online

These programs usually take about two years to complete. 

If you are still in high school and thinking about becoming a dental hygienist, you should think about taking classes in health, biology, math, chemistry, and psychology. You won’t be required to have taken these courses to enter a dental hygienist program, but they will help you with your studies. 

In dental hygienist programs, students study topics such as oral and written communication, psychology, sociology, biomedical science, and, of course, dental science and dental hygiene science. 

When applying for a dental school, you should look at the prerequisites you need to accomplish before you can enter. 

Also, take time and do research so you can draft a solid personal statement and ace your interview. You need to present the strongest image of yourself to improve your chances of standing out against the competition and getting accepted into the program. 

oral hygiene career
A dental hygiene career is rewarding and can be fun!

Further Education

Some people decide to further their education after completing their associate’s degree. Some choose to go back to school after working in a dental office for a time, while others continue their education directly after earning their associates. 

Gaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited university allows you more options to further your career. People with higher education can:

  • Teach dental assisting and hygiene to others training to become professionals
  • Teach students at a university
  • Teach public health and community-based programs
  • Manage dental and health care facilities
  • Market dental supplies and equipment
  • Conduct research 

A bachelor’s degree takes about four years to finish, while a master’s degree takes about six altogether. 

National Board Exam 

In most states, you will need to complete the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE). The Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations, a part of the American Dental Association (ADA), administers the NBDHE. 

The exam is so you can prove that you are ready to become a dental hygienist. The ADA wants to ensure that all dental hygienists and dentists in the United States know the necessary biomedical and dental science information and that they can apply it to a real-world context. 

The exam has two main sections. The first is 200 multiple-choice questions, focusing on the scientific basis for dental hygiene practice, the provisions of clinical dental hygiene services, and community health and research principles. 

The second section is 12 to 15 patient cases and scenarios followed by 150 multiple-choice questions. 

You can take the test at any Pearson VUE Testing Center, but you need to schedule an appointment first with the ADA. 

oral health education
We need to tailor oral health education to all different age groups.

Regional or State Board Exam

You will also have to pass a regional or state clinical board exam to become registered in your state. You have to be registered in a specific state, or sometimes a region, to work as a dental hygienist in that area. 

The state that you practice in will dictate which clinical exam you are allowed to take. 

Some of the most popular testing agencies include:

  • The Council of Interstate Testing Agencies (CITA) – testing location in the southeastern USA
  • The Commission on Dental Dental Competency Assessments (CDCA) – testing locations throughout the USA
  • The Southern Regional Testing Agency (SRTA) – testing locations in Tennessee
  • The Western Examining Board (WREB) – testing locations in the western USA

The clinical exams evaluate your clinical and judgment skills. In most of these tests, there is a computer simulation portion and a part where you work with real people. 

State and regional board exams vary depending on where you take them, so be sure to research your specific area to train for the exam properly. 

Getting a Job as a Dental Hygienist

Once you have become an RDH (Registered Dental Hygienist), you can practice on patients in your state or region. You are now permitted to look for jobs within your state. 

One important thing to know about becoming a dental hygienist is that, because of changes in the job market, many do not work the traditional nine to five jobs anymore. Today, many offices are choosing to employ dental hygienists on an as-need basis rather than as full-time workers. 

Although the lack of full-time job prospects may be disappointing, dental hygienists have an average amount of upward mobility and face a moderate amount of stress in the workplace. These factors make the job more enjoyable than many other occupations. 

Most dental hygienists work in private practices alongside a dentist, but 37 states allow dental hygienists to work in other establishments, such as hospitals and health clinics. Hygienists with a bachelor’s or master’s degree can work in universities and a wider range of healthcare clinics. 

For the most part, finding a job as a dental hygienist is the same as looking for any other job. You should think about the length of your commute, whether you feel comfortable in the work environment, and the personalities of other staff members. 

One crucial factor that makes looking for a job in the medical field different from many other industries is that you should pay special attention to the safety protocols of the office. Infection control and how sanitized the office is are essential to consider for the health of yourself and your patients. 

If you’re still having trouble finding a dental hygienist job that suits you, you can search the ADA CareerCenter to help you find the perfect place to work. 

family brushing teeth together
A family that brushes together, avoids stinky tooth decay together

Should I Become a Dental Hygienist?

Becoming a dental hygienist is not the best path for everyone. There are some considerations that you should take into account before applying for a dental hygienist program. 

For one, you can not be squeamish towards blood or saliva. When working with patients, you will outfit yourself with protective clothing, gloves, and a mask to reduce contact with bodily fluids, but you will see blood and be near spit. 

You will also need to be comfortable with watching medical procedures. For example, when a dentist performs a root canal, they drill deep into a person’s tooth. Not everyone can stomach the way this looks. 

Additionally, you will have to deal with people being in pain and possibly in panic. Even with anesthetic, dental procedures can be painful, and you may have to witness people cry or be uncomfortable. Some people also panic or become highly anxious when at the dentist. If you cannot handle seeing these emotions, becoming a dental hygienist is not for you. 

Finally, like any job, there are aspects of this type of work that are uncomfortable. You’ll need to wear protective gear like gloves and a mask to protect yourself and your patient. You may also experience dry hands from frequent hand washing. 

Salary Prospects 

In the dental hygiene field, your salary is usually dependent on your level of education and experience. Also, those who work in dental offices tend to earn less than those in research and teaching positions. 

The average dental assistant makes $77,090 a year, which is above the national average of $51,916. But, of course, the salaries that people actually make have quite a range. The bottom 10% of dental hygienists make $54,200, while the top 10% make $104,420. 

Salaries also vary by state. Dental hygienists in Alaska make the highest median salary at $118,780. The state with the lowest median wage was Alabama, at $50,260. 

Jobs Similar to Dental Hygienist 

Depending on your interests and how much time you have or want to put into education, you may find that other jobs related to dental hygiene are a better fit for you. 


If you want to make big money, then becoming a dentist is a way to do it. Dentists can make between $125,000 and $200,000 a year (and more in some areas). Yet, the money comes with a price. Dentists have to go through about eight years of schooling on top of becoming licensed. 

Dental Assistant 

Dental assistants share some of the primary duties of hygienists since they sometimes assist the dentist in procedures, help with x-rays, and use dental tools to clean teeth. They are also usually the main person to perform the office’s clerical work. Depending on their explicit duties, they may need to finish a dental program. The average dental assistant makes $18 USD an hour. (Varies wildly by state).

Pharmacy Technician

Outside of the dental industry, the pharmacy technician position is similar to a dental hygienist. One of the main differences is that pharmacy technicians do not have to have a degree or certificate, only a high school diploma. The average pharmacy technician makes $15 USD an hour. 

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