Dental hygienists serve a critically important role in the dental office or dental specialist office. Registered dental hygienists support dentists and specialists in a wide variety of daily procedures and patient care, and collaborate with the rest of the dental team to provide excellent care to their patients.
There are a variety of programs to become trained as a dental hygienist, and once you’ve become certified, you can be confident about your ability to find work: dental hygienists enjoy very high job security, with dental practices across the country. Dental hygienists are relatively high earners and have a good work-life balance.
Learn more about being a dental hygienist with this helpful guide.
Dental Hygienist Salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered dental hygienists earned a median salary of $76,220 per year or $36.65 per hour. There were 226,400 dental hygienist jobs in 2019, and the field is expected to grow 6% between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than average.
Salary.com notes that the median isn’t the salary everyone can expect: the lowest-paid dental hygienists in the country are paid $55,383, while the highest earners are earning $96,006. The range depends on the experience of the dental hygienist, the region where they work, and the specifics of the office.
Dental Assistant Responsibilities
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), registered dental hygienists perform a wide variety of tasks in the dental or specialist office. Dental assistants can work in general dentist offices, as well as orthodontics, periodontics, endodontics, pediatric dentistry, oral surgery, and more.
Common duties include:
- Patient screening and assessmtnet of oral health
- Dental charting
- Taking blood pressure and pulse
- Taking and developing dental radiographs (x-rays)
- Teaching patients proper oral health prctices
- Educating patients on proper nutrition for good oral health
- Cleaning teeth: removing calculus and plaque from dental surfaces
- Appling protective materials like sealants and fluorides
- Documentation, patient records, billing
- Office management
Education, Licensing & Experience
To become a dental hygienist, you must obtain training and licensing, which requires both national certification and state licensing as required.
You must attend an accredited dental hygiene education program, which can be a diploma program or a full degree (like an associate’s degree). You can find an accredited program on the American Dental Association’s website, which lists all dental hygiene programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
- Learn more about becoming a registered dental hygienist
Upon completing a dental hygiene program, you can only become a Registered Dental Hygienist bypassing the national exam, administered by the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, as well as any state-specific licensing requirements. To find the licensing requirements in your state, check this chart by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
Maintaining your license requires regular re-certification, and attending continuing education courses to make sure you are up-to-date with the latest innovations in dental hygiene and patient care. This guide from the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) has info on the continuing education requirements for RDHs by state.
Once you’re a registered dental hygienist, you’re ready to apply for jobs! While some dental practices may only hire individuals with experience, many practices welcome new graduates of dental hygiene programs. Larger practices tend to be more likely to hire new graduates since they have other more experienced dental hygienists on hand who can mentor new employees.
Top Dental Assistant Skills
According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), a dental hygienist must have the following characteristics:
- Patience and empathy. For many patients – especially younger children – going to the dental or dental specialsits can be a frightening or anxiety-provoking experience. Dental hygienists interact closely with the patients, so making them feel at ease and supporting them through the visit is an improtnat part of the job. Dentla hygienists should be able to effectively communicate oral health information to the patient and encourage them with positivity and enthusiasm.
- Attention to detail. The mouth is a small, tight space, but every tiny part of it is important and needs to be cared for. Dental hygienesits must be careful to examine and clean every dental surface, and be looking for any problem areas.
- Passionate and dedicated to dentistry and oral health. The dental team sets the tone for patients and their families, so enthusiasm and passion for proper oral health and quality dental care is hugely important for dental hygienists.
- Quick problem-solving and critical thinking. Dental practices are busy, fast-paced environments with many different activities happening at once. Dental hygienists need to be able to stay on top of the many responsibilities without getting flustered or overwhelmed. In the event of an emergency or an unexpected situation, RDHs need to be able to respond quickly and effectively.
- Positive, team-work oriented attitude. Dental offices are team-oriented and require everyone to work together. Dental hygiensits must enjoy working with others to achieve goals, problem solving as a group, and value good communication. In addition, positivity is key to a successful team environment!
U.S. News rates Dental Hygienists as #1 in Best Healthcare Support Jobs and #24 in 100 Best Jobs. RDHs’ enjoy a comfortable salary, great work-life balance, and flexible hours.
One of the reasons for the high ranking is the excellent job security: less than 1% of RDH’s are unemployed – only 0.6%. There were 226,400 dental hygienist jobs in the U.S. in 2019, and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 13,300 new jobs in dental hygiene between 2019 and 2029.
Because there is always a high demand for dental care everywhere in the country, you can feel very confident in finding a job after completing a dental hygiene program.
Schedule & Work Environment
Most dental hygienists work full-time, but there are many options to work part-time, which makes it a great field for parents or caregivers who need a more flexible career.
Hours and schedules depend on the office: some dental practices or facilities operate 7 days a week, while others are only open on certain days and times.
The work environment is busy and bustling, with a variety of dental and office professionals serving in different roles. The size of a dental practice varies greatly, from as small as one dentist and a single assistant, to large clinics with several doctors and dozens of support staff. Your job responsibilities and day-to-day workplace experience will vary depending on the size of the office and your experience.
All dental facilities need to be compliant with state and federal health and safety regulations, including OSHA, HIPAA, and personnel licensing. Keeping the office up to compliant standards is an important part of the dental hygienist’s role.
Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist
While many of the duties overlap, dental hygienists perform different tasks than dental assistants and have different training and licensing requirements.
Dental hygienists are required by every state to complete a dental hygiene training program and pass licensing exams administered by the National Board of Dental Hygiene, as well as state-specific licensing requirements. They perform more clinical dental work, including cleanings, sealants, fluoride treatments, processing and examining x-rays, and more.
Dental assistants do not need to attend a training program in all states, although many elects to do so. In addition, certification is not necessary for every state but may be achieved to increase the individual’s competitiveness in the job field and to gain more knowledge. Certification is secured through the Dental Assisting National Board, as well state-specific licensing requirements. At the office, dental assistants perform a variety of tasks, some clinical, some related to cleaning, sterilization, and infection control, as well as office duties. Dental hygienists usually make a higher salary than dental assistants, and many dental assistants go on to become registered dental hygienists.
- Learn more about becoming a dental assistant
Dental Hygienist Jobs
Once you’ve completed your dental hygiene training program and secured your licensing, you can look for jobs! There are many options for finding a dental hygiene position. While most dental hygienists work in dental or dental specialist offices, there are other work options, including in a school or university setting, free or subsidised clinic, government agency, and more.
Tips for finding a dental hygiene job:
- Check the resources from your dental hygiene program. There may be an online job board, or dedicated career counselors to assist new graduates.
- Online job sites such as ZipRecruiter, Indeed, CareerBuilder, Glassdoor, and more. You can search jobs in your area, and also post your own profile notifying potential employers that you’re seeking a position.
- Join your local or state chapter of the American Dental Hygiene Association (ADHA). This professional network can help connect you with job resources, as well as continuing education and networking with other RDH and dental professionals. Find career resources on the ADHA website.
- Contact local dentist’s offices. Calling, emailing or even stopping by is a great way to find out about jobs in local dental practices. If they’re not hiring, ask to leave your contact information in case a position opens up. It can’t hurt to make connections in your community!