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What is a Dental Hygienist?
A dental hygienist is a healthcare professional focusing on the practice dealing with the proper care and maintenance of oral health. Oral health is a term that includes the examination of teeth, gums, mouth, and surrounding craniofacial structures. Individuals in this field are referred to as a hygienist or dental hygienists.
These professionals are responsible for cleaning the oral cavity as well as identifying any ailments or disease that may be present. Additionally, dental hygienists provide education in the proper care and treatment of one's mouth in order to continue cleanliness at home.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
The dental hygiene profession is an integral part of any dental office or dentistry business. Dental hygienists are customer-facing and engage directly with patients on a daily basis. They identify issues and remediate problems before they become larger health care issues. Common types of services a dental hygienist performs consulting and dental solutions that can include:
- Interacting Directly with Patients & Dentists
- Removing Tartar
- Performing Dental X-Rays
- Teaching Proper Oral Hygiene
- Utilizing a Variety of Dental Instruments
- Working with Dental Technicians & Dental Assistants
- Recommending a Gum Graft
- Identifying Dental Abscess
- Communicating with a Dental Laboratory
- Analyzing Tooth Decay
- Utilizing Dental Floss
- Teeth Cleaning
- Analyzing Candidates for Tooth Planing
- Consulting with Patients
- Removing Plaque
- Assessing a Tooth Cavity & Tooth Caries
- Teeth Whitening
Hygienists will utilize a variety of tools and equipment to perform their jobs day-over-day. As an example, a teeth cleaning procedure can include instruments such as scalers, dental lasers, and dental floss.
Likewise, a teeth cleaning procedure can range from a deep, intensive cleanings to more topical cleanings from patient to patient. The intensity and frequency of cleanings depend on the regiment required to properly maintain a patient’s teeth & overall oral wellness.
Stages of Patient Care in Quality Dental Hygiene
The team at Kerr Dental believe there are eight discrete stages of patient care for a dental hygienist. Best practices culled over the course of several years helps to reveal what students need to know. In a typical dental practice, the daily workflow for dental hygiene professionals include the following eight elements:
- Room Preparation
- Health Screening
- X-Rays: Intra-Oral and Extra-Oral
- Perio Charting and Probing
- Polishing and Cleaning
- Treatment and Patient Planning
- Room Disinfection
- Instrument Reprocessing
Best Dental Hygienist Schools
A professional hygienist must first attend an accredited dental college as a requirement to become a licensed dental practitioner. The majority of states require a dental hygienist major to pass a state mandated examination before working with the public. The best dental hygiene school programs can be found at vocational schools, community colleges, specialty dental schools, 4-year colleges, state universities, and through online learning college programs.
Community College – A community college is often associated with being a 2-year school geared towards providing students with an associate degree; however, many accredited community colleges in the United States have recently begun to add bachelor of science degree tracks for in-demand professions. In addition, you may find an increase in onsite learning opportunities along with online degree programs.
In terms of dental hygiene education, students enrolled in a community college will likely discover a broad-based curriculum supporting the ever-evolving needs of dental professionals. Electives at a community college may include sociology, creative writing, public speaking, or economics. As such, dental hygiene students will be provided exposure to various general education courses to help think and process differently.
Vocational School & Technical College – A trade school, technical college, and vocational school are higher education institutions that targets skill development making work-readiness a top priority. Most vocational schools and technical college programs result in dental hygiene students earning a certificate after completing the requisite coursework. Upon certificate completion, a dental hygiene student will often work in a dental clinic or a dental office.
Dental Hygiene School – Another option is for students to consider a degree track in dental hygiene found within an accredited dental school. Attending a school of dentistry will generally provide students with more science-heavy courses than a community college. Dental schools will often provide health care curriculum along with research credit and operations coursework to help prepare students for career mobility after graduation.
Four-Year College or State University – A 4-Year college or university may offer bachelor of science in dental hygiene degrees on campus or online off campus. Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees require students to have successfully earned credits for all lower level courses prior to degree completion.
A four-year private college, liberal arts college, or state university can offer high quality degrees in dental hygiene. Four-year universities can offer hands-on learning opportunities and in-depth curriculum to help students prepare for long-term careers in the dental field. While most 4-year programs require exposure to a variety of general education courses, the research and case studies in a dental hygiene education for a well-rounded graduate.
Dental Hygienists Educational Requirements
Individuals interested in studying at a dental hygiene school will typically go on to earn a certificate or associates degree after earning a high school diploma. Undergraduate degrees like an associate's degree will take students between one and two years to complete. Most dental offices and dental practices will require a high school diploma plus an associate's degree or higher as a minimum job requirement.
Bachelor's degrees and master's degrees are less commonly required by dental offices. Rather, a graduate degree or bachelor's degree online can be required for research positions, teaching positions, or for employment in certain programs or public schools. Curriculum in the dental hygiene learning domain often include courses such as:
- Oral Communication
- Histology and Oral Embryology
- Tooth Morphology
- Physiology & Biology
- Oral Pathology & Radiography
- Head and Neck Anatomy
- Microbiology, Pathology, & Pharmacology
Which Dental Hygiene School is Right for Me?
While determining which dental hygiene school is right for you is a very personal choice. However, there are a few essential keys to getting matched to the best dental school for you after factoring in qualifications for admission, tuition, financial aid, and net price to attend.
The critical factors for any student looking to enroll in a college program for dental hygiene include: program quality, accreditation, curriculum, program breadth, and timing.
Accreditation – If your goal is to select a long-term career in dental hygiene, it is highly recommended to align yourself with an accredited higher education institution. Accredited colleges are best prepared to properly equip students for their state licensing exam and subsequent work in the dental field.
Look for schools to have a CODA affiliation to help ensure the best academic experience for your time and investment. CODA stands for the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Colleges earning a CODA affiliation provide students with the highest probability of gainful employment in the dental field after graduation.
Curriculum – The curricular design will vary from university to university with CODA accredited schools adhering to a base set of courses. In addition to the accreditation, seek out programs that have a rich clinical experience for students. Schools that have on-site dental offices or community partnerships with private dental practices are a positive sign you will have solid clinical exposure during your time in school.
Program Emphasis – As you may expect, not all dental hygiene schools are created equal. Aside from the school type, you should apply to programs that offers the career path you are most interested in pursuing. More specifically, if you intend to perform research in the dental field after graduation make sure to align yourself with an accredited program that emphasizes dental research.
Timing – If your ultimate goal is to move from school directly into the workforce on an abbreviated schedule, you may wish to seek out colleges that offer accelerated dental hygiene programs. An accelerated program will provide students with a short, intense program which is contrasted with a longer, broad-based curriculum found in a four-year college, university, or school of dentistry.
How to Become a Dental Hygienist
College-bound students interested in learning how long it takes to become a dental hygienist will find detailed steps below. It is worth noting that online degree completion requirements for CODA accredited higher education institutions will generally have similar requirements for incoming students. To earn a dental hygienist degree, you will need to take the time to thoroughly understand the following dental school factors and components.
- Experience – From academic experience to work experience, colleges will likely require more experience with higher-level degree paths. More specifically, the work experience and classroom requirements for a bachelor’s degree program will be greater than the criteria for a certificate program in dental hygiene.
- School – Most students will have already completed a set of general education courses prior to applying to a dental hygiene program at an accredited institution. For example, a student applying to a master’s degree program in dental hygiene will have already completed the requisite coursework for a bachelor’s degree program.
- DAT – The Dental Admissions Test (DAT) is required by most dental programs. The DAT is an examination administered by CODA. The CODA organization curated the DAT to help higher education providers determine an applicant’s probability for success.
- Letters of Recommendation – Receiving letters of recommendation from current and previous teachers and managers is a must for most admissions officers. A letter of recommendation speaks to your character, work ethic, and competencies. A recommendation is taken into account in conjunction with your interview and application to help create a holistic profile of each applicant.
- Application – The details provided on your dental hygiene college application will include personal information, socioeconomic information, and a personal statement. Be prepared to invest time to create a quality application along with a financial investment to send your application to the school’s admissions office.
- Transcripts – Your transcripts are the final piece of the puzzle in this guide. Transcripts are the non-opinionated, data-driven piece of the overall application. How you performed in previous classes may be an indication of your future success so establish good work habits early to maximize your options later in life.
- Licensure - Licensing requirements will vary from state to state. However, research assembled by the ADHA reveal four common expectations. Common steps include:
- Completing a dental hygiene degree program from a CODA institution
- Passing a written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
- Successfully passing state and/or regional dental board examinations
- Completing all requisite continuing education to maintain licensure
Top Dental Hygiene Degrees
The three primary buckets of dental hygiene degree levels include an online degree, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree. Students may elect to search for a fast track degree and complete an accelerated dental hygiene certificate program instead of the degrees listed below.
Keep in mind that the timing, cost, program breadth, focus, and curriculum will vary from program to program so perform your research early. If you are looking to advance your career in the dental field, the degree programs below may be worth further consideration.
Dental Hygienist Associate's Degree
An Associate's of Science (AS) in dental hygiene is a two-year college degree program geared to provide students with the essentials. The associate's degree is often designed to be a focused program with few general education courses.
A cross-section of classes may include: dental materials, dental anatomy, dental radiology, chair-side assisting, and human anatomy & physiology. For CODA accredited schools, students should expect to apply to entry-level dental hygiene jobs upon graduation.
Dental Hygienist Bachelor’s Degree
The bachelor’s degree track is an advanced degree program lasting 4 years. A bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene will be conferred as a Bachelor's of Science (BS). The BS degree will include an array of general education courses along with core dental classes.
The core classes are career-focused and geared towards specific areas within the dental field which may include: dental practice management, dental hygiene research, dental law & business ethics, periodontics, pharmacology, and advanced clinical research. Bachelor’s degrees are often a requirement for students looking to work in a managerial or supervisory capacity after graduation.
Master’s Degree in Dental Hygiene (MSDH)
While not a mainstream degree track, a master’s degree in dental hygiene is a two-year program after successful completion of a bachelor’s degree. These high-level courses in healthcare and dentistry are often couched in deep research, industry best practices, public health-based for dental practitioners and future teachers. Courses you may see in the MSDH program are: leadership, teaching dental hygiene, grant writing, community health advocacy, epidemiology, and health research topics.
Online Dental Hygienist Schools
The best online dental hygiene programs have been growing at a rapid rate in the last decade. From certificate programs through doctoral online degree programs, an online delivery method continues to gain popularity from students and academics. An accredited online degree program offered via an accredited online school may be right for you if your schedule, learning style, and work ethic support the distance learning model.
Dental Hygienist Job Requirements
Dental hygienists are typically employed in dental offices and work alongside dentists and dental assistants. They provide care and treatment for patients during routine cleanings. Hygienists must wear protective gear when working on patients or clients, and when working may have to spend extensive amounts of time on their feet.
Many dental hygienists work part time, coming in for specific appointments instead of a full day-long shift. Meanwhile, some hygienists may work at multiple dental offices in order to maximize earnings. Employment for specialized programs or for research will be more competitive and difficult than those typically available at a dental office.
Dental Hygienist Job Outlook
Job growth is expected to increase rapidly over the next decade. According to recent studies performed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and ONet, there will be approximately 20,000 new job openings for dental hygienists in the coming decade. With an employment change of over 40,000 professionals expected, the dental hygiene field is expected to grow at a rate of 15-20% a year during this current reporting period.
Contributing factors to this rapid growth include access to healthcare, oral health awareness, and cultural norms of oral health. These factors are intensified with a growing body of research linking oral health to overall health.
Data and technology will help continue to bring oral health into the spotlight and increase awareness. For example, data collected by the Mayo Clinic reveals research that indicates that oral health can contribute to the following diseases: diabetes, endocarditis, HIV, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease, and osteoporosis. The net result is a solid growth forecast for dental hygiene professionals for the foreseeable future.
Dental Hygienist Salary
Dental hygienists median pay is $74,070 annually. The top ten percent earned an average $101,330 while the bottom 25% average $61,230 per year. These figures can be elevated based upon experience, city demographics, education levels, geographic location, organization type, and hours worked. Over 95% of hygienists work directly for a dentist with a small fraction working for outpatient care facilities, medical centers, hospitals, and physician offices.
States employing the most hygienists include: California, Texas, New York, and Florida. Meanwhile, the top paying states are Alaska, California, and Washington averaging $98,000 per year between these three states. Individuals interested in dental hygiene services may also consider careers in dentistry, dental assisting, or dental laboratory technology.
For further research, consider visiting the following resource articles to learn more about the dental hygiene career path and associated college programs. From the latest employment statistics to career FAQ’s to career options, we have the resources to help you make the most of your career.
- Dental Hygiene Career Pathways
- FAQ's in Dental Hygiene
- Hygienist College Degrees and Award Type
- Latest Employment Statistics for Dental Hygienists
Resources in Dental Hygiene
If you are looking for additional information on a future in the dentistry field, read our comprehensive dental career guide. It includes a variety of relevant topics such as job duties, common treatments, educational requirements, on-the-job training, typical hours, center duties, and dental assisting specialties. Additionally, you can find specific job information for dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and dental lab technicians in our guide.
Top Ranked Dental Hygiene Associations
National associations may be worth investigating for new students and current hygienists. To help expedite your search, we have included a list of the top three national associations in the dental field that support learning and networking for hygienists:
- American Dental Association (ADA)
- American Dental Hygienist's Association (ADHA)
- National Dental Hygienist's Association (NDHA)