Dental hygienists remove plaque and tartar from patients’ teeth to prevent gingivitis, gum disease, and tooth decay. Some dental hygienists also help dentists during procedures like fillings and crowns.
Dental hygienists typically work in dental offices alongside dentists and dental surgeons. They are often the first point of contact for patient questions about oral health, and they may provide basic education on topics like tooth brushing and flossing. Dental hygienists also work with other dental staff to create personalized treatment plans for each patient.
According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA), more than 60 percent of dental hygienists work in private dental offices. Other employment settings include hospitals, schools and nursing homes.
Dental Hygienist Job Duties
Dental hygienists perform a wide range of duties including the following:
- Examining patients’ mouths to detect oral diseases such as gingivitis, periodontal disease, and oral cancers
- Informing patients of ways they can improve their dental health at home, such as with proper brushing and flossing techniques
- Performing routine x-rays as directed by the dentist or assisting with dental lab work as directed by the dentist
- Preventative dental care such as applying fluoride treatments, removing plaque, and examining teeth for signs of decay or infection
- Supervising and assisting less experienced dental assistants, cleaning teeth, and taking x-rays as needed
- Conducting oral cancer screenings and applying sealants, fluorides, or other restorative materials to protect teeth from decay
Dental Hygienist Salary & Outlook
The median annual wage for dental hygienists is $79,221. The top earners are making over $106,000 per year.
The number of jobs for dental hygienists is expected to grow faster than average over the next decade. As more people seek preventive dental care, dental hygienists will be in demand to keep teeth healthy with routine cleaning services.
Dental Hygienist Job Requirements
The requirements for dental hygienists are as follows:
Education: The minimum level of education needed to earn a license is an associate’s degree. Some hygienists choose to obtain a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, depending on their career goals. Course examples for these programs specialize in dental materials, advanced clinical concepts, and oral histo-pathology.
Training: In an associate’s degree program, dental hygiene students must complete a clinical internship in a dental office. This internship allows students to gain hands-on experience in a clinical setting under the supervision of a licensed dentist.
Certifications & Licenses: In many states, dental hygienists are required to obtain a license in order to practice. This license is known as a dental hygiene license and is obtained from the state board of dental examiners. Candidates must pass a national board exam in order to obtain the license.
Dental Hygienist Skills
The following skills are required for this job:
Dexterity: Hygienists use many different types of instruments while performing procedures such as cleaning teeth and applying sealants, so they must have steady hands in order to avoid making mistakes.
Interpersonal skills: Dental hygienists must be able to work well with patients, dentists, and other team members.
Communication skills: Dental hygienists must be able to communicate effectively with patients and dental professionals, clearly explain treatment options and make recommendations is crucial in this profession.
Detail oriented: Hygienists must pay close attention to detail in order to complete their tasks correctly. They must also be able to follow detailed instructions from the dentist during procedures.
Physical strength: Dental hygienists must be able to stand on their feet for long periods of time and lift heavy equipment and tools.
Visual acuity: This job requires good vision because hygienists need to see fine details in their work. For example, they may need to inspect x-rays or use microscopes when examining patients’ mouths.
Dental Hygienist Work Environment
Dental hygienists spend much of their day on their feet, working with patients in a clean room. They are exposed to many kinds of bacteria, but they don’t have the risk of exposure that dental surgeons do. Dental hygienists may have to lift heavy equipment and sometimes have to work standing up for long periods of time.
Careful work is needed to prevent injury from sharp tools used during treatment. Dental hygienists sometimes receive training in assisting dentists with procedures such as tooth extraction.
Dental Hygienist Career Advancement
Dental hygienists can advance in their careers by moving up in their companies, becoming a dental teacher, or pursuing further education to become a dentist.
To advance, look for opportunities to take on more responsibilities and gain experience. Start by taking extra classes and practicing your skills so you can demonstrate your mastery of them when applying for your next job. Focus on building your resume with specialties such as pediatric dentistry, orthodontics, periodontics, or implantology. These will help you stand out from other applicants and illustrate that you’re dedicated to improving your skillset.
After working several years as an entry-level hygienist, you may also be able to move into a role as a supervisor or administrative manager at a dental office. In these roles, you can manage office operations, control budgets, and train employees. The senior roles within dentistry typically require a graduate degree in management or business administration.
Dental Hygienist Trends
Here are three trends influencing how dental hygienists work. Dental hygienists will need to stay up-to-date on these developments to keep their skills relevant and maintain a competitive advantage in the workplace.
The Rise of Telehealth
Telehealth allows patients to access care without leaving their homes or offices, thereby reducing the need for dental appointments.
While telehealth isn’t quite as widespread as traditional in-office dental visits, it is rapidly gaining popularity among both patients and practitioners. The emergence of telehealth can be attributed to improvements in technology that allow doctors to offer same-day appointments, reduced costs for medical services, and an increase in demand for preventative healthcare.
Increased Value of Preventative Care
As preventative care becomes more important to consumers, dentists and dental hygienists will need to take a proactive approach to treatment, such as providing advice on how to properly brush and floss.
This is especially true for millennials who are concerned about the long-term effects of poor oral hygiene and want experts to give them personal guidance that they can trust.
Role of Mobile Apps in Dental Care
Mobile apps are becoming increasingly important in the dental field, especially as they can help hygienists streamline their work.
For example, mobile apps for tooth whitening can make it easier for hygienists to whiten teeth while also reducing costs for patients who would otherwise have to purchase expensive equipment at home.
Apps can also help prevent cavities by providing easy access to educational resources that explain how teeth should be cleaned and when patients should seek additional care.
How to Become a Dental Hygienist
1. Planning Your Career Path
Becoming a dental hygienist requires strong attention to detail and good communication skills. The work is demanding, but those who are passionate about helping others may find it rewarding. If you’re thinking about a career as a dental hygienist, it’s important to understand that this job is more than just teeth cleaning. You will also provide education and counseling for patients so they can maintain healthy oral hygiene habits at home.
2. Writing a Resume
The best resumes for dental hygienists should emphasize their ability to work with patients, both children and adults. Dentists are looking for employees who are reliable, have a positive attitude, and are good at building relationships with patients. You could highlight instances where you have displayed these skills.
You must provide a clear list of your technical dental hygienist skills and detail the specific equipment and software that you used. This will show that you have hands-on experience with current technologies and tools. Also, mention any relevant details of how you contributed to the overall success of the dental office.
3. Applying for Jobs
Since it’s a popular occupation, there are a lot of ways to find a job as a dental hygienist. You can use sites like Indeed, Monster, and CareerBuilder to find jobs in your area, but you’ll want to be selective when it comes to applying for positions. Before you do anything else, figure out what makes a great dentist office, and try to seek out organizations that have the type of environment you’d enjoy working in.
The next step is being active in the dental community. Take classes that offer certifications or certificates, join a local club for dental professionals, and attend local conferences. These efforts will help you become a known name in the industry, and when a job opens up in an organization you’d like to work for, you’ll already have a strong relationship with them. Remember to apply strategically, though—apply to jobs that you’re qualified for (for example, if you don’t have any clinical experience yet, don’t apply for a job that requires it). Be proactive, and get in touch with hiring managers directly—this can be done through social media or email.
4. Ace the Interview
The dental hygienist job interview is your chance to show your potential employer that you are an organized, motivated, and competent professional. When preparing for the interview, it is important to be able to explain your past experience with all aspects of dental hygiene, including treating patients, creating treatment plans, and working in a team environment. Demonstrate confidence in your skills by providing examples of when you have used them in a positive way. Also demonstrate that you can work well with patients and other professionals, especially dentists.
Be sure to ask questions about the dental office’s policies and procedures and about the specific role you will be filling. You can also ask questions about working hours, salary, and advancement opportunities.