What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

female dental assistant working on boy
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A dental hygienist provides preventative oral care under a supervision. He or she cleans patients' teeth and examines their mouths for signs of damage, gingivitis , and other disease. Hygienists teach patients how to maintain good oral health. Their scope of practice—what services they are legally allowed to deliver—differs according to the rules of the state in which they work.

Dental Hygienist Duties & Responsibilities

This job requires candidates to be able to perform duties that include the following:

  • Clean and remove stains, plaque, and tartar from teeth
  • Apply flourides and sealants for tooth protection
  • Take dental x-rays and develop them
  • Document treatment plans and care performed on patients
  • Examine each patient's oral health and communicate findings to dentists
  • Educate patients on how to care for their teeth with good oral hygiene, including proper brushing and flossing

Dental hygienists must also use several tools as part of their job. This includes hand, power, and ultrasonic tools for cleaning and polishing teeth, and x-ray machines for taking patient x-rays to check for issues with teeth and jaws. They may also use lasers.

Dental Hygienist Salary

  • : $74,070 ($35.61/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $101,330 ($48.72/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $51,180 ($24.61/hour)

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Quick Facts

  • 207,900 people work in this occupation (2016).
  • About half of all hygienists have part-time jobs in multiple dental practices.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has designated this a "Bright Outlook" occupation because of its exceptional . Employment, between 2016 and 2026, is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations.

Roles and Responsibilities

These are some typical job duties of dental hygienists found in job announcements on :

  • "Complete preliminary examinations on new dental service patients"
  • "Take X-rays of patients' teeth and develop them for dentist's use"
  • "Educate patient on office procedures and treatments"
  • "Complete dental prophylaxis by cleaning deposits and stains from teeth and from beneath gum margins"
  • "Evaluate overall oral health, examining oral cavity for signs of periodontal disease or possible cancers, including sores, recessed & bleeding gums, and oral lesions"
  • "Administer local anesthetics"
  • "Chart decay, disease, conditions, and any treatment recommended by dentist"
  • "Stock all needed supplies and maintain equipment"

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

To work as a dental hygienist, graduation from an accredited dental hygiene school with either an (most common), a certificate, a bachelor's degree, or a master's degree is required. You can search for accredited programs in the U.S. or Canada on the website.

You also need a from the dental board in the state in which you want to practice. After graduation, you will have to pass a written exam and clinical exam. Consult individual state dental boards to learn about specific requirements. The American Dental Association website features a .

What Soft Skills Do You Need?

People who possess certain characteristics are better suited for this occupation than are others. In addition to your degree and license, you will need the following :

  • Compassion: Those who work in this occupation, as well as others in the healthcare field, need a desire to help people.
  • Manual Dexterity: Excellent fine motor skills are needed to grasp instruments and work inside patients' mouths. 
  • Interpersonal Skills: When dealing with patients, you must be able to relate to them, recognize when they are uncomfortable or anxious, and reassure them.
  • Attention to Detail: Without the ability to pay attention to detail, it will be impossible to perform several aspects of your job including noticing stains and other treatable issues during cleanings and, while examining patients' teeth, detecting potential health problems requiring the dentist's attention.
  • Physical Stamina: Excellent stamina is essential since dental hygienists spend a lot of time on their feet.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for dental hygienists over the next decade relative to other occupations and industries is strong, driven by an aging population that needs more dental care.

Employment is expected to grow by about 20 percent over the next ten years, which is faster growth than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026. Growth for other health technologist and technician jobs is projected to grow slightly slower, at 14 percent over the next ten years.

These growth rates compare to the projected 7 percent growth for all occupations. Although the demand for dental care services will continue to grow, the number of new graduates is also increasing, creating more competition for jobs. Job seekers that have some previous work experience may have the best results with their job search.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

Dental practices, in addition to requiring specific technical skills, expect their workers to meet other requirements. Here are some that we found in actual job announcements on :

  • "Must have a desire to challenge themselves with new and cutting-edge technologies"
  • "Well presented and in demeanor"
  • "Must be a team player and have an outgoing personality"
  • "Be passionate about helping people"
  • "Proactive and will recognize areas of concern above and beyond periodontal disease"
  • "Ability to focus in fast-paced environment"

What Is the Difference Between Dental Hygienists and Dental Assistants?

Dental hygienists and , while both work in dental practices under dentists' supervision, differ in their job duties, educational requirements, and earnings, as well as the number of hours they typically work. Dental assistants escort patients to exam and treatment rooms, prepare them for examinations and procedures, and sterilize instruments and hand them to dentists. They also schedule appointments and keep records and may take and develop X-rays. Unlike dental hygienists, they do not clean or examine patients' teeth, but in some states, they are allowed to apply sealants and fluoride.

Dental assistants don't spend as much time in school as hygienists. In some states', they must complete a year-long program at a community college or vocational school, while in others only on-the-job training is mandatory.

Dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $37,630 or $18.09 per hour (2017), only slightly more than half of what hygienists made. Unlike hygienists, their jobs were usually full-time.

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Do a to learn about your interests, personality type, and work-related values. These traits can predict whether an occupation will be a good fit for an individual. Do you have the following traits? If so, you may find career satisfaction by being a dental hygienist.

  • Interests (): SRC (Social, Realistic, Conventional)
  • Personality Type (): ISTJ, , , , ,
  • : Relationships, Support, Independence

Quiz: 

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in optometry also consider the following career paths, listed with their median annual salaries:

  • Dental Assistant: $37,630
  • Dentist: $158,120
  • Medical Assistant: $32,480

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