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Dental Hygienist Careers

Dental hygienists interact with clients, dental assistants, dentists and office management personnel and most frequently work in clean and well-lit offices. Some support dentists who specialize in pediatric or geriatric dentistry or periodontists who specialize in gums and the bone structure that supports teeth. Hygienists perform certain procedures such as teeth cleaning independently and may also be called upon to do preliminary workups and prep work when assisting the dentist in more complex procedures. Depending on state regulations and the individual dental practice, they may gather information about the patient visit, review and update patient files, make tooth impressions, administer local anesthesia or take preliminary x-rays.

Most dental hygienists use a range of equipment, including dental probes and scalars, teeth polishers and dental lasers. Hygienists often use technology such as dental charting software programs. Hygienists may have work-related health concerns, however, these have largely been addressed by advances in dentistry techniques and equipment as well as safety precautions. Many dental hygienists work part time, which can provide a balance between their professional and personal lives. Dental hygienists can experience job satisfaction knowing they contribute to a patient's general well-being -- there's a direct relationship between oral and overall health, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

While employment cannot be guaranteed, the following steps can provide a general blueprint for becoming a dental hygienist:

  1. Prepare by taking high school classes in health, biology, psychology, chemistry and mathematics
  2. Obtain a high school diploma or equivalent
  3. Take a physical examination that includes current immunizations and a tuberculosis clearance
  4. Receive a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certificate
  5. Pass a criminal background check
  6. Satisfy other prerequisites for training programs, which could include a minimum grade point average and Scholarship Aptitude Test (SAT) scores as well as letters of recommendation
  7. Complete one of the dental hygiene training programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association
  8. Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Exam and/or other required examinations.
  9. Contact the appropriate state dental board for specific licensing requirements

Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensing

Licensing for dental hygienists is controlled by individual state dental boards, and regulations vary. Most states require completion of one of the dental hygiene training programs accredited by agencies such as the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association, in addition to other qualifications such as professional examinations.

Dental hygienists must renew their licenses regularly, and the American Dental Hygienists' Association notes that continuing education is often required for license renewal. License renewal may involve other state requirements such as an updated CPR certification. Individual states may also allow hygienists to perform procedures that are usually allocated to the dentist, such as administering local anesthesia, and additional education and certification may be required.

Dental Hygienist Job Growth and Average Salary

Nationwide employment for dental hygienists is projected to increase by up to 38 percent between 2010 and 2020, which would be much faster than average growth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Growth in dental hygiene jobs is attributed to a rising demand for the preventative dental care and new dental diagnostic technology. Most dental hygiene jobs are in private dental practices although a small number of hygienists work for other health practitioners, outpatient and ambulatory healthcare centers and employment services. (bls.gov/ooh)

In 2012, the median annual dental hygienist salary was $70,210 in the U.S., while the bottom 10 percent earned less than $46,540 and the top 10 percent earned more than $96,280. Dental hygienist salary can vary based on considerations such as location, work experience and education. (bls.gov/oes)

List of Related Careers

Those interested in becoming dental hygienists may wish to pursue similar career avenues, which have their own education and experience requirements. Examples include:

  • Dental Assistant: Cares for patients and performs administrative and recordkeeping tasks. Education requirements can include postsecondary training plus a state exam.
  • Medical Assistant: Provides certain types of patient care and offers administrative support such as recordkeeping. Requires a high school diploma or equivalent but associate degrees are becoming more prevalent.
  • Registered Nurse: Oversees diverse aspects of patient care, which may include health education and counseling for patients and their families. An associate degree is a common qualification.

Links to Sources and Associations

Websites such as the following offer more information about dental hygienists:

American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation

American Dental Education Association

American Dental Hygienists' Association

Dental Hygienists, Occupational Employment and Wages, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

Dental Hygienists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

Dental Hygienists, O*Net Online

Mayo Clinic

National Dental Hygienists Association