What Are Dental Hygienists?
The wide-ranging responsibilities of dental hygienists include making sure that patients are comfortable and at ease. Other duties involve reviewing and updating patient files and medical histories. Hygienists also perform examinations of gums and teeth for signs of periodontal disease. They clean plaque, calculus, stains and other deposits from teeth and beneath gums, and they sterilize, sharpen and maintain dental equipment. They may support dentists by charting patient diagnosis and treatment plans and assisting them during more complex dental procedures.
Education and communication are important elements of the career, as hygienists provide preventative dental care and advise patients on proper nutrition and brushing and flossing techniques. Depending on the dental practice and state regulations, these professionals could also take and develop x-rays or make dental impressions. Some states allow dental hygienists to administer anesthesia. For more information, see our dental hygienist career page.
Dental Hygienist Programs
Dental hygiene programs are available at vocational schools, community colleges, dental schools, and four-year colleges and universities. Coursework could cover anatomy, physiology, nutrition, radiography and the study of gum disease. Most schools provide laboratory, clinical and subject-matter instruction. The clinical practice component may include supervised dental and educational patient care at various locations, for example, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, veterans' administration hospitals, county public health departments and local schools.
Programs offered in hybrid format combine online coursework with an on-site clinical practice component. Clinical practice may not be included in fully online programs that help prepare students for research or graduate studies rather than a career as a practicing dental hygienist.
Prerequisites for dental hygiene programs differ but can include minimum grade point average and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, as well as coursework such as health, biology, psychology, chemistry and mathematics. Applicants may need a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certificate, a physical examination, current immunizations and a tuberculosis clearance. Some programs also request a criminal background check.
Dental Hygienist Courses and Program Types
A variety of dental hygiene training programs are available, although the associate degree is typically needed to practice as a hygienist. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that a bachelor's or master's degree is the usual qualification for teaching, research or clinical practice in public or school health programs. Possible programs include these:
- Certificate: While not common, two-year certificate programs can help prepare students for dental hygienist duties. BLS.gov notes that some professionals practicing in private dental offices hold a certificate.
- Associate degree: The most common dental hygiene training, these programs typically lead to an Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree and take about two years of full-time study to complete. Dental assistants may opt to pursue part-time studies while continuing to work.
- Bachelor's degree: These programs normally take about four years of full-time study or two years beyond an associate degree. Two tracks are available, with one designed for students who already have a dental hygiene degree and want to complete the requirements for a bachelor's degree. The second track provides dental hygiene studies for students without prior training.
- Master's degree: Some dental hygienists are interested in moving into healthcare/dental management and leadership or postsecondary academic teaching and research. These students generally need an additional two years of full-time study to complete a master's degree program.
College coursework can include general education classes in the humanities, social sciences, English composition and public speaking, which could potentially help students develop communication skills for working with clients. Aspiring dental hygienists also explore subjects such as nutrition, sciences, clinical sciences, statistics and courses specific to dental hygiene.
Post-Education Requirements: Certification and/or State Licensing
All dental hygienists must be licensed, according to BLS.gov, although specific regulations are set by individual state health boards. Most states require completion of an accredited dental hygiene training program such as those approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association. The American Dental Hygienists Association describes typical licensure requirements including the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination as well as regional or state clinical board exams to demonstrate clinical skills and knowledge of dental hygiene. Dental hygienists may need to participate in continuing education to renew their licenses.
Dental Hygiene Course Descriptions
The curriculum for dental hygiene training may vary depending on the school and the program or degree level. Common courses could include the following:
- Anatomy and physiology: Overview of the functions of the major organs in the body and the anatomy of the head and neck, with an emphasis on bones, nerves and the circulatory system.
- Chemistry: Study of organic and biochemistry as they pertain to anatomy, nutrition, pharmacology and microbiology.
- Dental hygiene theory: Orientation to disease prevention, examination techniques and medical histories.
- Dental materials: Study of impression materials and abrasive agents including physical properties.
- Fundamentals of radiology: Introduction to radiological procedures including safety precautions and film processing.
List of Related Careers For Dental Hygienists
Dental hygienists may be interested in a variety of related careers in healthcare and other environments. Possible career paths may require additional experience or education, for example:
- Educator: Oversee and participate in education programs in the community, continuing education classes or teach at the college or university level.
- Researcher: Conduct research in various contexts, for example, in local, state and national public health agencies or academic or corporate settings.
- Administrator: Options can include dental office manager or insurance review expert.
Links to Sources and Associations
Websites such as the following offer more information about dental hygienists: