DENTAL Hygienists

What is a Dental Hygienist?

The American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA) defines dental hygienists as oral health professionals who are responsible for preventing and treating oral diseases. Regardless of the state in which they practice, dental hygienists must be state licensed, which requires graduating from a college or university dental hygienist program and passing a written national board examination and state clinical examination.

Unlike dental assistants, whose job duties must generally be performed under the direct supervision of a licensed dentist, dental hygienists perform much of their work independently, with only general supervision from a licensed dentist.

Dental hygienists are an important part of dentist-led teams. Their work removes a considerable burden from the dentist, freeing up the dentist to perform more advanced procedures. Therefore, it is quite common for dental hygienists to perform many of the preventive dental procedures in an office, such as teeth cleaning and fluoride application.


Responsibilities and Job Duties of Dental Hygienists

These state-licensed dental health professionals may be allowed different responsibilities and duties depending on the state in which they practice. However, basic services performed by dental hygienists, according to the American Dental Association (ADA), include:

  • Applying preventative materials to the teeth (fluorides and sealants)
  • Counseling/educating patients on oral hygiene strategies and good nutrition
  • Making impressions for study casts
  • Patient screenings, including oral health assessments, oral health history review, oral cancer screening, head and neck inspections, and taking of vital signs
  • Performing documentation and office management
  • Removing calculus and plaque from teeth
  • Taking and developing dental radiographs

In addition to the above-named job functions, state requirements may allow these dental professionals to perform duties under either direct or general supervision of a licensed dentist. For example:

In Arizona, dental hygienists are permitted to perform prophylaxis, x-rays, topical anesthesia, fluoride, and pit and fissure sealants with the prior authorization of a licensed dentist, although the dentist need not be present when the services are performed. These licensed dental professionals are also allowed to perform the following under a dentist’s direct supervision:

  • Local anesthesia
  • Administration of nitrous oxide
  • Placing and removing periodontal dressings
  • Placing and removing sutures
  • Soft tissue curettage

California dental hygienists, on the other hand, are permitted to perform all of the above job duties under the general supervision of a licensed dentist, with the exception of the administration of local anesthesia, the administration of nitrous oxide, and soft tissue curettage, which must be performed under direct supervision.

Some states, like Georgia, have much stricter laws in place regarding the allowable duties of dental hygienists. For example, dental hygienists in Georgia are not allowed to perform the following:

  • X-rays

  • Local anesthesia

  • Administration of nitrous oxide

  • Placing sutures

  • Treatment planning

They are, however, permitted to perform the following tasks under direct supervision:

  • Prophylaxis

  • Topical anesthesia

  • Fluoride treatment

  • Pit and fissures sealants

  • Root planning

  • Soft tissue curettage

  • Removing sutures

  • Placing and removing periodontal dressings

On the other end of the spectrum, dental hygienists in Kansas have a much broader list of allowable job duties, with most functions permitted to be performed under the general supervision of a licensed dentist. The only function that needs to be completed under the direct supervision of a licensed dentist in Kansas is the administration of local anesthesia, and the only function not allowed to be performed is the placement of sutures.


Education, Training, and Licensing Requirements for Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists generally receive their education through colleges and universities, dental schools, junior colleges, and technical schools. The minimum requirement for state licensure of dental hygienists is an associate degree, which takes about two years to complete. The conclusion of any dental hygiene program is a clinical externship, which allows students to apply their skills and knowledge in a dental care setting through supervised patient experiences.

An associate’s degree in dental hygiene allows dental hygienists to take the state-required licensure examinations and become state licensed, which is a requirement in all states.

Beyond an associate’s degree, dental hygienists often pursue college or university programs that result in a bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene. Upon completion of an associate’s degree in dental hygiene, dental hygienists can expect to complete a bachelor’s degree program in another two years, and a master’s degree in another four years. Although advanced degrees in dental hygiene are not required to practice dental hygiene, they may be required or preferred for careers in teaching or research or for clinical practice in schools or public health programs.

The American Dental Association’s (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) serves as the sole accrediting body for dental hygiene programs in the United States. There are currently 330 CODA-accredited dental hygiene programs throughout the country.


Examination and Licensure for Dental Hygienists

In addition to achieving an associate’s degree in dental hygiene from an accredited institution, individuals interested in becoming dental hygienists must successfully pass a state-authorized licensure examination, as well as the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. Generally, the national examination assesses a candidate’s knowledge of the practice of dental assisting, while state or regional examinations are typically designed to assess a hygienist’s clinical skills.

Other typical requirements for state licensure as a dental hygienist include the successful completion of a state jurisprudence examination and CPR certification.

A state license is required to legally practice dental hygiene in the U.S. Dental hygienists who achieve state licensure are permitted to use the acronym RDH to identify themselves as Registered Dental Hygienists.

Dental hygienists discuss diet and other topics that affect a patient’s dental health.

Dental hygienists held about 207,900 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of dental hygienists were as follows:

Offices of dentists 95%
Government 1
Offices of physicians 1

Dental hygienists wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. When taking x rays, they follow strict procedures to protect themselves and patients from radiation.


Work Schedules

About half of dental hygienists worked part-time. Dentists often hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.


How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists remove tartar and plaque from teeth.

Dental hygienists typically need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Programs typically take 3 years to complete. All states require dental hygienists to be licensed; requirements vary by state.

Education for Dental hygienists

Dental hygienists typically need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in dental hygiene also are available but are less common. A bachelor’s or master’s degree usually is required for research, teaching, or clinical practice in public or school health programs.

Dental hygiene programs are commonly found in community colleges, technical schools, and universities. In 2018, the Commission on Dental Accreditation, part of the American Dental Association, accredited more than 300 dental hygiene programs.

Programs typically take 3 years to complete and offer laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction. Areas of study include physiology, nutrition, radiography, pathology, medical ethics, anatomy, patient management, and periodontics, which is the study of gum disease.

High school students interested in becoming dental hygienists should take courses in biology, chemistry, and math. Most dental hygiene programs also require applicants to complete prerequisites, which often include college-level courses. Specific requirements vary by school.


Important Qualities dental hygienists

Critical thinking. Dental hygienists must use critical thinking skills in order to assess and evaluate patients.

Communication skills. Dental hygienists must accurately communicate with dentists and patients about oral health status, oral hygiene care plans, and, as needed, lifestyle counseling.

Detail oriented. Dental hygienists must follow specific rules and protocols to help dentists diagnose and treat a patient. Depending on the state in which they work and/or the treatment provided, dental hygienists may work without the direct supervision of a dentist.

Dexterity. Dental hygienists must be good at working with their hands. They generally work in tight quarters on a small part of the body, requiring fine motor skills using very precise tools and instruments.

Interpersonal skills. Dental hygienists must work closely with dentists and patients. Some patients are in extreme pain or have fears about undergoing dental treatment, and the hygienist must be sensitive to their emotions.

Problem-solving skills. Dental hygienists develop and implement oral hygiene care plans to maintain or improve patients’ oral health.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Dental Hygienists

Every state requires dental hygienists to be licensed; requirements vary by state. In most states, a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program and passing grades on written and clinical examinations are required for licensure. To maintain licensure, hygienists must complete continuing education requirements. For specific requirements, contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.

Many jobs also require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification.


What is the average annual salary for Dental Hygienist?

How much does a Dental Hygienist make?

The median annual Dental Hygienist salary is $71,092, as of March 01, 2018, with a range usually between $61,023$80,924, however, this can vary widely depending on a variety of factors. Our team of Certified Compensation Professionals has analyzed survey data collected from thousands of HR departments at companies of all sizes and industries to present this range of annual salaries for people with the job title Dental Hygienist in the United States.


Dental hygienists


Health technologists and technicians


Total, all occupations



Note: All Occupations includes all occupations in the U.S. Economy.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics

The median annual wage for dental hygienists was $72,910. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $50,870, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $100,170.

The median annual wages for dental hygienists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Offices of dentists $73,190
Offices of physicians 69,410
Government 57,790

Benefits, such as vacation, sick leave, and retirement contributions vary by employer and may be available only to full-time workers.

About half of dental hygienists worked part-time. Dentists often hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.



Career opportunities for dental hygienists have increased in response to society’s demands for comprehensive dental health care. Increasing numbers of dental hygienists are working in expanded career alternative settings including dental hygiene education, school systems, public health, hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities, clinical research, military services, sales and private industry, research organizations, health promotion specialties, federal, state, and local health departments, and foreign employment. The selection of a career is one of the most important decisions a person makes; therefore, it is important that potential students be fully informed about the profession and educational requirements. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association publishes important facts about dental hygiene education, professional roles, employment, licensure, national and international careers.

Career Advantages for Dental Hygienists

Dental hygiene offers the following challenges and rewards:

Personal satisfaction: One of the most enjoyable aspects of a career in dental hygiene is working with people. Personal fulfillment comes from providing a valuable healthcare service while establishing trusting relationships with patients.

Prestige: As a result of their education and clinical training in a highly skilled discipline, dental hygienists are respected as valued members of the oral health care team.

Variety: Dental hygienists use a variety of interpersonal and clinical skills to meet the oral health needs of many different patients each day. Hygienists have opportunities to help special population groups such as children, the elderly and the disabled. They may also provide oral health instruction in primary and secondary schools and other settings.

Creativity: Because dental hygienists interact with such diverse population groups, they must be creative in their approach to patient management and oral health education.

Flexibility: The flexibility offered by full- and part-time employment options and availability of evening and weekend hours enable dental hygienists to balance their career and lifestyle needs. Hygienists also have opportunities to work in a wide variety of settings including private dental practices, educational and community institutions, research teams and dental corporations.

Security: The services that dental hygienists provide are needed and valued by a large percentage of the population. There is currently a great demand for dental hygienists. Employment opportunities will be excellent well into the future. Due to the success of preventive dentistry in reducing the incidence of oral disease, the expanding older population will retain their teeth longer and will be even more aware of the importance of regular dental care. With the emphasis on preventive care, dentists will need to employ more dental hygienists than ever before to meet the increased demand for dental services.

Opportunities for Dental Hygienists

Hygienists are in demand in general dental practices and in specialty practices such as periodontics or pediatric dentistry. They also may be employed to provide dental hygiene services for patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and public health clinics.

Depending upon the level of education and experience achieved, dental hygienists, can apply their skills and knowledge to other career activities such as teaching hygiene students in dental schools and dental hygiene education programs. Research, office management, and business administration are other career options. Employment opportunities also may be available with companies that market dental-related materials and equipment.


Leave a Reply