Dental Assistants Vs. Dental Hygienists: What's the Difference?

While both dental assistants and dental hygienists work under the supervision of dentists, their roles in the dental office vary. Read ahead to learn about the job duties of these positions, along with career data, such as employment outlook and salary projections.

Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists: Career Differences

This difference between these two dental support positions centers on the tasks they're expected to perform and their level of interaction with patients. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that a dental assistant immediately aids a dentist, conducting office tasks and small, supervised jobs on patients' teeth, while a hygienist often works one-on-one with a patient.

Dental Assistant: Overview

Dental assistants perform both preparatory and break-down duties in the office. Some of these duties include disinfecting and laying out instruments for a dentist, obtaining patients' dental records, handing instruments to dentists during procedures and instructing patients on how to care for their teeth after they leave the dentist's office.

Dental assistants often prepare other materials for use by the dentist, such as x-ray machines, impression materials, anesthetics and cement. Other tasks may include office secretarial work such as billing patients, making sure payments are received and ordering dental supplies.

Career Information

Many states require the dental assistant to be licensed, especially if he or she will be working with x-ray machines. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) dental assistants made median annual wages of $34,500 per year as of May 2012 ( The BLS projected that these workers could expect a 25% rise in employment between 2012 and 2022.

Dental Hygienist: Overview

A dental hygienist performs tasks that are more advanced and independent; they now perform several tasks that were only done by dentists in the past. Their duties may include polishing patients' teeth, removing hard and soft deposits from teeth and using several tools to remove tartar, plaque and stains. Hygienists may also develop x-ray film.

Other tasks the hygienist may perform vary by state law. These may include administering anesthetic, applying fillings and removing sutures. Dental hygiene programs are often found at 2- and 4-year schools, and all U.S. states require the hygienist to graduate from one of these programs to practice dental hygiene.

Career Information

There is a high demand for dental hygienists, and the BLS projected 33% growth in the field between 2012 and 2020. As of May 2012, median annual earnings of dental hygienists were $70,210 according to the BLS.

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