Dental Hygienist: Educational Requirements for Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists are required to have at least some post-secondary education, although the amount varies considerably. Learn about the educational, job, and licensure requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

A dental hygienist position usually requires an associate's degree, although certificate programs are another educational option. Hygienists may choose to pursue a bachelor's or master's degree, especially if they are seeking career advancement or a teaching position. State licensure is mandatory and usually involves completing coursework and passing an exam.

Essential Information

Dental hygienists assist dentists by cleaning patients' teeth and helping to prepare patients for more involved dental procedures. While dental hygiene programs are available from certificate through master's levels, most hygienists hold a two-year degree from schools approved by the American Dental Association (ADA). All states require licensure in order to practice.

Required Education Associate's degree; certificate, bachelor's and master's degree programs are available
Other Requirements Licensure required in all states; most states mandate the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 19% for dental hygienists*
Median Salary (2015) $72,330 for dental hygienists*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Educational Requirements

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), while some dental hygienists enter the field with a certificate, an associate's degree is the most common level of education among dental hygienists (www.bls.gov). Those who hold bachelor's or master's degrees are generally eligible for upper-level positions in public health or education. The American Dental Association's (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation approved 270 dental hygiene programs, as of 2013.

Associate's Degree

Available at community colleges, dental schools and technical institutions, associate's degree programs in dental hygiene typically comprise two years of full-time study. Coursework focuses on technical dental applications, combining classroom instruction with hands-on training in laboratory and clinical settings. Core courses often include pre-clinical hygiene, orofacial anatomy, dental radiology, preventive care, pharmacology and periodontics.

Advanced Degrees

Dental hygienists can pursue career advancement by earning a bachelor's and/or master's degree, which typically is required for clinical practice, teaching and research positions. Some bachelor's degree programs require applicants to complete two years of prerequisite coursework before granting admission. These baccalaureate programs consist of two years of upper-level instruction, including clinical seminars, practicums and courses in dental hygiene procedures. Master's degree programs typically focus on research and theory in the field and require completion of clinical practicums and a thesis project.


To serve in the profession, dental hygienists must obtain licensure from their state's board of dentistry. In most states, licensure entails completion of an accredited dental hygiene program. Candidates must also pass a state-administered clinical exam and - in all states except Alabama - the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, a written exam administered by the ADA. Most states also require passage of an additional exam that covers dental law.

Salary and Career Outlook

The BLS estimates a 19% job growth for dental hygienists for the decade of 2014-2024 which is considerably faster than for the job market as a whole. Hygienists earned a median annual salary of $72,330 in May, 2015, according to the BLS.

One may practice as a dental hygienist with an associate's degree and state licensure, or a certificate and state licensure. Those seeking research or teaching positions would benefit from obtaining a bachelor's or master's degree. This is a career option with many job positions available.

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