How to Become a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH)

Find out how to become a registered dental hygienist (RDH). Research the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in dental hygiene.

Do I Want to Be a Registered Dental Hygienist?

Registered dental hygienists (RDHs) are licensed oral health professionals who provide preventative dental care services and oral health care assessments. They work closely with dental assistants and dentists, but they are primarily responsible for cleaning teeth and performing dental examinations. They also might take and develop x-rays. An RDH educates patients and instructs them how to properly perform essential oral health techniques, such as brushing and flossing. Protective garb is required to prevent the spread of infectious disease and for safety from x-rays. Many hours might be spent standing and leaning over patients.

Job Requirements

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an associate degree in dental hygiene is the typical educational requirement to pursue work in the field, in addition to meeting state licensing requirements. The following table contains the core requirements for RDHs.

Common Requirements
Degree Level An associate degree is standard; a master's degree is needed for careers in teaching and research*
Degree Field Dental hygiene*
Licensure Licensing required in all states*
Experience None is required, but some employers may prefer candidates with 1-2 years of job experience**
Key Skills Strong interpersonal and communication skills, detail oriented, ability to work in small spaces, compassionate and sensitive to the emotions of patients*, ability to perform basic mathematical operations**
Technical Skills Operating powered cleaning instruments and x-ray machines*
Additional Requirements CPR certification and valid driver's license**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ** job postings (July 2012).

Step 1: Meet Requirements for Program Entry

Dental hygiene degree programs often have minimum ACT score and GPA requirements. They also typically require applicants to take specific college courses before being granted admission. Common prerequisite courses include anatomy and physiology, chemistry, English, mathematics, microbiology, sociology and psychology.

Success Tip

  • Use high school classes to prepare for program applications. Dental hygiene degree programs are highly competitive. To stand out, high school students interested in earning associate degrees in dental hygiene should perform well in their classes, particularly in mathematics, chemistry and biology.
  • Have a competitive GPA in prerequisite college courses. According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association, 74% of dental hygiene programs strongly consider college science GPA when admitting students. Having a high GPA is likely to be advantageous.

Step 2: Complete a Dental Hygiene Degree Program

An associate degree in dental hygiene is the most common educational path, although some employers prefer dental hygienists with bachelor's degrees. Coursework in a dental hygiene degree program typically includes head and neck anatomy, dental radiology, dental anatomy, oral pathology, periodontology, pharmacology and dental materials.

These programs also require hands-on clinical and laboratory courses. Students learn to use dental equipment and practice techniques on dentistry manikins and then patients, under the supervision of instructors. Some of the subjects covered include examining patients, removing plaque deposits, treating periodontal disease, administering nitrous oxide and exposing radiographs.

Success Tip

  • Develop people and communication skills. These skills are necessary to interact effectively with patients and staff members and to be successful as an RDH. While in school, students can take advantage of courses in speech and psychology. These courses can help them develop the strong verbal and interpersonal skills that are needed to excel in this field.

Step 3: Become Licensed

All dental hygienists must meet state licensing requirements. After graduating from an accredited dental hygiene program, one must pass the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and complete a clinical board examination at either the regional or the state level. Continuing education courses must be taken throughout one's career to maintain licensure.

Since state licensing requirements can vary, an individual may have to complete additional steps before becoming licensed. Some states may require CPR certification and a jurisprudence exam, while others may request college transcripts and letters of recommendation from dentists.

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