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Hygienist: Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a dental hygienist. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about schooling, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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Healthy teeth and gums are so important: they help us eat and they make our smiles look terrific. A dental hygienist's work is to keep patients' teeth clean and check for any signs of trouble with their gums. An associate's degree is needed to work in this field, as well as successful completion of licensing exams in the state where you want to get a job.

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Essential Information

Dental hygienists clean patients' teeth and examine their gums. Aspiring dental hygienists typically need an associate's degree in dental hygiene, which consists of a mix of clinical, classroom and laboratory education; some bachelor's degree and certificate programs are also available. After completing the dental hygiene program, individuals need to take the clinical and written examinations required to obtain state licensure.

Required Education Associate's degree in dental hygiene
Other Requirements State licensure
Projected Job Growth 19% from 2014-2024*
Median Salary (2015) $72,330 annually*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Finish High School

All prospective dental hygienist students must earn a high school diploma or its equivalent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that courses in mathematics, chemistry and biology may help prepare students for postsecondary training (www.bls.gov).

Step 2: Complete a Dental Hygienist Program

The Commission on Dental Accreditation approves dental hygiene programs nationwide. To practice in the field, most aspiring dental hygienists complete an associate's degree in dental hygiene. Postsecondary institutions also offer bachelor's degrees and certificates in dental hygiene.

Dental hygiene programs offer a mixture of classroom, laboratory and clinical education. Students take courses in anatomy, oral pathology and periodontology. They also complete laboratory exercises along with clinical experiences in which they may interact with patients and learn to perform basic dental procedures.

Step 3: Obtain Licensure

All states require dental hygienists to be licensed, which generally includes graduating from an accredited dental hygiene school and passing written and clinical examinations. The American Dental Association's Joint Commission on Dental Examinations offers two written examinations that are accepted by nearly all states, with the exception of Alabama, which doesn't require it. Each state board has its own respective clinical exam, and some states require candidates to complete a test on legal aspects within the field.

Step 4: Gain Employment

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that from 2014-24, job openings for dental hygienists were expected to grow by 19%, which is well above that of the average career. The majority of dental hygienists work in dental offices; however, some also work in the offices of physicians, outpatient care services and general hospitals. As of May 2015, dental hygienists earned a median annual income of $72,330, per the BLS.

You can start working towards a career as a dental hygienist in high school by focusing on courses in science and math, which will help you complete the necessary associate's degree. You'll learn both in the classroom and in a clinic setting, working with real patients to hone your skills and prepare for licensing exams. Demand for dental hygienists is expected to be high over the next decade and salaries are very good.

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