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Registered Dental Hygienist: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a registered dental hygienist. Get a quick view of the requirements - including job duties, degree programs and licensing - to see if this is the career for you.

A dental hygienist's job straddles the line between aesthetics and health, and their duties are more extensive and independent than those of a dental assistant. At minimum, the position requires a solid postsecondary education and the ability to pass national and regional examinations in order to be licensed and/or certified.

Essential Information

Dental hygienists are skilled healthcare workers who typically work in dentists' offices. They must be trained in techniques, skills and concepts of dental care and need to gain state licensure. Their job duties center around cleaning patients' teeth and giving instruction in proper dental hygiene. This may be a good career for those who enjoy working directly with people and have an interest in healthcare jobs.

Required Education Associate's degree
Licensing Requirements Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 19%
Average Salary (2015)* $72,720

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Dental Hygienist Job Description

Dental hygienists work under the supervision of licensed dentists. They are not qualified to make the same kind of diagnostic decisions or perform the same procedures as dentists. Instead, they perform basic dental care tasks, mostly focused on keeping patients' teeth and gums clean. Unlike dental assistants, who work directly with dentists, hygienists often see patients on their own and direct their own tasks. They work in close physical proximity to their patients and spend a lot of work time around other people, including patients and other office staff.

Dental Hygienist Duties

Most hygienists' daily duties include removing plaque from and polishing a patient's teeth during a routine checkup, screening patients, reviewing a patient's oral health history and teaching appropriate brushing and flossing techniques. They also use X-ray machines to take pictures of the teeth and develop the film for the dentist's analysis.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists might be able to perform additional tasks depending on the rules and regulations governing the profession in their state. The additional tasks named by the BLS include administering anesthesia, removing stitches, sculpting materials to fill cavities and working with metal tooth components.

Dental Hygienist Requirements

To legally work as a dental hygienist in the United States, a person must obtain a license from the state where he or she will work. According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association, licensure in most states depends on graduating from an accredited degree program, passing a national exam for licensure and passing a state or region-specific exam.

Education Requirements

Aspiring dental hygienists can attend accredited programs at community colleges, vocational schools and universities. The BLS reports that credentials awarded by dental hygienist programs range from certificates to associate, bachelor's and master's degrees. The BLS says that the most common degree in dental hygiene programs is the associate degree, which may take two years of full-time study.

Required courses in dental hygiene programs often include anatomy, physiology, chemistry, clinical sciences and pharmacology. There are more than 300 dental hygiene programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association.

Requirements for Dental Hygiene School

Applicants to hygienist programs must have a high school diploma or equivalent and usually need to have excelled in biology, chemistry, math and health courses during high school, according to the American Dental Association. Some bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene require students to have two years of junior college before applying.

Testing Requirements

To become a licensed dental hygienist, the graduate must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, which is a comprehensive written examination. Part of the test assesses the test-taker's knowledge of scientific principles and facts relating to dental hygiene. Another part asks the future hygienist to assess case study patients, based on charts and photographs, and select appropriate treatment for them.

After passing the national exam, the candidate usually must take a regional dental hygiene exam. This exam typically involves a demonstration of clinical skill. The candidate removes tartar, plaque or calculus from the teeth of an actual person. He or she also checks for pockets between teeth and gums, which would indicate possible infection or inflammation.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average annual salary earned by dental hygienists was $72,720 in 2015. The BLS predicts a much faster than average job growth of 19% from 2014-2024 for these professionals.

Earning an associate's degree in dental hygiene through an accredited program is the most common way to enter this field, although some bachelor's degree programs are also available. You must then sit for the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, followed by a regional or state examination.

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