How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Learn how to become a dental hygienist. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in dental hygiene.

Do I Want to Be a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists are oral health professionals who work under the supervision of licensed dentists. Along with teaching patients proper oral hygiene, they may conduct patient assessments, oral inspections and teeth cleanings. Hygienists often work in general and specialty dental clinics but may also find employment in hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities. Precautions must be taken to prevent the spread of infectious disease and when working with x-rays. Many hours standing or leaning over patients is often required.

Job Requirements

An associate's degree is the typical level of education for these professionals; a state license is also required. The following chart summarizes the core requirements for dental hygienists.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Most dental hygienists earn an associate's degree; some may complete certificate, bachelor's degree or master's degree programs*
Degree Field Dental hygiene*
Licensure All 50 states require dental hygienists to be licensed*
Key Skills Dexterity, interpersonal skills*, decision-making skills, critical-thinking skills**
Computer Skills Dental-billing software, dental-charting software, dental office management software, Henry Schein Dentrix software**
Technical Skills Experience with dental x-ray machines, teeth cleaning devices, dental scalers, lasers and probes**
Additional Skills Physical stamina is necessary since dental hygienists often stand working on patients for long periods of time*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Dental hygienists usually hold an associate's degree, such as an Associate of Applied Science, in dental hygiene. Two-year degree programs are available at community colleges, vocational institutes or dental schools, and prepare students for careers through both classroom and clinical instruction. Courses may include oral pathology, dental materials, radiology, infection control, pain management, periodontics, community dental health and pharmacology.

Success Tips:

  • Develop solid interpersonal skills. Dental hygienists work with patients on a daily basis and often have to explain dental procedures. Hygienists must also be compassionate since patients may be in severe pain or be fearful of dental procedures. Working with instructors and students in clinical courses can help to strengthen these skills.
  • Learn to use good body mechanics. Dental hygienists are at high risk of occupational injury due to long periods of being in awkward physical positions when working with patients. While in school, be sure to get training on the risks and preventative techniques that can help keep you healthy. If your school doesn't have a body mechanics course, there may be options online.

Step 2: Pass the Licensing Exam

Dental hygienists must be licensed in all U.S. states. Eligibility requirements vary, but nearly all states call for applicants to hold postsecondary credentials from accredited dental hygiene programs. Other requirements can include CPR certification, school transcripts and/or letters of recommendation. Qualified candidates sit for the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, a written exam administered by the American Dental Association, and then complete a regional or state clinical board examination.

Step 3: Consider an Advanced Degree

While associate's degrees are enough for most dental hygienist positions, some hygienists earn higher degrees as a way to advance their careers. Bachelor's and master's degrees in dental hygiene may qualify hygienists for careers beyond the dental office, such as in teaching and research. Additionally, advanced degrees may be necessary for some positions in public health or school clinics.

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