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Dental Assistants Vs. Dental Hygienists: What's the Difference?

While both dental assistants and dental hygienists work under the supervision of dentists, their roles in the dental office vary. Learn about the job duties of these positions, along with career data, such as employment outlook and salary projections. View article »

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  • 0:56 Dental Assistants: Overview
  • 2:07 Dental Hygienists: Overview

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Dental Assistant & Hygienist Careers

Here you can learn about the differences between dental assistants and dental hygienists, as well as career information, like education requirements, salary, and job outlook for each to help you decide which of these careers might be right for you.

The differences between dental assistant and dental hygienist positions center on the tasks they're expected to perform and their level of interaction with patients. Perhaps the biggest difference between these dental support positions is that a dental assistant provides direct aid to dentists, conducting office tasks, and small, supervised jobs on patients' teeth, while a hygienist often works one-on-one with a patient, and doesn't have as much constant supervision. Dental hygienists must also hold at least an associate's degree and a state license in the field, while dental assistants may or may not need formal education, depending on the state in which they work.

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  • Advanced General Dentistry Programs
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  • Endodontics
  • Oral Biology and Oral Pathology
  • Oral Surgery
  • Orthodontics
  • Pediatric Dentistry
  • Periodontics
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Dental Assistants: Overview

Dental assistants perform both preparatory and break-down duties in the office. Depending on the state of employment, dental assistants may be allowed to do some additional advanced duties, including applying topical anesthetic, sealant applications, coronal polishing, and fluoride applications. Some of their typical duties include the following:

  • Disinfecting and laying out instruments
  • Obtaining patients' dental records
  • Handing instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Instructing patients on oral care
  • Preparing x-ray machines, impression materials, anesthetics, and cement
  • Billing patients and handling payments
  • Ordering dental supplies

Some states require that dental assistants be licensed, but these requirements vary. Some states have regulations that require aspiring dental assistants to complete one-year certificate or diploma programs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for dental assistants was $36,940 as of May 2015. The BLS projected an 18% rise in employment opportunities between 2014 and 2024.

Dental Hygienists: Overview

A dental hygienist performs more advanced tasks that involve direct patient care. State law determines what tasks hygienists may perform, but typical duties may include:

  • Polishing patients' teeth
  • Removing hard and soft deposits from teeth
  • Using several tools to remove tartar, plaque, and stains
  • Developing x-ray film

Education requirements for these professionals include earning an associate's degree in dental hygiene, and most programs take about three years to complete. License requirements differ from one state to the next, but typically individuals must pass an accredited training program as well as clinical and written examinations.

The BLS projected a 19% growth rate in the dental hygiene field between 2014 and 2024, which is considerably faster compared to other career fields. The median annual wage for dental hygienists was $72,910 as of May 2015, according to the BLS.

Dental assistants tend to perform more administrative duties to assist dentists, while dental hygienists work directly with patients to help clean their teeth prior to dental exams. Both careers are expected to have positive job growth.

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