Dental Hygienist: Majors & Programs

Dec 18, 2020

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Dental hygienists are medical professionals that examine patients for oral disease and help with oral hygiene and health. Dental hygienists start with screenings for oral cancer, cavities and other oral health issues. They also clean the teeth and educate patients on proper oral health. Dental hygienists may apply fluoride treatments or sealants to protect the teeth. They must communicate their findings with both the patient and dentist and assist the dentist in further dental procedures. Dental hygienists must also have good people skills and be friendly and able to make patients comfortable in the dental setting. Many people have a fear of going to the dentist and a good dental hygienist can make all the difference for a nervous patient.

Dental hygienists take care of oral health for patients
dental hygienist

Some important skills for a dental hygienist include:

  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Friendliness with patients
  • Ability to make people feel comfortable in a medical setting
  • Attention to detail
  • Dexterity
  • Problem solving

Dental Hygienist versus Dental Assistant

Dental hygienists and dental assistants both work with patients during oral care, however there are some key important differences. Dental assistants focus more on the logistics of a dental visit and administrative duties whereas dental hygienists are focused on providing patient care.

Dental assistants have the following responsibilities:

  • Leading patients to and from the dental examination room
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Handling billing and payment information
  • Sterilizing dental tools
  • Processing X-rays

Dental hygienists have the following responsibilities:

  • Cleaning teeth
  • Screening for oral disease
  • Communicating findings with the patient and dentist
  • Applying sealants and fluoride treatments
  • Taking X-rays
  • Educating patients on good oral health

Degree Programs with Dental Hygiene Major

Students interested in becoming dental hygienists have two primary degree options. A 2-year degree is the most common degree pursued by aspiring dental hygienists, but bachelor's degree programs are available as well. Students in a dental hygiene program can expect to learn about proper oral hygiene, cleaning techniques, and conditions like gum disease. As a dental hygiene major in either an associate's or bachelor's program, students will participate in field experiences at local dental clinics or offices.

Prerequisites for an associate's degree include a high school diploma and minimum education requirements in major subject areas. ACT or SAT scores may be required. Bachelor's degree programs require a high school diploma or equivalent, or an associate's degree in dental hygiene; ACT or SAT scores are required, and schools of dentistry may also request letters of recommendation. Both associate's and bachelor's degree programs require intensive clinical components, such as hours of hands-on experience in a healthcare setting.

AAS in Dental Hygiene

An Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Dental Hygiene introduces students to the field of dental science. An AAS in dental hygiene can be completed in two years and allows students to get started quickly in their career as a dental hygienist. Many associate degree programs in dental hygiene focus on clinical experience and general education coursework. The first year of an AAS program in dental hygiene introduces students to dental science and focuses on meeting general education requirements. The clinical component of the degree, which is typically completed in the second year of enrollment, is satisfied by meeting a minimum number of hours in a healthcare setting. Prospective students should ensure that their AAS program in dental hygiene is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which is an educational governing body of the American Dental Association. Courses in this program may include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Dental hygiene and Periodontology
  • Radiology
  • Microbiology
  • Local anesthesia
  • Oral histopathology

BS in Dental Hygiene

A Bachelor of Science (BS) in Dental Hygiene offers a more thorough introduction to the field of dental science by including two years of clinical experience into its curriculum. A BS in dental hygiene offers an advantage over an AS because students with these credentials may have more autonomy and have a broader pool of options for employment. The clinical component of the degree will train students in oral health assessments, oral disease examination, oral cancer screening procedures and filling and periodontal dressing removal and placement. Some B.S. programs may cover topics such as the administration of anesthetics and dental filling material placement. Some courses address dental science theory and may include:

  • Oral radiology
  • Compromised patient care
  • Anesthesia
  • Basic and applied dental pharmacology
  • Ethics in dental science
  • Clinical dental hygiene

Master's in Dental Hygiene

Some students also pursue a Master's degree of science (MS) in dental hygiene. This allows for further career opportunities such as teaching appointments, doing dental research and possibly salary advancement.

Popular Career Options

Many graduates of a B.S. program in dental hygiene pursue careers as licensed dental hygienists. Other options include working as a dental hygiene researcher or a community dental health manager.

Job Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the estimated growth in employment of dental hygienists is expected to be about 11% between 2018 and 2028 ( This excellent job growth figure is attributed to the growing number of elderly in the United States and their increased need for dental care. According to the BLS, the median annual salary of a dental hygienist, as of May 2019, was $76,220.

Dental hygienists can receive their necessary education with either a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor's degree in dental hygiene. Each degree will yield the clinical training necessary to work in the field; however, a bachelor's degree program will provide more in-depth studies and practice in the field.

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