How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Education & State Licensing

Learn how to become a dental hygienist and the steps you need to take to complete your education and become a licensed dental hygienist.
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Dental Hygienist Career Facts

Becoming a Dental Hygienist

When you visit the dentist you have probably noticed the dental hygienist who works alongside the dentist during your appointment.

Dental Hygienists have more authorization and higher pay than dental assistants and are a great career advancement opportunity.

Right now there are more education and career opportunities for dental hygienists than ever before.

This is due in part to increased job demand but also it is due to online coursework and a vast network of accredited colleges paired with new technologies and work settings beyond the traditional dentist office or clinic.

There has never been a better time to launch your career as a dental hygienist in this rapidly growing field.

This page will explain the steps you must take in order to become a licensed dental hygienist.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

A dental hygienist takes on a serious and important role in the dental office carrying out more clinical tasks than a dental assistant.

It is the dental hygienist who provides assistance to the dentist when working with patients in the office. The role is much more hands on than that of a dental assistant focused on administrative tasks.

In fact, the dental hygienist is responsible for taking care of a number of important clinical tasks, such as cleaning the teeth to get rid of the buildup of plaque and tartar, talking to the patient about their dental history, assisting the dentist with anesthetic and surgical procedures and even providing helpful tips and suggestions to patients on how to improve the condition of their teeth through good oral hygiene habits.

Keep reading for a more complete list of dental hygienist duties.

Dental Hygienist Duties

There are common responsibilities that most dental hygienists share in most work settings.

These common dental hygienist responsibilities would include:

  • Selecting the appropriate dental tool, such as a power water flosser, ultrasonic tool, scraper or polisher, to use when working on a patient’s teeth
  • Scraping away at calculus, plaque and tartar as well as polishing teeth
  • Applying fluoride treatments to the teeth along with other protective measures
  • Taking oral X-rays of the teeth and gum
  • Making note of anything important in a patient’s medical records
  • Talking to the dentist about potential findings from records, during teeth cleaning and or on X-rays
  • Helping the dentist with additional tasks such as giving anesthesia or removing stitches
  • Making impressions of patient’s teeth for study casts
  • Educating patients on properly brushing, flossing, and mouth washing methods
  • Educating patients on proper nutrition as it relates to oral health

As you can see from the skills required to become a dental hygienist, education and training will be required before licensing. If you are already a dental assistant, then becoming a dental hygienist is the next logical step in your career.

Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist

Although dental hygienists and dental assistants both work in the dental office, these professionals have two different roles.

Dental assistants can only complete a handful of the clinical tasks that hygienists can currently complete. Instead they fill more of an administrative role and focus on office tasks, such as making calls to patients, setting appointments, and handling other administrative-related tasks.

A dental assistant will normally have the following responsibilities:

  • Appointment Scheduling: Help patients make appointments on days and times that work for them
  • Preparing Patients: Bringing the patients in the backroom to get prepared for their dental work
  • Sanitizing Equipment: Handling the dental equipment properly and making sure it is always kept fully sterilized
  • Managing Inventory: Putting in orders for any dental equipment that is needed
  • Billing and Insurance: Keeping track of payments, insurance, billing and other minor accounting aspects of the practice

Some dental assistants can complete additional tasks, but it depends on the state in which they are working.

It is not uncommon to see dental assistants helping with plaque removal, fluoride treatment, or even applying topical anesthetics to a patient who is getting ready to have some work done inside their mouth.

For more information comparing these roles, read our article: Dental Assistants vs Dental Hygienists

Dental Hygienist Education Requirements

It is required for a dental hygienist to receive their license.

The requirements for that license vary from one state to the next. It is important to obtain an Associate’s degree before attempting to get a license to work as a dental hygienist.

If you want to become a dental hygienist, you would need to complete the following dental hygienist education requirements pursuing either an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree.

What Dental Hygienists Study

There are 4 primary content areas that all CODA accredited Dental Hygiene programs must cover:

  1. General Education
  2. Dental Sciences
  3. Biomedical Sciences
  4. Dental Hygiene Science

These primary topics are then broken down into detailed concentrated topics as follows.

General educationPsychology, Sociology and Communication (Oral/Written)
Dental sciencesDental materials, tooth morphology, oral pathology, oral embryology and histology, pain management, radiography, periodontology, and dental materials
Biomedical sciencesPhysiology, nutrition anatomy, biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology, immunology, pathology and/or pharmacology, and pathophysiology
Dental hygiene scienceOral health, Preventative health education, health promotion, community oral health, patient management, medical and dental emergencies, clinical dental hygiene, infection and hazard control, serving special needs patients and overview of bloodborne diseases, and the ethical and legal principles of practicing dental hygiene

The above coursework will apply to all levels of degrees associates through masters. However, choosing a bachelor’s or master’s would allow you to tailor your education further if you want to specialize. Some areas you could further your studies in would include dental health theory, dental research, systemic dental conditions, orthodontics, or pediatric oral health.

CODA Accredited Dental Hygiene Programs

The first step of your dental hygiene education requirements is to complete an Accredited degree program approved by CODA (Commission on Dental Association). Accredited dental hygiene programs are consistently reviewed for the highest standard of education, patient safety, and curriculum.

Getting your associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree from a CODA Accredited dental hygiene program proves that you have the education that is needed of you to become a dental hygienist.

You can often find accredited dental hygiene programs at community colleges or even a tech school when you are ready to earn this degree.

You can also click on the blue button that says “find schools” to start searching for dental hygiene programs.

Comparing Dental Hygienist Degrees

As stated, you may choose to become a dental hygienist by completing any of the following dental hygienist degrees:

  • Associate of Applied Science (AAS) Degree in Dental Hygiene
  • Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene (BS)
  • Master of Science Degree in Dental Hygiene (MS)

The quickest route is taking 2 years to complete your associates. From there you could always advance your education after working if you wanted to specialize or advance your career.

Alternatively, completing a Bachelors or Masters in Dental Hygiene generally takes about 4 years.

Dental Hygiene Associate’s Degree

While you are in college, or a tech program, you will learn everything you need to know to become a licensed dental hygienist. All of the curriculum required by CODA will be covered and tested.

However, you will also get supervised clinical practicum experience providing the hands-on experience that you are going to need. The hands-on experience is what helps you improve your work ethic and get familiarized with what a day of work will be like in the future when you begin working in a dental office.

During your first year of clinical practice you may work around 8-12 hours weekly and in year 2 you should be getting 12 to 16 hours of dental hygiene practice every week.

Admission Requirements for AAS

If you want to get into a dental hygiene program, make sure that you maintain a good GPA. You should have a GPA of at least 2.5 in the required pre-requisite courses which are:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Anatomy
  • Sociology

Some programs are willing to accept those with slightly lower GPAs. Some schools will expect you to become CPR certified too, before starting your clinical practice.

While many dental hygienists will earn an associate’s degree before they begin working, it is entirely possible to earn a bachelor’s degree in the field, too.

Dental Hygiene Bachelor’s Degree

If you would like to work in a certain type of environment, such as a school or in a public health setting, or become specialized in your career then obtaining a bachelor’s degree is the path for you. During your time in school, you will get to take a number of important classes while getting plenty of clinical practice and hands on experience in the area you want to focus on.

Completing a bachelor’s degree usually takes 4 years but if you start with an associates in dental hygiene then you can finish in about 18 months. These programs are called “degree completion programs” and are designed for licensed dental hygienists.

Some people may even choose to take online courses because then they can work around their schedule. Online courses are available for nearly the entire program and can be completed in 15 to 18 months.

While these courses do not necessarily offer hands-on experience, you should have already gained that experience while earning your associate’s degree.

Admission Requirements for BS

If you do want to get into a program to earn a bachelor’s degree, you should have a GPA of at least 2.5 from your high school classes and ideally also in the following pre-requisites:

  • Radiology
  • Anatomy
  • Dental Materials

CPR certification will also likely be required before you start your clinical practicum working with patients.

Dental Hygiene Master’s Degree

It is even possible to earn a master’s degree as a dental hygienist. By obtaining this degree, you would have opportunities to specialize, teach others, work in administration and even perform your own research.

You could become a specialist in a variety of areas such as:

  • Directing community programs
  • Preventative care specialist
  • Oral disease prevention
  • Leading dental health education programs

It will normally take up to two years for an individual to earn their master’s degree, but some people have completed the program and obtained a degree in a matter of 12 months. The final task is to complete a capstone project presenting an oral care idea for the dental hygiene professional community.

Admissions Requirements for MS

If you would like to get into a dental hygiene master’s program, then you need to meet these requirements:

  • Maintain a GPA that is at 3.0 or higher.
  • Provide proof of the current license you have obtained to work as a dental hygienist
  • Earned passing scores when taking the GRE
  • Provide recommendation letters from reputable sources
  • Provide current resume, cover letter, and potentially a career statement

Online Dental Hygiene Programs

Online dental hygiene programs are convenient for working dental assistants looking to advance their career.

If you are just starting your education and haven’t completed clinical practice then this portion of your degree cannot be earned online and must be completed locally in addition to your online coursework.

However, there are also degree completion programs available for students who have already completed their clinical practicum. These students can obtain an online dental hygiene degree entirely through online courses.

For example, a dental assistant or dental hygienist with an associates degree and clinical practice could complete a “degree completion” online dental hygiene program in about 15 months entirely online without any clinical work to obtain their bachelors in dental hygiene.

How to Get a Dental Hygiene License

Dental hygienists, like most other professionals in the field of dentistry, need to have a state-granted license first before they can practice their profession. If you’re looking for work in the industry, you need to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) after your graduation from an accredited dental hygienist program.

The 350-item, multiple-choice examination has two-parts: first, a discipline-based component, then a case-based one.

You need to earn a rating of 75 and above to pass.

Aside from the national examination, you also need to go through your state’s clinical-based exam that tests your knowledge on standard dental hygienist practices like hygiene processes, restorative techniques, and anesthesiologic procedures.

Beyond this, some states might require you to pass a law and drug exam that drills you on important laws, rules, and regulations that are specific to the state you’re working in. Once you pass all of these requirements, you’re now allowed to practice your profession as a registered dental hygienist.

Renewing Your License

A dental hygienist professional license is valid for around one to three years. After the period of validity is over, you need to have it renewed by paying a renewal fee and providing proof that you have completed the requisite continuing education hours required by your state.

The number of hours vary from state to state, but can range from around 10 to 20 hours for one-year license validity cycles, 30 to 50 hours for two-year cycles, and 60 hours or more for three-year cycles. You might be required to take classes in CPR and infection control, but topics will ultimately vary from state to state.

You can complete this continuing education requirement by attending live or online classes. The American Dental Association usually has an updated database of courses that can help you in your search for classes to attend.

Finding Jobs as a Dental Hygienist

The American Dental Association also offers a variety of resources to help you get started with your career as a dental hygienist. Aside from the course database, it also has an online Career Center that allows you to search for jobs according to salary, location, company, job title, and other parameters.

The jobs in the Career Center are usually posted by the companies who provide them, but you can also find jobs that the platform has pulled in from outside job listings and job search websites. Dental hygienists are usually placed in schools, private dental offices, nursing homes, health clinics, large dental corporations, and research facilities.

Salary and Benefits: What To Expect

In the US, dental hygienists earn an average of $74,820 per annum, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, this number is just a median, and will vary depending on a number of factors like the level of education you have achieved, your years of experience, the location of the office, etcetera.

For example, entry-level hygienists in small private dental practices usually earn less than experienced ones working for large corporations, research units, or in the academia.

Aside from the relatively competitive salary, dental hygienists also enjoy a whole slew of benefits. For one, job opportunities for those in the field are in high abundance.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that the demand for dental hygienists will increase by 11 percent through 2028, completely outpacing the seven percent national growth average that the BLS has pegged for other jobs.

Another major benefit is that dental hygienists have the chance to take on flexible schedules while still earning above average salaries. This is a job that can be taken on as part-time work, but can still provide a decent living wage. You would have more time to work on further studies, hobbies, and leisure time.

Career Growth For Dental Hygienists

You can choose to go pursue further training in other areas like education or business administration, after the completion of your dental hygienists program. Not only does this give you a more specialized skill set, it can also help you prepare for high-level roles and have a higher earning potential.

Being a dental hygienist can also be a stepping stone into the field of dentistry as a full-fledged dentist. After your bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, you can then apply for a four-year doctoral program (Doctor of Dental Medicine). Chances are, you wouldn’t need to take on the prerequisite subjects like biology, chemistry, physics, since these are subjects that you might have already taken on your dental hygiene program.

Becoming a dental hygienist can be an amazing career advancement opportunity for you. Click the blue “Find Schools” button to compare dental hygiene programs.

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