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Dental Hygienist Schools & Careers How to Become a Dental Hygienist
Whether teaching a kindergartner how long they should brush their teeth or helping a senior citizen properly care for their dentures, dental hygienists work directly with myriad patients to provide basic oral health care and instruct them on how to keep their whitest and healthiest smiles. The following guide delves into the educational and licensing requirements for these professionals while also highlighting numerous career paths within this occupation.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
Dental hygienists use a variety of tools and devices to perform daily tasks. A range of instruments are used to help remove plaque and stains, including air-polishing tools and ultrasonic devices. As technology continues to advance, lasers are showing up next to the patient chair more frequently, and dental hygienists must be trained in proper usage of these tools. They must also be well-versed in radiography when using certain types of x-ray equipment. Although state-by-state requirements vary, many dental hygienists counsel patients on how different foods affect oral health and provide advice on proper techniques for care.
Dental Hygienist Careers In-Depth
Serving as the first stop once a patient is called from the waiting room, dental hygienists examine patients’ teeth and gums and report back to dentists about their oral health. While with the patient, they also perform basic dental procedures, including removing tartar, plaque and everyday stains; using fluoride treatments to protect teeth; applying sealants; and flossing extensively. Hygienists also teach their patients about proper oral care, including brushing techniques and the importance of flossing. Depending on the reason a patient is visiting, the hygienist may also take x-rays or molds to help the dentist assess the best plan of care, ranging from braces to root canals.
Dental Hygienist Salary
Dental hygienists enjoy rewarding careers and have the satisfaction of helping their patients achieve better oral health every day. They typically also enjoy good work-life balance, as most dental offices maintain normal working hours. Still, the financial rewards of this career are also important, particularly for individuals who aspire to make a certain annual income.
While newly minted dental hygienists typically bring home $50,140, those in the top tenth percentile of the field can expect their incomes to be around $98,440. The median average currently sits at $72,330. Factors other than experience can cause this number to fluctuate, too. Take a look at the state-by-state guide below to see the variances across America.
Steps to Becoming a Dental Hygienist
Learn about Dental Hygienist Careers
Before embarking on an educational path – and spending hard earned dollars on tuition – prospective dental hygienists should make a list of what they seek in a profession. Ranging from average salary to work-life balance, take time to think about both day-to-day responsibilities and long-term goals. Compare this list to qualities commonly exhibited by dental hygienists who love their work and see if it’s a match. For instance, individuals who prefer to work alone may find it difficult to interact with a number of different patients all day, every day. Because the majority of work is done with hands in close quarters, dexterity and not being turned off by oral care are also major factors of enjoying this career. If possible, find someone already working in this career – even your own dental hygienist – and ask their feelings on the profession.
Complete a Dental Hygienist Program
Dental hygienists working in a dentist’s office are typically required to hold an associate degree in dental hygiene. These programs, which typically take about three years to complete, must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which operates under the American Dental Association. In 2015 alone, the commission accredited more than 300 programs. Associate-level degrees in dental hygiene are most commonly found at community colleges, dental schools, technical institutions and universities. Many programs are also available as an online degree.
While bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene are outnumbered by their associate degree counterparts, more programs are popping up on campuses and as online degree options. Individuals with aspirations beyond dentists’ offices are drawn to this option as it opens more doors to research and clinical practice.
Master’s degrees in dental hygiene are the least common educational offering, but these programs do exist in small quantities. Students electing this path often have their eyes set on advanced research roles, or clinical practice within public health or educational health programs.
Complete Licensing Requirements
Completing educational requirements is a significant step toward becoming a dental hygienist, but all those looking to practice must be licensed. These requirements are mandated at the state level and vary depending on location, but the majority can be satisfied by showing proof of:
- Diploma from a CDA-accredited program
- Successful passage of the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, a comprehensive written test
- Completion of a state-level or regional clinical board examination
Once candidates for licensure completes these three steps, they are considered fully licensed and allowed to add “RDH” to their names, signifying they are a registered dental hygienist.
Complete Additional Training
Continuing education plays a crucial role in the work of dental hygienists, providing both updated and additional knowledge throughout their careers. Whether serving patients with special health care needs or learning how lasers factor in to oral health, continuing education courses help keep dental hygienists at the forefront of knowledge.
In addition to courses offered by state and regional chapters of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, local dental hygiene programs should also be able to provide a list of what’s available. Students seeking an online option can take advantage of Colgate’s Oral Health Network. which offers free live webinars.
DISCOVER THE RIGHT DENTAL HYGIENIST PROGRAM
Career Goals & Educational Needs
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Dental Hygienist Job Growth
Roles for dental hygienists in the U.S. are set to grow by 19 percent between 2014 and 2024, with 37,400 positions being added during this time. While this national average provides an idea of how the field is progressing, these numbers may be higher or lower in different states. Compare job outlook projections and the number of projected annual job openings with our job growth tool.
Dental Hygienist Degree and Career Resources
Operating as the voice of dental education, ADEA provides a special interest group for clinical coordinators of dental hygiene programs.
This membership-based organization advocates for dental hygienists while also providing assistance with continuing education and careers. A number of annual events and publications are also available.
Whether serving in North America or New Zealand, the IFDH champions the work of dental hygienists throughout the world and provides a research grant program.
In operation for more than five decades, NDHA supports members through annual events, continuing education opportunities, and scholarship programs.
Aside from national associations and organizations, many states have their own professional bodies to further the work of dental hygienists, as seen in this example from Tennessee.
DENTAL HYGIENIST SCHOOLS SEARCH TOOL
With more than 300 new dental hygiene programs approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation in 2015 alone, prospective students may feel overwhelmed with options. Use this powerful search tool to find a program that meets your needs in areas of cost, location and accreditation.