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What Dental Hygienists Do About this section

Dental hygienists
Dental hygienists wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves to protect themselves and their patients from diseases.

Dental hygienists examine patients for signs of oral diseases, such as gingivitis, and provide preventive care, including oral hygiene. They also educate patients about oral health.

Duties

Dental hygienists typically do the following:

  • Remove tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
  • Apply sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
  • Take and develop dental x rays
  • Assess patients’ oral health and report findings to dentists
  • Document patient care and treatment plans
  • Educate patients about oral hygiene techniques, such as how to brush and floss correctly

Dental hygienists use many types of tools—including hand, power, and ultrasonic tools—in their work. In some cases, they use lasers. Hygienists remove stains with an air-polishing device, which sprays a combination of air, water, and baking soda. They polish teeth with a power tool that works like an automatic toothbrush. Hygienists also use x-ray machines to take pictures to check for tooth or jaw problems.

Dental hygienists talk to patients about ways to keep their teeth and gums healthy. For example, they may explain the relationship between diet and oral health. They may also advise patients on how to select toothbrushes and other oral care devices.

The tasks hygienists may perform, and the extent to which they must be supervised by a dentist, vary by state and by the setting in which the dental hygienist works. A few states allow hygienists with additional training, sometimes called dental therapists, to provide some restorative services, such as extracting primary teeth and placing temporary crowns.

Work Environment About this section

Dental hygienists
Dental hygienists discuss diet and other topics that affect a patient’s dental health.

Dental hygienists held about 226,400 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of dental hygienists were as follows:

Offices of dentists 93%
Offices of physicians 1
Government 1

Dental hygienists wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. When taking x rays, they follow procedures to protect themselves and patients from radiation.

Work Schedules

Many dental hygienists work part time. Dentists may hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist About this section

Dental hygienists
Dental hygienists remove tartar and plaque from teeth.

Dental hygienists typically need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Programs usually take 3 years to complete. All states require dental hygienists to be licensed; requirements vary by state.

Education

Dental hygienists typically need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene; they may also get a bachelor’s degree. Master’s degree programs in dental hygiene are available but are relatively uncommon. A bachelor’s or master’s degree usually is required for research, teaching, or clinical practice in public or school health programs.

Dental hygiene programs are often found in community colleges, technical schools, and universities. The Commission on Dental Accreditation, part of the American Dental Association, accredits more than 300 dental hygiene programs.

Programs typically take 3 years to complete and offer laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction. Areas of study include anatomy, medical ethics, and periodontics, which is the study of gum disease.

High school students interested in becoming dental hygienists should take courses in biology, chemistry, and math. Most dental hygiene programs also require applicants to complete prerequisites, which often include college-level courses. Specific requirements vary by school.

Important Qualities

Critical thinking. Dental hygienists must be able to assess and evaluate patients and to develop oral hygiene care plans.

Communication skills. Dental hygienists must share information with dentists and patients about oral health status, oral hygiene care plans, and, if necessary, lifestyle counseling.

Detail oriented. Dental hygienists must follow specific rules and protocols to help dentists diagnose and treat a patient. Depending on the state in which they work and/or the treatment provided, dental hygienists may work without the direct supervision of a dentist.

Dexterity. Dental hygienists must be good at working with their hands. They generally work in tight spaces on a small part of the body, which requires fine motor skills using precise tools and instruments.

Interpersonal skills. Dental hygienists work closely with dentists. They also must be considerate in working with patients, especially with those who are sensitive to pain or who have fears about undergoing dental treatment.

Problem-solving skills. Dental hygienists develop and implement oral hygiene care plans to maintain or improve patients’ oral health.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Every state requires dental hygienists to be licensed; requirements vary by state. In most states, a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program and passing written and clinical examinations are required for licensure. To maintain licensure, hygienists must complete continuing education requirements. For specific requirements, contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.

Many jobs also require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification.

Pay About this section

Dental Hygienists

Median annual wages, May 2019

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

$82,380

Dental hygienists

$76,220

Total, all occupations

$39,810

 

The median annual wage for dental hygienists was $76,220 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $53,130, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $103,340.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for dental hygienists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Offices of dentists $76,510
Offices of physicians 72,690
Government 60,390

Benefits, such as vacation, sick leave, and retirement contributions, vary by employer and may be available only to full-time workers.

Many dental hygienists work part time. Dentists may hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.

Job Outlook About this section

Dental Hygienists

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

10%

Dental hygienists

6%

Total, all occupations

4%

 

Employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 6 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.

The demand for dental services will increase as the population ages. As the large baby-boom population ages and people keep more of their original teeth than did previous generations, the need to maintain and treat teeth will continue to drive demand for dental care.

Studies linking oral health and general health, and efforts to expand access to oral hygiene services, will continue to drive the demand for preventive dental services. As a result, the demand for all dental services, including those performed by hygienists, will increase. In addition, demand for dental hygienists is expected to grow as state laws increasingly allow dental hygienists to work at the top of their training, and they effectively become more productive.

Job Prospects

Job prospects for dental hygienists are expected to vary by geographic location.

Entry into dental hygiene programs is often competitive, with the number of applicants to accredited dental hygiene programs exceeding the number of students accepted. In addition, dental hygienists are less likely to leave their occupation than are workers in other occupations. But overall job prospects are expected to be relatively good as the number of openings in this occupation is projected to exceed the number of graduates from dental hygiene programs.

Opportunities are expected to be best for dental hygienists who are willing to work in underserved areas and for those who are open to working less than 40 hours a week.

Employment projections data for dental hygienists, 2019-29
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2019 Projected Employment, 2029 Change, 2019-29 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Dental hygienists

29-1292 226,400 239,700 6 13,300 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

For information about educational requirements and available accredited programs for dental hygienists, visit

American Dental Hygienists’ Association

For information about accredited programs and educational requirements, visit

Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association

The State Board of Dental Examiners in each state can provide information on licensing requirements.

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