Steps to Become Dental Hygienist – Get an Overview of the Career

Steps to Become dentist

Dental hygienists provide basic oral health care to patients, including cleaning teeth and guiding patients on keeping their tooth, gums, and dentures healthy and white. They also educate patients and public about effective oral health, such as benefits of flossing, cleaning teeth once in 8 months, and brushing teeth twice daily. The career scope and education opportunities for dental hygienist today are like never before. With effective and modern training, you can go beyond the traditional clinic, and launch your career in a better way.

This article is for those aspirants who are interested in pursuing a career as a dental hygienist. You will learn about the career, the roles and responsibilities, and the steps to become a licensed dental hygienist.

Career Overview

Dental hygienists work alongside dentists to provide basic oral care to patients and suggest preventive measures. Their primary job is to use different tools and devices to perform tasks like examine gums, clean teeth, remove plaque, counsel patients, collect medical history, and educate patients on different oral care techniques. They advise patients with the best treatment plan for their particular dental issue. They may also operate ultrasonic devices and polishing tools.

In short, dental hygienists are the first stop for the outpatients. They examine the patients and report back the dentist about the medical condition. If the treatment is simple, such as remove tartar and stains, apply sealants, and floss, they may do it themselves without supervision.

Most dental hygienists work privately or in mixed dental practices. Most often, they are appointed by community clinics with patients having a vast range of special and additional needs, in armed forces, dental schools and universities, private organizations, and hospitals.

As technology continues to advance, the roles and responsibilities of a dental hygienist are also evolving. For instance, lasers tools are frequently used on patients and dental hygienists must train themselves to properly use the tools. They must also advance their knowledge in radiography.

Job Duties of Dental Hygienists:

  • Use tools, such as scrapers and polishers to remove plaque, tartar, and calculus.
  • Provide education on oral health and diet, such as foods that are harmful to
  • Take x-rays of the mouth for evaluation.
  • Take tooth decay preventive measures, such as apply antibacterial materials including topical fluorides and sealants.
  • Take impressions and dental radiograph of the teeth.
  • Record findings during treatment of patients and report to dentists.
  • Treat basic gum diseases.
  • Assist dentist in surgeries, help them in administering anesthesia, and add and remove sutures.
  • Work under the instructions of the dentist.
  • Operate a range of dental tools and instruments.
  • Make sure a sterile condition is maintained in the doctor’s chambers.
  • Record new developments in patients and maintain records for future reference.

Difference between Dental Hygienist and Dental Assistant

Dental hygienists have a rewarding career, both financially and mentally. However, they are often confused with dentist assistants. But in reality, their positions are not interchangeable. Dental assistants take on the role of maintaining the decorum of the office and make sure the clinic runs smoothly in administrative and operational aspects. On the other hand, dental hygienist is appointed for more serious and professional tasks as discussed earlier.  Some of the responsibilities of dental assistants include:

  • Talk to patients over the phone and helping with the registration process
  • Fix appointments with doctors
  • Get patients comfortable in the dental chair
  • Set-up tools and equipment
  • Look at the administrative work, such as restocking materials and medicines
  • Assist dentists during procedures and surgeries, such as handle instruments
  • Manage accounts, patient billing, and payments

While a dental hygienist must obtain a license to practice his/her profession, licensure is not mandatory for dental assistants, even though they learn to perform some of the duties of dentists, such as administering anesthesia, applying fluoride, and polishing teeth.

Since most dental hospitals and clinics maintain normal working hours, you will enjoy a better work-life balance. New aspirants in the field can earn up to $50, 000 annually. And once you become experienced, you can earn as much as $98,000 per annum depending upon your state.

Steps to Become a Dental Hygienist

Step 1: Learn about the Different Types of Dental Hygienist Degree

An associate degree is the minimal level of education that is required from aspiring dental hygienists. Before you proceed further, you must know what you want to achieve from this profession. Associate degrees provide you with a basic education that is required for licensing. These degrees typically take around two to three years to complete.

You must choose a program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, under the operations of the American Dental Association. If you live in another country, make sure you choose an accredited degree program governed by your country’s dental association. In America alone, there are more than 300 accredited programs for dental hygiene. Community colleges, dental schools, universities, and private institutions offer associate-level programs. You may also complete the degree program online, as quite a few online institutions offer courses on dental hygiene.

The programs are designed to provide classroom coursework and supervised clinical experience related to your studies. Coursework will cover syllabuses outlined by the CODA. In the first year, you must acquire around 8 to 12 hours of dental hygiene practice per week, and while in the second and third years, the numbers of hours increase to 12 and 16 hours per week.

You must have a GPA of 2.5 and higher in your school and must have studied subjects like anatomy, chemistry, biology, and sociology to enter the dental hygiene associate program.

Step 2: Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree

Though this is not a mandatory requirement, if your aspirations go beyond dentists’ offices, such as specialized care including practicing and developing programs for schools and public, you can earn a bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s degree typically takes 4 years to complete, where you will complete both classroom coursework and clinical experience under supervision. Common subjects include oral biochemistry, preventive dental care, periodontal disease, dental specialties, and pharmacology principles. You will also study subjects based on management, communication, and liberal arts.

You can also earn a bachelor’s degree by entering with an associate in dental hygiene. These degree completion programs are designed for those students who already have obtained their license to practice dental hygienebut hope to develop leadership skills and gain theoretical and research-based knowledge. Since you will have gained practical experience through your associate program, you can skip clinical experience and cut back on time for completion. The only prerequisites will be courses and lab work in anatomy, physiology, psychology, biology, microbiology, nutrition, and chemistry, as well as English, sociology, and communication.

Step 3: Earn your License

You cannot practice dental hygiene without a proper license. Your license must be given out by the state you plan to work in. The requirements for licensure are mandated at the state level and vary from state to state. However, the majority of the states need the following credentials:

  • A CDA-accredited program degree
  • Passing of the National Board of Dental Hygiene Examination written test
  • Passing of state-level or regional clinical board examination

So, you will need to take the licensure examination after you finish your associate degree course. The National Board of Dental Hygiene Examination consists of 300 multi-choice questions covering two major parts: case-based components and disciple-based components.  The minimum score for passing the test is 75.

As we mentioned above, each state may also have its own clinical-based exam that the students must pass to get the license. These tests are designed to determine your basic knowledge of hygiene procedures, anesthesia, restorative techniques, and medical terms.

You must additionally take a drug and law examination. This examination tests your awareness of state rules and regulations. Finally, after clearing the three examinations, you will be awarded an RDH (registered dental hygiene) license.

The RDH license will enable you to practice dental hygiene within the state.

Step 4: Earn Dental Hygiene Master’s Degree

Individuals who wish to gain more knowledge and become competitive in their field can enroll in a master’s degree program in dental hygiene. Today there are more than 21 master’s level dental hygiene programs existing in 15+ states in America. The degree will help you to conduct research, get a job as a university professor or dean, or/ and work at the administrative level. With the degree, you can be promoted to higher roles, like community program directors, oral disease prevention specialist, a leader in dental health and education. You are required to complete a capstone project in addition to fieldwork to pass the 1 to 2-year master’s degree. The admission requirement for the degree program includes:

  • A 3.0 or higher GPA in previous education
  • Proof of active dental hygiene license
  • Good GRE scores
  • A career statement
  • Letters of recommendation

Common courses you would study at the master’s level include systematic research writing, dental hygiene theory and science, geriatric dental issues, pediatric oral health, and systematic dental conditions.

Step 5: Renewal of Dental Hygiene License

You must renew your RDH license to continue your practice as dental hygiene legally. The renewal period is typically one to three years depending upon the state rules. You must, however, complete the required number of clinical hours predetermined by your state before the renewal is due. For instance, for one-year renewal cycle, the required number of hours is between 10 and 20, for two-year renewal cycle, it is 30 to 50, and for three-year renewal cycle, the number of hours is near to 60. Additionally, you have also to see that you cover the topics, infection control and CPR in those numbers of hours. You must pay a fee and necessary proof to renew your licensure.

The number of clinical hours in medical terminology is referred to as continuing education hours. The American Dental Associations (ADA) offers several ways for candidates to complete their required hours.

Step 6: Find Jobs

The American Dental Association offers licensed RDHs job resources on their portal, ADA CareerCenter. In here, you can search for jobs by title, by location, salary, company, and other filters. Jobs are pulled in from other job listing websites and posted directly to the CareerCenter.  Dental hygienists can easily find roles in private clinics. It is the most commonplace. However, you could also be recruited in hospitals, public health clinics, nursing homes, dental schools, advanced practices, research institutes, and dental corporations.

You can further choose to pursue advanced training and boost your growth opportunities. For example, business administration, education, marketing, and public health are few great fields to explore and gain knowledge. After which, you will be able to find specialized and high-level roles in dental hygiene.

Step 7: From Dental Hygienist to Dentist

Many licensed DHs continue their training to become a full-fledged dentist. You could also choose the path and remove one of the words from your title. The first step to becoming a dentist is gaining a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. Then you must apply for a four-year doctoral program, either in Doctor of Dental Surgery or in Doctor of Dental Medicine. To enroll in the doctoral program, you must clear the Dental Admission Test.

To become a dentist you must invest 8 years studying a bachelor’s degree and then a doctoral degree. However, if you wish, you can also go through a degree-completion program, which will take not more than 18 months to complete. Or you can study your bachelor’s degree and doctoral program simultaneously. However, only very few dental schools offer such doctoral programs that allow students to earn bachelor’s degree simultaneously. These programs will take only six years to complete.

The most successful dental hygienists are a mixture of great credentials, excellent technology know-how, and blend of skills. Therefore, along with your medical studies, you should also develop empathy, communication skills, time management skills, and presentation skills.

Related careers with similar qualifications include a dentist, a dental laboratory technician, radiation therapist, physician assistant, and medical assistant.


Hope our guide makes you ready to pursue this career successfully. For specific information, please post questions in comments below.