Dental Hygienists Job Description and Career Overview

Working under a dentist’s supervision, dental hygienists teach preventive oral hygiene to patients, examine their teeth and gums, and clean and polish their teeth.

Posted 2010

Typically, dental hygienists use both manual and high-tech rotary instruments to remove tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth and polish the enamel. They also examine teeth and gums, looking for abnormalities and diseases. Some hygienists are trained in digital x-ray technology and sophisticated patient records software. Most apply fluoride treatments as well as pit and fissure sealants. In some states, dental hygienists are allowed to administer general or local anesthetics, fill cavities, or remove sutures.

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Dental hygienist careers often include an educational aspect. Using a variety of props and tools, they help children and adults learn how to properly brush, floss, and care for their teeth. Teaching about the link between diet and oral health may also be a role for the dental hygienist.

At times, hygienists will make diagnoses and may conduct clinical and lab tests for dentists’ interpretation.

Dental Hygienists Career Summary

  • Most dental hygienists are employed by dentists’ offices.
  • About half of dental hygienists work part-time, and many enjoy flexible schedules.
  • A degree from an accredited dental hygienist program is needed to work in this field; state licenses are also required.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts favorable growth and strong competition for dental hygienist jobs.

Work Environment for Dental Hygienists

Most dental hygienists are employed in bright, sanitary dental offices. While there are relatively few job hazards, exposure to infectious diseases, anesthetic gas, and radiation can occur. To safeguard worker and patient health, strict adherence to proper procedures is important; in addition, dental hygienists must wear safety glasses, protective gloves, and masks.

Dental hygienists spend long periods of time sitting, bending over patients, and using small instruments—all of which can lead to hand, neck shoulder injuries.

Dental hygienists’ schedules are often flexible, with many working one, two, or three days per week for one or more dental practices. About half of all dental hygienists work part-time, in the evenings, or on weekends.

Dental Hygienists College, Training, and Licensing

Dental hygienists must obtain a degree from an accredited dental hygiene school and be licensed by their state. Admission to a dental hygiene program usually requires a high school diploma and college entrance exam scores. Biology, chemistry and mathematics courses in high school are important. Some dental hygiene programs require one year of college prior to admission, but each program’s entrance requirements vary.

The Commission on Dental Accreditation had accredited 301 dental hygiene programs as of 2008. Most dental hygienist education programs award associate’s degrees – the minimum for entry-level dental hygienist jobs. There are also bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in healthcare, which may be required for teaching or research positions. Some programs award certificates.

A typical dental hygienist education program includes a combination of laboratory, classroom, and clinical instruction. Subjects covered typically include anatomy, physiology, chemistry, pharmacology, histology, nutrition, dental materials, periodontology, radiography, and social and behavioral sciences.

All states require dental hygienists to be licensed. Nearly all states have established minimum licensing standards of graduating from an accredited dental hygienist program and passing a written and clinical examination. The written exam is administered by the American Dental Association (ADA) Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations, while state or regional agencies administer the clinical part of the examination. The ADA exam is the standard requirement for dental hygienist job candidates in all states – except for Alabama, which has its own requirements. Alabama requires hygienists to take classes, receive on-the-job training from a dentist, and pass a separate state-administered licensing exam. In addition, most states require dental hygienist licensing candidates to pass an examination on the legal aspects of the practice.

Dental hygienists must have excellent interpersonal skills, since they work closely with dentists and patients in a professional, clinical setting. They also need good dexterity, excellent communication skills, and the ability to follow procedures and instructions to the letter.

Dental Hygienist Employment Projections, Jobs Outlook, and Earnings

Dental hygienists held about 196,520 jobs in 2014, according to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most of these positions were in dentists’ offices. A very small number of dental hygienists worked in physicians’ offices or other industries. About 51% of dental hygienists worked part-time.

Employment in this field is expected to grow faster than other occupations, due to the growing population, increased emphasis on preventative dental care, and increasing use of dental hygienists in more dentists’ offices.

In May 2014, the BLS reported that the average annual salary for dental hygienists was $71,970. The middle 50% earned between $59,890 and $85,240, while the lowest 10% earned $49,190. The highest 10% earned approximately $97,390 annually.

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