While dental hygienists aren’t quite nurses, they are extremely important to the health of our mouths and teeth. Becoming a dental hygienist is a great way to provide vital healthcare in a more relaxed setting than in a hospital or emergency room. Helping people maintain the best care of their mouths is a great way to make a difference in their lives.
What Is a Dental Hygienist?
When you go to a dentist appointment, you are first seen by a dental hygienist. This is the person who comes in and assesses your dental health and then reports back to the dentist. Oftentimes, most of the dentist appointment is spent with the dental hygienist.
Dental hygienists and dentists are kind of like the nurses and doctors of dentistry, with the dental hygienist being the nurse. Their job is basically to assist the dentist in any way possible and necessary, so they perform a lot of the processes we experience during appointments.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
So what exactly do dental hygienists do? They perform a wide array of tasks that help dentists to perform their jobs better.
Perform Patient Screenings
Dental hygienists see patients before the dentist. This is so that they can screen a patient for oral health issues, screen for oral cancer, check for cavities, and review a patient’s health history. All of this is part of the initial screening process.
Clean and Polish Teeth
Most people’s favorite part of leaving the dentist is how clean their teeth feel afterward. Dental hygienists are responsible for deep-cleaning patients’ teeth, treating them with any fluoride treatments if necessary, and polishing their teeth.
Perform X-Rays and Impressions
X-rays and dental impressions are important for things like checking on wisdom teeth and preparing for braces. Dental hygienists are trained to perform both of these tasks, helping speed up dental appointments.
Teach Oral Hygiene
Arguably the most important task dental hygienists have is to teach patients oral hygiene. For example, many people complain that their dentist always tells them they don’t floss enough; a dental hygienist has to explain to patients how often they need to floss and why.
Essential Dental Hygienist Skills
Dental hygienists spend most of their workdays on their feet, running back and forth between treatment rooms. Having good physical endurance will make it easier for you and your body to perform such a surprisingly demanding job.
Good with People
Since dental hygienists spend their entire days working with people, they need to have good people skills. Dental hygienists work with a diverse group of people, and they often have to deliver bad news such as telling someone they need a root canal or braces. Having good people skills allows this to be done tastefully and respectfully.
Working as a dental hygienist requires a lot of attention to detail. While the dentist will double-check your work, it is important to notice small details about your patients because they could be hinting at much more serious health problems.
Dental Hygienist Salaries and Job Outlook
While dental hygienists do not earn quite as much as dentists, they still bring in respectable annual salaries. Even the lowest-paying positions pay around $53,100 per year. These are generally entry-level positions, so if they can be endured for a couple of years, you will very likely receive a pay raise.
The average salary for all dental hygienists pays around $76,200 per year. This number can grow to over $100,00 with the right combination of experience, education, and place of employment. It is very possible to earn six figures working as a dental hygienist.
While the most common place to work as a dental hygienist is in a dental office, physician offices and government offices also hire for this profession. However, though the pay does not vary too much, you are likely to be paid the most working in a dental office.
Dental hygienists will always be important assistants to dentists. While getting into the field can be very competitive, once you are in you will have no trouble advancing your career. This is one field that is very different in job prospects depending on where you live and plan to practice, so be sure to research your location.
The career of dental hygienists is expected to grow 11 percent by 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a bit higher than most other occupations, and it is primarily due to the aging baby boomer population. As people age, they require more dental work and since the baby boomer generation is a huge one, this means a lot of new and frequent patients.
If you want to enhance your job prospects, consider working in underserved areas, and working part-time. Working in underserved areas means there are likely more employment opportunities, and if you are willing to work part-time, you are more likely to be hired.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?
Becoming a dental hygienist does not take too long. The average degree program only takes two years to complete and you can apply for a license right as you graduate. Sometimes you can even apply for your license one or two months before graduating so that you have a headstart on job hunting.
Some people are able to enroll in accelerated programs and earn their degree in 12 to 18 months. If this interests you, research potential schools before enrolling so that you can enroll in one that offers this option.
How to Become a Dental Hygienist: A Step by Step Guide
Many are surprised by how simple it is to become a dental hygienist. While some of the classes and the license exam can be challenging, becoming a dental hygienist should be a relatively easy process if you follow these steps.
Step 1: Complete High School or a GED
To be accepted into any college, you will need to either complete high school and earn a diploma or earn a GED. Either of these options works as long as the one you choose is the right choice for you.
While in high school, it is not required but it is recommended that you take as many science and math courses as you can. It would also be a good idea to work or volunteer in a medical setting, if possible.
Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
The exciting part of becoming a dental hygienist is that you will not need to earn a graduate-level degree. In fact, many employers will hire you even if you only have an associate degree. However, earning a bachelor’s degree makes you more hireable and you will likely earn better pay.
Most dental hygienists earn their diploma through a university or community college, but you can also earn one through dental schools. Wherever you enroll, your program will need to be accredited by the Commission on Dental Association (CODA) to qualify for the licensing exam.
Degree programs must also cover general education requirements, biomedical science, dental science, and dental hygiene science to be accredited. These are all listed as CODA requirements, so you will need to take this seriously.
Step 3: Apply for a License
After earning your degree, you will need to take the license exam and pass to earn your license. The required exam is the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and many states have other exams or requirements you will need to complete.
Assuming you pass all of the necessary exams, you will then be able to send in your license application. This typically includes a fee, but once you pass the exams and submit your application, it is just a waiting game for your license.
After earning your license, you will need to make note of how often it must be renewed. Renewal times differ based upon state requirements, but the licenses do expire, so it is important to renew it on time.
Step 4: Gain Experience
If you want to advance your career, focus on gaining work experience, taking specialization courses, and even earning a higher degree. While this is not necessary to become a dental hygienist, it does help your career go further.
By earning a master’s degree or doctorate, you qualify not only for higher positions and pay, but also jobs in research. If researching interests you, consider pursuing a graduate-level degree.
Should You Become a Dental Hygienist?
For anyone who wants to work in dentistry, whether as a dental hygienist or a dentist, this is a great career to pursue. Becoming a dental hygienist is an awesome career and it is a good way to work toward becoming a dentist.
FAQs About Becoming a Dental Hygienist
Yes, there are many online programs.
Dental assistants help with administrative tasks and basic procedures while dental hygienists perform more advanced procedures and work almost exclusively with patients and dentists.
No, you cannot become a dental hygienist without a degree. However, you can potentially become a dental assistant without a degree.