Dental Hygienists


Quick Facts: Dental Hygienists
2017 Median Pay $74,070 per year 
$35.61 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Associate's degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2016 207,900
Job Outlook, 2016-26 20% (Much faster than average)
Employment Change, 2016-26 40,900

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Dental Hygienists Career, Salary and Education Information

What Dental Hygienists Do

Dental hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, and provide other preventive dental care. They also educate patients on ways to improve and maintain good oral health.

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dental hygienists

Duties of Dental Hygienists

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 to do their job. They clean and polish teeth with hand, power, and ultrasonic tools. 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 powered tool that works like an automatic toothbrush. Hygienists use x-ray machines to take pictures to check for tooth or jaw problems. Some states allow hygienists with additional training, sometimes called dental therapists, to work with an expanded scope of practice.

Dental hygienists help patients develop and maintain good oral health. For example, they may explain the relationship between diet and oral health. They may also give advice to patients on how to select toothbrushes and other oral care devices.


Work Environment for Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists held about 207,900 jobs in 2016. The largest employers of dental hygienists were as follows:

Offices of dentists: 95%

Government: 1%

Offices of physicians: 1% 

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

Work Schedules for dental hygienists

About half of dental hygienists worked part time in 2016. Dentists often 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

Dental hygienists typically need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Programs typically 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. Bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in dental hygiene also are available, but are less common. 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 commonly found in community colleges, technical schools, and universities. In 2017, the Commission on Dental Accreditation, part of the American Dental Association, accredited more than 300 dental hygiene programs.

Programs typically take 3 years to complete, and offer laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction. Areas of study include physiology, nutrition, radiography, pathology, medical ethics, anatomy, patient management, 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 use critical thinking skills in order to assess and evaluate patients.

Communication skills. Dental hygienists must accurately communicate with dentists and patients about oral health status, oral hygiene care plans, and, as needed, 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 quarters on a small part of the body, requiring fine motor skills using very precise tools and instruments.

Interpersonal skills. Dental hygienists must work closely with dentists and patients. Some patients are in extreme pain or have fears about undergoing dental treatment, and the hygienist must be sensitive to their emotions.

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 grades on 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.


salaries for Dental Hygienists

The median annual wage for dental hygienists was $74,070 in May 2017. 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 $51,180, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $101,330.

 

In May 2017, the median annual wages for dental hygienists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Offices of dentists: $74,350

Offices of physicians: $69,630

Government: $58,940

Benefits, such as vacation, sick leave, and retirement contributions vary by employer and may be available only to full-time workers. About half of dental hygienists worked part time in 2016. Dentists often hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.


Job Outlook for dental hygienists

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 for dental hygienists

Although the demand for dental services is growing, the number of new graduates from dental hygiene programs also has increased, resulting in more competition for jobs. Candidates can expect very strong competition for most full-time hygienist positions. Job seekers with previous work experience should have the best job opportunities. There are areas in the United States, typically rural areas, where patients need dental care but have little access to it. Job prospects will be especially good for dental hygienists who are willing to work in these areas.

Employment projections data for Dental Hygienists, 2016-26

Employment, 2016: 207,900

Projected Employment, 2026: 248,900

Change, 2016-2026: +20%, +41,000


Careers Related to dental hygienists

Dental Assistants

Dental assistants perform many tasks, ranging from providing patient care and taking x rays to recordkeeping and scheduling appointments. Their duties vary by state and by the dentists’ offices where they work.

Dentists

Dentists diagnose and treat problems with patients’ teeth, gums, and related parts of the mouth. They provide advice and instruction on taking care of the teeth and gums and on diet choices that affect oral health.

Medical Assistants

Medical assistants complete administrative and clinical tasks in the offices of physicians, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities. Their duties vary with the location, specialty, and size of the practice.

Physician Assistants

Physician assistants, also known as PAs, practice medicine on teams with physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare workers. They examine, diagnose, and treat patients.

Physicians and Surgeons

Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses. Physicians examine patients; take medical histories; prescribe medications; and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare. Surgeons operate on patients to treat injuries, such as broken bones; diseases, such as cancerous tumors; and deformities, such as cleft palates.

Radiation Therapists

Radiation therapists treat cancer and other diseases in patients by administering radiation treatments.

Registered Nurses

Registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members.

OccupationENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION2017 MEDIAN PAY
Dental AssistantsPostsecondary nondegree award$37,630
DentistsDoctoral or professional degree$158,120
Medical AssistantsPostsecondary nondegree award$32,480
Physician AssistantsMaster's degree$104,860
Physicians and SurgeonsDoctoral or professional degreeThis wage is equal to or greater than $208,000 per year.
Radiation TherapistsAssociate's degree$80,570
Registered NursesBachelor's degree$70,000

Citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dental Hygienists,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm