Dental Hygienist

Dental Hygienist, Dental Hygienists, Dental Nurse, Oral Hygienist, Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH)  

Clean patients' teeth by removing soft and hard deposits using dental tools and examine patients' teeth and gums looking for diseases and problems. They also may take x-ray pictures and instruct patients on good oral hygiene.

When dental hygienists are finished with their procedures, they consult with the dentist about their findings concerning each patient's dental health. They work closely with dentists, but usually independently while the dentist works with another patient. Some tasks they perform vary from state-to-state because of differences among the laws and regulations that govern this occupation.

Dental hygienists are licensed oral health professionals who focus on preventing and treating oral diseases-both to protect teeth and gums, and also to protect patients' total health. They are graduates of accredited dental hygiene education programs in colleges and universities, and must take a written national board examination and a clinical examination before they are licensed to practice. In addition to treating patients directly, dental hygienists may also work as educators, researchers, and administrators.

Dental hygienists work with dentists to help patients keep and restore healthy teeth and gums and practice good oral hygiene. They work primarily in dental offices and clinics although some can be found working in doctor's offices or government agencies. They usually perform their tasks working with one patient at-a-time while the dentist is treating other patients, but they sometimes will work chair-side together with the dentist for certain procedures. They need to be able to work well with others since they work closely with dentists, dental assistants, and directly with patients.

Dental hygienists use a variety of tools to do their work. During teeth cleaning, they use hand and small rotary instruments and ultrasonic tools to remove tartar, plaque, and stains before finishing with teeth polishing and applying fluoride protection. They use X-ray machines to take dental pictures and often develop the film right after taking them so that they are ready for review by the dentist. They also conduct other types of clinical and laboratory tests for the dentist to interpret.

To help show good oral hygiene practices to patients, dental hygienists often use models of teeth to explain how to correctly brush and floss their teeth and keep their gums healthy. They also show patients how to select toothbrushes and toothpastes and explain the ways that the food they eat impacts their dental health.

Other tasks that dental hygienists may, or may not, perform vary by differences in state laws and regulations. For example, in some states they may administer local or general anesthetics, but in others they cannot. Also, certain states permit dental hygienists to place and carve filling materials or temporary fillings in patients' mouths or smooth and polish metal restorations, but other states do not allow these activities. As a resultof variation in state laws and regulations governing dental hygienists , dental hygienists need to be knowledgeable about what procedures and treatments are permitted and not permitted by the state in which they practice.

As they do their work, dental hygienists often need to wear gloves, masks, eyewear and protective clothing to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases. They also must follow safety procedures to minimize the risks associated with the use of X-ray machines and other dental equipment.

Dental hygienists' work is different from that of dental assistants who also work in dentists' offices and clinics, but who perform other kinds of treatment and administrative tasks and need different kinds of skills and training as a result. As part of their dental career pathway development, some may choose to obtain further training to work or supervise in public health or corporate settings.

Credentials Needed: Dental hygienists must be licensed by the state in which they practice. As part of obtaining this state license, most states require candidates to pass both a written exam and clinical exam. The ADA's Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations administers the written exam which is accepted by all states and the District of Columbia with the exception of Alabama which uses a separate state- administered license exam. The clinical exam is given by either a state or regional accreditation agency. In addition, the majority of states also require passing a separate test on the legal aspects of dental hygiene practice.

To check what your state may require regarding licensing and other credentials for dental hygienists, see "Licenses" under the "Find Programs" section for this career. Dental Guide USA which is listed in the "Resources" section for this career also provides state licensing information for this career.

Some Key Things to Remember: Dental hygienists work with dentists to help patients keep and restore healthy teeth and gums and maintain overall good oral hygiene. A degree from an accredited dental hygiene post-secondary school and a state license are needed for this occupation. Most jobs are in dentists' offices and clinics. The career pathway for a dental hygienist may include obtaining further training to work or supervise in public health or corporate settings.

More Details
Job Growth and Wages
Percent Job Growth:  
33% - Much faster than average
Typical Wages (National):  
Annual: $59,890 - $85,240    Hourly: $29 - $41
Physical/Medical/Health Requirements

Finger Dexterity - The ability to make precisely coordinated movements of the fingers of one or both hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble very small objects. Near Vision - The ability to see details at close range (within a few feet of the observer).

Legal Requirements
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(Data Drawn from O*NET)

Career Snapshot

Typical Education:

Associate's Degree (High School + 2 or more Years)
Find Programs

Percent Job Growth:

33% - Much faster than average
Find Jobs

Typical Wages:

Annual: $59,890 - $85,240

Hourly: $29 - $41