Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists are a crucial part of the dental healthcare workforce. They examine patients for oral disease, provide preventative dental care, and educate their patients about oral health. As the general population lives longer (and keeps more of their teeth), more dental hygienists will be needed to provide basic dental services that keep patients smiling. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021), job openings for dental hygienists are set to grow 11 percent between 2020 and 2030, with approximately 15,600 new job openings each year, on average.

The role of the dental hygienist has changed significantly in recent years, and organizations such as the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) are pushing for expanded educational opportunities and wider scopes of practice for dental hygienists. Those efforts could help expand access to high-quality, cost-effective dental care for millions of Americans.

Currently, 42 states allow dental hygienists to initiate patient care in a setting other than a private dental office without a dentist. More states may soon follow suit.

To learn more about how to become a dental hygienist, read on.

Dental Hygienist Specializations and Degree Types

Dental hygienists will need at least an associate degree in order to practice. However, many go on to complete bachelor’s degrees, which allows for future training at the graduate level. 

Depending on a state’s scope of practice laws, advanced dental hygienists may choose to specialize as dental therapists and enjoy a higher level of practice authority.  

Admissions Requirements for Dental Hygienist Programs

For associate-level degree programs, aspiring dental hygienists will need a high school diploma or GED, as well as some prerequisite courses in anatomy and biology. 

For bachelor’s-level degree completion programs, aspiring dental hygienists will need an associate degree in dental hygiene and a current dental hygienist license. 

For master’s-level degree programs, dental hygienists will need a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater), a current dental hygienist license, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

Dental Hygienist Program Accreditation

Entry-level education programs for dental hygienists may be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Established in 1975, it is the only agency authorized to accredit dental and dental-related education programs conducted at the post-secondary level.

On-Campus Dental Hygienist Programs

New York University (Associate Degree)

NYU offers a fast-track associate’s degree program in dental hygiene that can be completed in as little as 17 months. The first of its kind in New York State, it’s designed to provide the same high-quality education as a two- to three-year program in a more concentrated period. 

Courses include subjects such as oral anatomy; principles of dental hygiene; periodontics; pharmacology; and oral health education. The program consists of 78 credits. 

  • Location: Manhattan, NY
  • Duration: 17 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $1,500 per credit

Foothill College (Bachelor’s Degree)

Foothill College offers an on-campus bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene. The curriculum follows a ‘2+2’ format, which consists of two years of prerequisite courses followed by two years of dental hygiene courses. 

The program is highly academic, with an emphasis on evidence-based practice and clinical skills. Graduates will be prepared to take national and state licensure exams.

  • Location: Los Altos Hills, CA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $205 per credit

University of Washington (Master’s Degree)

The master of science in dental hygiene program at the University of Washington is designed to train dental hygienists to be educators and teachers. 

The required coursework covers areas such as microbiology; immunology; anatomy and physiology; oral pathology; and biostatistics. Electives are available on a wide range of subjects, including clinical literature reviews; local anesthesia; clinical stomatology; and craniofacial anatomy. The program consists of at least 70 credits and includes a capstone research project. 

  • Location: Seattle, WA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Tuition: $33,519 per year

Online or Hybrid Dental Hygienist Programs

Oregon Institute of Technology (Bachelor’s Degree Completion)

This online degree completion program at Oregon Tech allows graduates to complete a bachelor of science in dental hygiene. In order to be eligible, applicants must already hold a dental hygienist license. 

Professional courses in this program cover areas such as dental practice management; evidence-based decision-making in healthcare; and small group and team communication. The program consists of 194 credits in total, 45 of which must be taken at Oregon Tech. 

  • Location: Klamath Falls, OR
  • Duration: 2 years
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Tuition: $281 per credit

Ohio State University (Bachelor’s Degree Completion)

Ohio State University’s online bachelor’s degree completion program in dental hygiene offers a flexible curriculum for licensed dental hygienists who want to advance their education. The program includes sections on general education, advanced dental hygiene, and areas of specialization. 

Advanced dental hygiene courses cover topics such as periodontal therapy; research methods and interpretation; practice management; and oral health behavior management. The program consists of 120 credits. 

  • Location: Columbus, OH
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA)
  • Tuition: $20,280 total

UT Health San Antonio (Master’s Degree)

The online master of science in dental hygiene program at UT Health San Antonio is designed to prepare graduates for leadership roles in a wide variety of settings. 

The curriculum includes courses such as biostatistics; public health policy; health promotion; professional communications; and research principles and applications. Students will also complete a preclinical training practicum, clinical training practicum, a research apprenticeship, and a thesis. The program consists of 36 credits. 

  • Location: San Antonio, TX
  • Duration: Two to three years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $250 per credit

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

Generally speaking, it can take as few as two to three postsecondary school years to become a dental hygienist. But faster is not always better. Some of the best dental hygienists choose to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, taking longer to enter into the profession, but arriving in leadership roles.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Earn an Associate’s Degree (Two to Three Years)

After graduating from high school (or completing a GED), aspiring dental hygienists will need to earn an associate’s degree that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). 

These are generally in-person programs, as students will receive didactic as well as clinical training. As part of their postsecondary education, aspiring dental hygienists should expect to complete between 550 and 700 hours of clinical work. 

Step 2: Obtain Licensure (Timeline Varies)

After completing their undergraduate degree, aspiring dental hygienists will need to obtain licensure. Specific requirements will vary from state to state. Generally speaking, dental hygienists will need to pass the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, as well as a state’s clinical-based exam. 

Specific requirements are dictated by each state’s Board of Dental Examiners; you can find a contact list of all state dental boards on the American Dental Association website. 

Step 3: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree (Two Years, Optional)

After obtaining licensure, a dental hygienist may choose to complete a bachelor’s degree. While it’s not a requirement in order to practice, licensed dental hygienists will find a number of online degree-completion options that allow them to complete a bachelor’s degree while maintaining a work schedule. 

Dental hygienists with bachelor’s degrees are well prepared to pursue continuing education, take on leadership roles, and advance within the dental hygienist profession.

Step 4: Earn a Master’s Degree (One to Two, Years, Optional)

While it’s not a requirement in order to practice, some dental hygienists may choose to pursue a master’s degree in dental hygiene. 

After developing core competencies for such programs in 2011, the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) has recently revised its standards for graduate programs in dental hygiene. Dental hygienists with master’s degrees are prepared to assume leadership roles within multidisciplinary dental teams and help determine the course of the dental hygiene profession. 

What Do Dental Hygienists Do?

Dental hygienists examine patients, provide preventative care, and educate patients about oral health. Their precise scope of practice, and their level of autonomy, will vary by state and by individual setting. 

Some common tasks of dental hygienists include:

  • Assessing patients’ oral health
  • Applying sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
  • Conducting preliminary patient exams
  • Documenting patient care and treatment plans
  • Performing dental x-rays
  • Polishing patients’ teeth
  • Removing tartar, plaque, and stains from patients’ teeth

Dental Hygienist Certifications & Licensure

All states require dental hygienists to be licensed in order to practice, but specific requirements vary from state to state. 

For most states, dental hygienists will need to obtain a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program, pass the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and pass any state or regional clinical board exams. 

Specific requirements are dictated by each state’s Board of Dental Examiners; you can find a contact list of all state dental boards on the American Dental Association website.

How Much Do Dental Hygienists Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020), the average annual wage for the 194,830 dental hygienists across the country was $78,050 with the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $54,200
  • 25th percentile: $65,440
  • 50th percentile (median): $77,090
  • 75th percentile: $91,620
  • 90th percentile: $104,420

Dental Hygienist Career Alternatives

Become a Dental Assistant

Dental assistants perform administrative tasks and some clinical tasks in dental offices. The precise scope of practice for dental assistants will vary from state to state; licensure and certification requirements will, too. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021), the need for dental assistants is set to grow 11 percent between 2020 and 2030. 

  • Typical Education: Associate gegree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Dental Assisting National Board (DANB)

Become a Dentist

Dentists diagnose and treat problems with patients’ teeth, gums, and related parts of the mouth. They may own their own practice, co-own a practice with partners, or work as part of the dental team at a healthcare facility. Dentists may also go on to specialize in areas such as oral surgery or orthodontics. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or doctor of dental medicine (DMD)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Board Dental Examinations (NBDE)

Become a Medical Assistant

Medical assistants perform administrative and clinical tasks in a variety of different healthcare settings. While most medical assistants will have post-secondary education and obtain professional certification, neither is a strict requirement in order to practice. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021), the need for medical assistants is set to grow 18 percent by 2030. 

  • Typical Education: Associate degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He’s been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt’s writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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