How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Complete 2020 Guide

Dental hygienists serve a critical role in the dental office, supporting the dentist in all aspects of patient care, and even managing some patient treatment responsibilities themselves.

This position requires specialized training, including coursework and clinical experience. The licensing requirements vary by state, but all dental hygienists must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene examination to practice in a clinic.

According to U.S. News and Reports, dental hygienists made a median salary of $74,820 in 2019, with the highest earners making close to $90,000. They list dental hygienists as the #1 Best Healthcare Support Job, and #24 in 100 Best Jobs.

A dental hygienist position is demanding and fast-paced, but the job offers stability, good work hours, and a healthy work-life balance. It’s an ideal job for people with good communication skills, patience and focus, and an ability to adapt to changing situations.

If you’re interested in a career as a dental hygienist, the following guide can help you get started.

Dental Hygienist Education and Training

Becoming a dental hygienist requires specialized training in dental hygiene. You can attend a dental hygiene program at a community or technical college, or dental school or university. Some states also provide dental hygiene training at a vocational or trade school. A two-year program provides students with an associate’s degree, which allows them to take licensing exams and work in a dental clinic or office.

Some dental hygienists attend university and achieve a bachelor’s (4 years) or master’s degree (an additional 2 years), which allows them to teach or do research, or for clinical practice in a school or public health program. This additional education is not necessary to practice dental hygiene in a dental clinic, however: most dental hygienists attend school for 2 years before getting licensed and practicing in a dental office.

When seeking a dental hygiene program, make sure it is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which is a national agency devoted to dental education. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), there are currently 326 accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States. You can search dental program by state at DentalCareersEDU.org.

How to Get into a Dental Hygienist Program

Dental hygiene programs require an application and an admissions process. The programs are selective: you may not be accepted in your first round of applications. Generally, you will need a high school degree and some higher-level pre-requisite courses, such as biology, anatomy and physiology, with a GPA of 2.5 or higher. Students often enroll in a community college to take pre-requisites before applying to the dental hygiene program.

Be sure to check the pre-requisites of the program to which you are applying, to make sure the courses you’ve taken cover the necessary material. If you have questions about the admissions process, an admissions officer at the program should be able to provide answers.

According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), the average cost of an associate’s degree in dental hygiene for an in-state college program is $22,692. A bachelor’s degree costs more, around $36,382. This cost does not include books and supplies, room and board, medical insurance, or transportation. Be sure to make a budget to determine whether you can afford the cost of being in school. The course-load is demanding, so depending on your time management skills and other responsibilities, you may not be able to work while you’re in dental hygiene school. There are loans available to help you pay for your tuition.

Online dental hygiene programs exist, but they will only provide the coursework part of your training: you will have to seek clinical training outside of the program.

Once you are in the program, your training will consist of in-class coursework, covering an array of medical and dental training. You will also have lab training and clinical training, where you’ll work in a dental clinic to gain hands-on expertise.

Getting Licensed After a Dental Hygiene Program

Once you’ve successfully completed your dental hygiene program, you will need to become licensed in order to begin work as a dental hygienist. You’ll need to pass two sets of exams:

  1. The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  2. State-level or regional clinical board examination

To find out more about the state or regional examinations required by your state, find your state’s dental board on this database compiled by the American Association of Dental Boards.

The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination is a written test comprised of two components:

  • Discipline-based
  • Case-based

The exam consists of 350 multiple-choice questions. The test is scored on a scale, from 49-99. You must receive a 75 to pass.

State and regional tests vary: in New York, for instance, you must sit for a clinical (practical) examination and pay the state education department a fee for your license.

Once you have passed both sets of exams, you can officially add RDH after your name: you are a registered dental hygienist. You’ll need to keep your license up to date with renewals and continuing education in order to maintain your RDH credentials.

How to Find a Job as a Dental Hygienist

Once you’re a registered dental hygienist, you can begin looking for jobs in a dental office. There are many ways to find a great position.

  • Use your dental hygiene program’s job board or hiring resources. Most schools and universities work hard to help their students find placements after graduating. Ask your school’s administrators about a job board, email list-serve, or any other materials that may help connect you to open positions.
  • Search an online job board, such as ZipRecruiter, Indeed, CareerBuilder, or Craigslist. These online job boards have become the new version of classified pages in the newspaper: thousands of companies post jobs on these sites. You can filter for preferences like part or full time, minimum pay, and distance from your home, to find the right job for you.
  • Look into positions at the clinic where you trained. If you did a clinical rotation or an externship at a dental office and you enjoyed the experience, ask their management about any open positions. You’ll already have a foot in the door from training there, which can be a huge advantage when getting hired.
  • Contact local dentist’s offices. Making a call, sending an email, or even dropping by can be an easy, neighborly way to finding a job in your community. Let them know you’ve recently completed your training and licensure and ask about any open positions. Even if they’re not hiring at the moment, they will likely appreciate your proactive approach and keep you in mind for future positions. Be sure to leave your contact info, and follow up with a friendly email thanking them for their time.
  • Join your state’s chapter of the American Dental Hygiene Association (ADHA). This professional organization was created to connect dental hygienists with resources, professional training, and a network of colleagues. By joining the ADHA, you’ll gain a large network of others in your field, who may be able to connect you with career opportunities. The ADHA also offers continuing education, conferences, and other professional resources. Find your state’s ADHA chapter with this guide.

Skills of a Successful Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists perform a wide array of tasks throughout the day at a dental clinic. Some of these duties include:

  • Screening patients for oral health and any potential negative developments 
  • Cleaning teeth
  • Exposing a processing dental radiographs (x-rays)
  • Applying cavity prevention agents like sealants and fluoride
  • Providing clinical and lab tests
  • Educating patients on proper oral health

Other duties depend on the regulations of the specific state: dental hygienists may also administer local anesthetic and./or nitrous oxide, remove sutures, and perform fillings or periodontal dressings.

The wide range of clinical duties require dedicated training and expertise, but they also require some important personality qualities.

According to the ADEA, a successful dental hygienist has the following qualities:

  • Patient and understanding
  • Detail-oriented
  • Passionate about their work, their patients, and oral health
  • Sturdy on one’s feet
  • Positive attitude

If you have a number of the above traits, a career in dental hygiene may be ideal for you.

Interested in a career as a dental hygienist with Diamond Braces?