Getting to the Root of Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Though we may shudder at the thought of visiting the dentist, dental office staff who help bring pain relief and brightened smiles can seem like best friends as we're on our way out the door—among them the dental hygienist. Dental hygienists are licensed professionals working alongside dentists to meet the oral health needs of patients. Although you can earn a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, most hygienists opt for a two-year degree offered at a community college or technical school.

Job Description

Duties can vary because each state establishes its own guidelines for licensure and practice. Services provided by a dental hygienist may include the following:

  • Screening patients by reviewing health history and assessing oral health
  • Taking and developing X-rays
  • Cleaning teeth by removing calculus and plaque (hard and soft deposits)
  • Applying sealants and fluorides
  • Instructing patients in procedures necessary for good oral health (such as flossing and brushing)
  • Teaching patients about good nutrition and its role in optimum dental health

Education Requirements

Although you may be able to complete some courses online, the required clinical component makes it impossible to earn an associate degree or bachelor's degree in dental hygiene entirely online. Dental hygiene classes and clinicals are almost always offered during daytime hours to full-time students.

Many community colleges and technical schools offer a two-year program leading to an Associate in Applied Science in Dental Hygiene. Coursework typically includes biology, chemistry, psychology, math, English, communications and human anatomy and physiology. Students also spend time in a clinical setting to learn the skills they will need in the dental office.

Dental hygienists who want to earn a bachelor's degree take all the classes typically offered in a two-year program. They take additional courses in math, science, English, psychology and sociology as well as electives of their choice. The bachelor's degree prepares a dental hygienist for a broader range of opportunities, including dental hygiene education, public health administration and sales/marketing of dental health products.

The master's degree in dental hygiene prepares the hygienist with a bachelor's degree for even more opportunities in dental education and research. Unlike associate and bachelor's degree programs, there is usually not a clinical component to the course of study.

The American Dental Education Association, reporting average costs of earning degrees in dental hygiene, states that a two-year degree costs, on average, $22,262; a bachelor's degree, $36,382; and a master's, $30,421. All average costs are based on rates for in-state/district tuition.

Work Environment

Hygienists are most often employed in private dental practices. They work with licensed dentists, certified dental assistants and other hygienists. Depending on their level of education, some hygienists teach in dental hygiene programs, conduct research, work in the public health sector or find positions in the sales and marketing of oral health products.

Years of Experience

The median wage for a dental hygienist is $34 per hour, or $70,720 per year for full-time employment. There are plenty of part-time opportunities for hygienists, too, and pay averages from $29 to $39 per hour depending on location and level of education. Some hygienists receive pay bonuses, profit sharing and commissions. Salaries generally increase commensurate with experience. Here are average salaries based on length of employment:

  • Entry-level: $62,310 per year
  • Mid-career: $69,010 per year
  • Experienced: $70,350
  • Late-career: $72,360

Job Growth Trend

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for dental hygienists are expected to grow by 20 percent in the next decade, which is faster than average compared to other occupations. The demand for dental services will likely increase as the population ages and as research continues to document the link between oral health and overall health.

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