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How to Become a Dental Hygienist – Education & Certification

how to become a dental hygienist

The world of oral health care is essential and stable. It draws aspiring professionals of all skill levels. While becoming a dentist can take many years and stressful preparations, dental hygiene is a much more accessible field. If you are asking how to become a dental hygienist, read on.

Dental hygiene is essential, just like general dentistry. In this article, we’ll explain step-by-step how to get into this career. We’ll also explore the average salary and related careers should you choose to advance beyond this position.

What is a Dental Hygienist?

A dental hygienist is a trained oral health care professional who assists patients and dentists alike. Most perform the secondary or “basic” dental healthcare services most people will recognize. For example, these professionals usually clean a patient’s teeth before a dentist examines them during a routine oral care appointment.

Typical duties include:

  • Cleaning teeth by removing plaque, tartar, and tooth stains
  • Performing dental x-rays
  • Assessing patient oral health
  • Applying fluorides or other chemicals to patients’ teeth
  • Administering anesthetics to patients in some cases
  • Conducting preliminary exams for patients
  • Assisting dentists as required
  • Educating patients on oral hygiene practices

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Becoming a dental hygienist is relatively straightforward. As medical healthcare professionals, they must adhere to strict licensure and educational requirements before acquiring even an entry-level position.

  1. Earn a Degree in Dental Hygiene
  2. Acquire State Licensure
  3. Apply to Positions
  4. Advance Your Career

Requirements for Dental Hygienist

There are dental hygienist education requirements that every professional in this field must meet before acquiring employment. To gain an entry-level dental hygienist position, one must have at least an associate degree in the industry. However, aspiring dental hygienists may also benefit from acquiring more advanced educational credentials.

After graduating, all dental hygienists must complete CE, or continuing education credits every one to two years. These brief college-level courses ensure dental hygienists stay updated with modern oral healthcare practices and principles.

Dental Hygiene Degree Admission Requirements

The first dental hygienist education requirement is an associate degree in dental hygiene, dental health, or a related subject. These programs typically require students to have a minimum GPA of 2.0 or above.

However, advanced dental hygienist college programs may have additional requirements. Some common requirements include:

  • Specific class prerequisites: For example, most dental hygienist programs require students to complete classes in biology, chemistry, and similar subjects.
  • Letters of recommendation: These are usually required only for advanced degrees at the graduate level or higher
  • Work experience: This requirement is only needed for advanced degrees as well. However, professionals may also need this for continuing education programs (a necessity for all dental hygienists)

The more impressive an applicant’s GPA and credentials are upon application, the likelier it is they will get into their chosen program. The most competitive programs offer work experience opportunities, more financial aid, and other perks.

Thus, aspiring dental hygienists should strive to earn excellent grades before attending college.

Types of Dental Hygienist Programs

Students can study dental hygiene through many different types of online and in-person programs. Associate-level programs are required to become a dental hygienist. But bachelor’s programs and higher can still benefit one’s career.

Dental Hygienist Associate’s Degree

Every dental hygienist must have an associate degree in dental hygiene at a bare minimum. An associate degree in dental hygiene will cover subjects including but not limited to:

  • Dental healthcare practices
  • The chemistry of the mouth and teeth
  • Dental science principles
  • Medical ethics and philosophy

An associate degree is an entry-level degree in the field of dental hygiene. A typical associate degree can be completed in between one and two years, depending on a student’s prior credits or work experience. Students can also pursue many associate degrees online and part-time for additional schedule flexibility.

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Bachelor’s

Bachelor’s degrees in dental science are more advanced and are appropriate for acquiring more competitive dental hygiene positions. They aren’t strictly required to become a dental hygienist, though they are never a bad thing to have on one’s resume.

Bachelor’s degrees in dental science or dental hygiene cover topics including but not limited to:

  • Advanced dental healthcare practices
  • Advanced biology and chemistry
  • X-ray training and training in other medical techniques

Bachelor’s degrees take four years from start to finish. However, those students with associate degrees can complete most bachelor’s programs in two years or less. Depending on prerequisites or work experience, it’s possible to shorten the time frame for a typical bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s degrees sometimes include in-person components called practicums. However, this is not universal. Students who want to complete their education entirely online should avoid programs with required in-person classes or hours.

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Master’s

Graduate-level degrees in dental hygiene and dental science are even more advanced. They are never necessary to acquire entry-level dental hygienist positions.

That said, master’s programs in dental hygiene can be advantageous for hygienists who want to advance their careers. These programs can be beneficial and may be required for administrative positions, teaching positions, and more.

Additionally, the most competitive dental hygienist positions may require a master’s degree in the field. Master’s degrees take an additional two years on top of the bachelor’s degree requirements discussed above.

Depending on the degree program chosen, some students can declare a concentration in dental science or hygiene. Concentrations can range from orthodontics to tooth care to tooth replacement and more. Dental hygienists who like their careers but want additional responsibilities or higher salaries may consider attending a graduate program.

Dental hygienists with graduate degrees in the field typically earn more money than those with lower degrees. They’re assumed to have more advanced skills and experience, which warrants a higher paycheck.

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Dental Hygienist School Online: What to Look For

Those wanting to become dental hygienists should not attend just any college program. Instead, they should look for specific factors when selecting the right program for their needs and career ambitions.

Dental Hygienist School Accreditation

The first key thing to look for is accreditation from the Commission on Dental Accreditation. This commission accredits dental programs throughout the country. Its primary goal is to ensure that college programs provide relevant and rigorous training to ensure new dental hygienists do their jobs properly.

The CODA accredits three different varieties of training programs for dental hygienists. These are:

  • Entry-level programs: These include associate and bachelor’s-level degree programs.
  • Degree completion programs: These programs are for current dental hygienists who already have bachelor’s degrees but need continuing education credits.
  • Graduate-level programs: These programs are intended for dental hygienists or students with a bachelor’s degree in the field.

Those interested in this career should double-check that the CODA accredits their chosen degree program. Furthermore, non-accredited programs may disqualify job candidates from receiving dental hygienist positions. Fortunately, most of the quality online programs recommended are accredited by the CODA.

Dental School Requirements

Students should also consider the type of program, as broken down above. For example, new dental hygienists may wish to attend a bachelor’s or master’s-level program to further their education and earn higher salaries over time.

But students who aren’t yet dental hygienists can start with an associate-level program. Remember, most positions only require an associate degree and licensure. Beginning with a two-year degree is the best way to start one’s career early and build up the skills necessary to succeed.

Then there’s online versus in-person degrees. Some programs are entirely online, while others require students to attend in-person classes. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

For example, online programs are more flexible with their scheduling. They often follow asynchronous course completion formats. This setup allows students to complete coursework within their own time frames, provided they turn it in by a deadline.

In-person programs may provide more significant opportunities to connect with peers or teachers. They may also allow aspiring dental hygienists to meet professionals currently working in the field.

Ultimately, students must decide which degree program type is right for their needs. Both in-person and online programs should include the needed classes and topics to make them worthwhile. However, the exact class content can vary from program to program.

How Long is Dental Hygienist School?

Don’t forget to consider length as well. As mentioned above, most associate-level degrees take two years. Most bachelor’s and master’s-level programs take four years and two years, respectively.

Students who want to become dental hygienists as quickly as possible should pursue an associate degree at first. Most, if not all, of the credits earned during an associate degree should also transfer over to a bachelor’s program. Transferring credits will allow those students to complete a bachelor’s program in two years instead of four should they choose to continue their education later.

Remember that some programs are part-time, while others are full-time. Part-time programs necessarily take longer to complete. Full-time schedules require students to focus almost exclusively on their work. Participants may not have enough time to juggle other responsibilities like holding down a job or caring for a family.

Dental Hygienist License

The next major step is acquiring licensure for one’s state of residence or operation. Every state requires practicing dental hygienists to hold up-to-date licenses. Licensure requirements can vary heavily.

What is an RDH License?

An RDH, or Registered Dental Hygienist, a license is an integral part of becoming a dental hygienist. It marks the holder as having the skills and experience necessary to practice as a dental hygienist in a specific state.

Why is an RDH License Important?

All dental hygienists must have an RDH license to prove they’re qualified to work at a dental practice or other medical facilities. Furthermore, an RDH license shows which specific state they can practice in.

Each state has different licensing requirements. These requirements can include years of schooling, practical experience hours, or even content on licensure exams. Essentially, a RDH license shows that a dental hygienist operates according to the rules of their local state.

In addition, RDH licensure protects the public from being operated on by unqualified individuals.

Licensing Requirements

To acquire an RDH license in one’s state, aspiring dental hygienists must look up the state requirements for that license. The exact requirements can vary, though they are relatively similar from state to state. Most of the differences apply to the application process and exam procedures.

Alternative Paths

Due to COVID-19, some states have alternative paths or requirements for RDH licensure. These relate to where students can take the exam or how much schooling they need to qualify for it. All those interested in pursuing this career should check with their state’s dental board for up-to-date information regarding these changing rules.

Main Requirements

Every state has a few core requirements dental hygiene students must complete to receive licensure. These are:

  • Graduation from a CODA-accredited dental hygiene program (This can mean graduation from an associate to a master’s degree program.)
  • Completion of the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Completion of the regional or state clinical board examination (name can vary)

Limitations

There are some limitations to an RDH license. States can revoke the licenses of practicing dental hygienists if they break the rules or do an inappropriate action while on the job. Licensure may also be withdrawn from those who demonstrate they are not qualified for their position.

Exam

All future dental hygienists must take both the national and state exams. And they must take one of two different exams depending on their state’s requirements.

The National Board Dental Examination (NBDE) Part I and II

The National Board Dental Examination is a two-part exam that takes place over 2 to 3 days. To begin with, participants will complete 400 multiple-choice questions focusing on knowledge of the foundational sciences. These include microbiology, biochemistry, human anatomy, and dental anatomy questions.

The second part of the NBDE takes two days. Questions focus on more in-depth clinical and dental topics. These topics include periodontics, pharmacology, endodontics, operative dentistry, and more.

The NBDE is pass/fail. That means students don’t receive a specific score. All students have to worry about is scoring high enough to pass in the first place.

The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE)

The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination is another exam that may be required depending on one’s state of residence or operation. It’s also a multiple-choice exam that tests an individual’s ability to understand critical information about the dental hygiene industry. It also tests an individual’s ability to apply that information for problem-solving on the fly.

Dental Hygiene Career

Many pursue this career path due to perceived career stability and good earning potential. Let’s break down what one can expect in this career from earning potential to career opportunities.

Salary Information

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average registered dental hygienist’s salary is about $77,810 annually. This wage is more impressive than the national average. Furthermore, the highest-paid dental hygienists earn over $100,000 per year. Most of these hygienists have a lot of experience or have been working in the industry for some time.

Perhaps more importantly, the dental hygienist profession is projected to be more critical and in demand over the next decade. The BLS further suggests that the rate of employment should increase by 11% until 2030. This rate is much higher than the average growth rate for all occupations.

Bottom line: these professionals should earn good salaries for their educational requirements. They should also not have difficulty finding a position after graduating and acquiring licensure.

Types of Jobs for Dental Hygienists

There are many career paths a dental hygenist can take.  They can also branch out into different careers or fields. Many of these careers require additional education, the time for which can be truncated given a hygienist’s prior educational credits.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time

Part-time positions are in demand and very flexible. They often require hygienists to work fewer than 35 hours per week. Most part-time jobs are available at small dental practices.

Full-time positions require working more than 35 hours per week. They are more available at larger dental clinics and practices. These positions may also be open at specific hospitals or medical facilities. Full-time positions offer more significant opportunities for advancement and usually higher pay.

Regardless, the majority of dental hygienists work at private practices.

Pediatric vs. Adult Dentistry

Dental hygienists can specialize in pediatric or adult dentistry. Pediatric dentistry focuses on providing dental hygiene services to children. Adult dentistry focuses on adult oral healthcare. Both careers can be rewarding, although pediatric hygienists typically receive lower pay than those who service adults.

Related Careers

Dental hygienists can pursue a variety of related jobs and careers. These include:

  • Dental assistants. They perform some but not all of the same tasks as hygienists. They schedule appointments more often, for example.
  • Dentists. Dentists diagnose and treat immediate problems with the teeth of their patients. However, those who wish to become dentists must complete several more years of schooling.
  • Registered nurses. RNs provide patient care while educating patients and the public about their health. They do not focus on oral health care. RN positions require additional licensure in schooling.

FAQs

What does a dental hygienist do?

A dental hygienist assists dentists in everyday oral health care tasks. For example, they clean patient teeth, perform x-rays, and conduct oral healthcare examinations for their patients as needed.

How long does it take to become a dental hygienist?

Becoming a dental hygienist takes anywhere between two and six years. Students must acquire an associate degree at a minimum to qualify for an entry-level position.

What requirements do I need to meet to become a dental hygienist?

These professional must have:

  • At a minimum, an associate degree in dental hygiene or dental science
  • A license from their state of operation

However, advanced dental hygiene positions may have ancillary requirements like work experience or a higher degree.

What dental hygienist prerequisites must I meet?

Prerequisites include:

  • An associate degree accredited by the CODA
  • A passing grade on the NBDE

How long is a dental hygienist program?

Dental hygienist programs can range from two years long to six years long or more. Part-time programs typically take longer than full-time programs. Students can potentially complete an associate-level program in less than two years, depending on prior class credits they may hold.

Can I attend an online dental hygienist program?

Yes. Online dental hygienist programs are available from the associate to graduate levels.

Do I need to be certified to be a dental hygienist?

Yes. All dental hygienists must have state certification to practice legally. This certification is called RDH, or Registered Dental Hygienist.

How much does it cost to become a dental hygienist?

It depends on the degree program one pursues. Associate degree programs can cost less than $10,000 in total. Master’s level programs can cost upwards of $100,000 in total. According to the ADHA (American Dental Hygienists’ Association), the average dental hygiene associate degree costs over $22,000. The average bachelor’s degree costs over $36,000. The average master’s degree costs over $30,000.

What is the difference between a dental hygienist and a dental assistant?

A dental hygienist assists dentists directly with oral healthcare procedures. In contrast, a dental assistant is not usually qualified to work on patient teeth. For instance, a dental hygienist more often cleans plaque for patients. A dental assistant may schedule appointments or work the front desk while refilling necessary supplies.