Dental hygienists provide dental support services to the patients of dentists. They examine teeth and gums for abnormalities, teach proper oral hygiene, and remove stains, plaque, and calculus from teeth. They also perform root planning; take and develop dental x rays; and apply cavity-preventive agents such as fluorides and pit and fissure sealants. Some States allow dental hygienists to administer anesthetics; place and carve filling materials, temporary fillings, and periodontal dressings; remove sutures; and smooth and polish metal restorations. They may prepare clinical and laboratory tests but are not allowed to diagnose diseases. During certain dental treatments, dental hygienists work alongside dentists.
Dental hygienists use many types of equipment in their work, including hand and rotary instruments, ultrasonics, x-ray machines, syringes, and models of teeth. They also work with patients to help them understand the basics of sound oral health. They may assist patients in selecting toothbrushes, explain the realities of how diet affects teeth, or demonstrate good brushing and flossing techniques.
Dental hygienists need to have good manual dexterity because tiny errors while working in a patient's mouth could have drastic consequences. They should have good communication skills and be able to work well as part of a team.
In 2002, dental hygienists earned a median hourly wage of $26.59. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $17.34, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $39.24. Earnings varied depending on such factors as geographic location, employment setting, and level of experience.
Training and Education
Dental hygienists are required to obtain a license in the State in which they work. In order to obtain a license, candidates must first graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school and then pass written and clinical tests through the American Dental Association Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations and regional or State testing agencies. In most States, candidates are also required to pass an exam covering the legal aspects of the practice. There are about 265 programs in the U.S. accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Most award an associate degree, while some offer a certificate, bachelor's degree, or a master's degree. An associate degree or certificate in dental hygiene is the minimum requirement for positions in private dental offices.
Requirements for admission to dental hygiene programs vary greatly, but more than half prefer applicants to have at least 1 year of college competed. Courses in these programs include anatomy, physiology, chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, nutrition, radiography, histology (the study of tissue structure), periodontology, (the study of gum diseases), pathology, dental materials, clinical dental hygiene, and social and behavioral sciences.
In 2002, dental hygienists held about 148,000 jobs. More than 50% worked part-time, and almost all worked in offices of dentists.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of dental hygienists is expected to increase much faster than the average. More and more tasks that were previously the responsibility of dentists will be performed by dental hygienists, creating high demand for this occupation. A general increase in the demand for dental care will also add to job growth. In fact, this is expected to be one of the fastest growing occupations, which will result in excellent job opportunities.
For more information on becoming a dental hygienist, please see our directory of Dental Hygienist Schools.