Dental hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, and provide other preventative dental care. They also educate patients on ways to improve and maintain good oral health.
Dental hygienists typically do the following:
- Remove tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
- Apply sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
- Take and develop dental x rays
- Keep track of patient care and treatment plans
- Teach patients oral hygiene techniques, such as how to brush and floss correctly
Dental hygienists use many types of tools to do their job. They clean and polish teeth with hand, power, and ultrasonic tools. In some cases, they remove stains with an air-polishing device, which sprays a combination of air, water, and baking soda. They polish teeth with a powered tool that works like an automatic toothbrush. Hygienists use x ray machines to take pictures to check for tooth or jaw problems.
Dental hygienists help patients develop and maintain good oral health. For example, they may explain the relationship between diet and oral health. They may also give advice to patients on how to select toothbrushes and other oral-care devices.
Other tasks hygienists may perform vary by state. Some states allow hygienists to place and carve filling materials, temporary fillings, and periodontal dressings.
Dental hygienists wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. When taking x rays, they follow strict procedures to protect themselves and patients. They may spend long periods bending over to work on patients.
More than half of dental hygienists worked part time in 2012. Dentists often hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.
Dental hygienists typically need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. All states require dental hygienists to be licensed; requirements vary by state.
Dental hygienists typically need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Bachelor's degrees in dental hygiene are also available, but are less common. A bachelor's or master's degree is usually required for research, teaching, or clinical practice in public or school health programs.
High school students interested in becoming dental hygienists should take courses in biology, chemistry, and mathematics. Some dental hygiene programs also require applicants to have completed at least 1 year of college. Specific entrance requirements vary by school.
Most schools offer laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction. Hygienists study anatomy, physiology, nutrition, radiography, and periodontology, which is the study of gum disease.
Detail oriented. Dental hygienists must follow specific rules and protocols to help dentists diagnose and treat a patient. In rare cases, dental hygienists work without the direct supervision of a dentist.
Dexterity. Dental hygienists must be good at working with their hands. They generally work in tight quarters on a small part of the body, using very precise tools and instruments.
Interpersonal skills. Dental hygienists must work closely with dentists and patients.
Physical stamina. Dental hygienists should be comfortable performing physical tasks, such as bending over patients for a long time.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Every state requires dental hygienists to be licensed; requirements vary by state. In most states, a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program and passing grades on written and practical examinations are required for licensure. For specific application requirements, contact your state’s medical or health board.
The median annual wage for dental hygienists was $70,210 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $46,540, and the top 10 percent earned more than $96,280.
Some dental hygienists receive benefits, such as vacation, sick leave, and contributions to their retirement fund. However, benefits vary by employer and may be available only to full-time workers.
More than half of dental hygienists worked part time in 2012.
Employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 33 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will continue to spur the demand for preventative dental services, which are often provided by dental hygienists.
As their practices expand, dentists will hire more hygienists to perform routine dental care, allowing the dentist to see more patients. In addition, as the large baby-boom population ages and people keep more of their original teeth than previous generations did, the need to maintain and treat these teeth will continue to drive demand for dental care.
Federal health legislation is expected to expand the number of patients who have access to health insurance. People with new or expanded dental insurance coverage will be more likely to visit a dentist than in the past. As a result, the demand for all dental services, including those performed by hygienists, will increase.
For information about educational requirements and available accredited programs for dental hygienists, visit
For information about accredited programs and educational requirements, visit
The State Board of Dental Examiners in each state can provide information on licensing requirements.