Dental hygienists are preventive oral health professionals who have graduated from an accredited dental hygiene program in an institution of higher education, licensed in dental hygiene to provide educational, clinical, research, administrative and therapeutic services supporting total health through the promotion of optimum oral health.
In performing the dental hygiene process of care, the dental hygienist assesses the patient’s oral tissues and overall health determining the presence or absence of disease, other abnormalities and disease risks; develops a dental hygiene diagnosis based on clinical findings; formulates evidence-based, patient-centered treatment care plans; performs the clinical procedures outlined in the treatment care plan; educates patients regarding oral hygiene and preventive oral care; and evaluates the outcomes of educational strategies and clinical procedures provided.
Clinical procedures provided typically include removal of plaque, calculus and stains from the teeth; exposing and processing dental X-rays; applying cavity-preventive agents, such as fluorides and pit and fissure sealants; and administering antimicrobial agents. In some states, they also administer local anesthetics and nitrous oxide; place and carve filling materials, temporary fillings, and periodontal dressings; remove sutures; perform root-planing as a periodontal therapy; and polish restorations. In addition, they can provide clinical and laboratory diagnostic tests for interpretation by other health professionals.
Dental hygienists provide clinical services in a variety of settings such as private dental practice, community health settings, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, schools, faculty practice clinics, state and federal government facilities and Indian reservations.
In addition to clinical practice, there are career opportunities in education, research, sales and marketing, public health, administration and government. Some hygienists combine positions in different settings and career paths for professional variety. Working in education and clinical practice is an example.
Flexible work hours can be a feature of this profession, with some hygienists working full-time, others part-time.
Dental hygienists must graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program based in an institution of higher education. Hygienists must also be licensed in the state in which they practice. Requirements for licensure vary from state to state, but generally include successful completion of an accredited entry-level program, successful completion of the written National Dental Hygiene Board examination, a state or regional clinical examination and a state jurisprudence and ethics examination.
Almost all accredited dental hygiene programs minimally offer an associate degree in science or an associate degree in applied science. Applicants to an associate degree granting institution usually complete mandatory pre-requisite coursework prior to beginning the dental hygiene program. Graduates of a four-year college or university are granted a baccalaureate degree in dental hygiene.
Dental hygienists holding an associate degree have opportunities to pursue a baccalaureate degree through degree completion programs specifically designed to advance their education. Many of these programs are offered in either full-time or part-time options and have online or distance education opportunities. Dental hygienists who have completed a baccalaureate degree can pursue a graduate degree in dental hygiene or related discipline. Dental hygienists with advanced degrees have broader opportunities for alternative careers within dentistry, dental education and health care delivery.
Learn More About a Career as a Dental Hygienist
- Download, save and print a PDF of the Dental Hygienist Academic Pathway Chart (November 2010) for information about courses you can take in high school to help prepare you for a career as a dental hygienist.
- The American Dental Hygienists’ Association website has more information about curricula, academic programs, enrollment and graduation information.
- The ADEA Dental Hygiene Centralized Application Service (DHCAS) application cycle opens in September each year.
- Watch the video profile about dental hygienists (in the Health Science section)
- Listen to ADEA Video Mentors discuss why they decided to pursue careers in allied dentistry.
- American Dental Hygienists' Association
- American Dental Education Association
- Hispanic Dental Association
- National Dental Hygienists' Association