There are about 175,000 dental hygienists working in the United States. Job growth statistics suggest that the occupation will grow by 32% over the next ten years; this is far above average. In fact, this occupation is one of the fastest growing in the nation.
Dental hygienists scrape deposits from teeth, teach patients how to brush, floss and maintain good oral hygiene. Hygienists inspect a patient’s teeth and gums and document any indication of diseases or abnormalities they may have noticed. They utilize hand and rotary instruments as well as ultrasonic equipment to clean and polish the patient’s teeth. By these methods, stains, tartar and plaque are removed. Hygienists are trained to take dental photographs using an x-ray machine. Some hygienists are also responsible for developing the film. Dental hygienists also perform root preparation as periodontal treatment, and introduce cavity prevention agents like fluoride or pit and fissure sealants. Hygienists are permitted to administer anesthetics in some states; in others, they may do so but only local anesthetics given with a syringe. In some states dental hygienists are allowed to carve temporary fillings and place filling material, or periodontal dressings as well as take out sutures and smooth and buff metal restorations. At times, hygienists might suggest a diagnosis or prepare diagnostic clinical and laboratory tests for the dentist’s interpretation.
Dental hygienists work in clean, well organized and brightly lit offices. Risks of the job include exposure to radioactive material and anesthetic gases; however, by strictly adhering to proper procedures and wearing or using protective devices, these risks are minimal. Dental hygienists use safety glasses, gloves and surgical masks to limit the chance of catching or spreading infectious diseases. Because they sit for extended periods of time when working on a patient, dental hygienists must protect themselves against shoulder or neck injuries.
There is considerable flexibility in this type of work. Some hygienists work full-time in a standard, 40-hour week. Others work part-time. Evening and weekend schedules to accommodate patient needs may be necessary. Many hygienists are employed by more than one office.
Dental hygienists must have a degree from an accredited school as well as a state license. Dental program requirements include a high school diploma and satisfactory college entrance test scores. High school students preparing to become dental hygienists should focus on biology, math, and chemistry. Some programs require students to have also finished at minimum one year of college. The Commission on Dental Accreditation has accredited more than 300 dental hygiene programs. While a few programs offer a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or a certificate, most are two-year programs resulting in an associate’s degree. Higher degrees are generally required for a dental hygienist to pursue teaching, research, or to practice in school and public health programs. Education includes instruction in chemistry, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, nutrition, pharmacology, radiography, histology, pathology, periodontology, and clinical dental hygiene in laboratory, classroom and clinical settings.
All states require dental hygienists to be licensed. Most also require completion of a program taken at an accredited dental hygiene school as well as passing oral and written exams and a clinical examination. The written examination that is accepted by every state and the District of Columbia is administered by the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations. The clinical examination is administered by state or regional testing agencies. Many states also require testing regarding legal concerns that affect dental hygienists.
Dental hygienists must be good team players, as they work with dentists and dental assistants. Good manual dexterity, good eye-hand coordination, and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations are characteristic of good dental hygienists.
In order to advance, most dental hygienists return to school for a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Some pursue a teaching career teaching in a dental hygiene program, while others choose to work in public health.
The median annual earnings for dental hygienists is around $67,000. Those in the midrange in terms of pay earn between $56,000 and $79,000. In the lowest 10%, the salary is about $44,000, while top earners in the highest 10% earn more than $92,000. Income is partially dependent upon location, office or facility type, and experience.