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Some of my favorite dental memories — if they can be called “favorites” — are when I got my teeth cleaned and treated. While a teeth cleaning isn’t a rollercoaster at a state fair, getting my teeth cleaned meant playing with the brushes and mirrors, choosing a flavor for my fluoride and getting a new timer for my daily teeth brushing. The dental hygienist took care of all of this fun, including the stickers they’d throw in my take-home bag at the end of the appointment. While I might not get timers and stickers at the dentist now, the dental hygienist is still a great health professional to interact with. They clean my teeth and answer questions I have about caring for them in the future. They’ve got my back — or whatever you’d call the back of a tooth.

What does a dental hygienist do?

Dental hygienists are oral health professionals that work with a licensed dentist to treat and promote patient oral health. Because dental hygienists work directly with patients, they have a plethora of patient contact and are the first to see bright (or not so bright) smiles throughout their workday. They work with licensed dentists, often in their offices or in outpatient care centers or physician offices. Dental hygienists perform bi-annual teeth cleanings, provide oral inspections and educate patients on good oral health care.

Dental hygienist responsibilities

  • Assess patient oral health conditions and health history
  • Clean teeth and remove any tartar, stains, and plaque
  • Protect teeth with sealants and fluorides
  • Perform oral inspections to look for signs of oral diseases
  • Take and develop dental radiographs (x-rays)
  • Demonstrate proper oral hygiene techniques
  • Discuss and record patient treatment plans

Salary

In May of 2018, the medium annual wage was $74,820 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, someone just starting out in the industry can expect to earn closer to $40,000 a year, while those working 15 years or more can reach up to $103,000 per year, as per Glassdoor. Those who work dentists' offices, the most common setting, earn the second-highest mean annual wage, ringing in at $75, 780. Dental hygienists who work in-home health care services take the top annual wage at $89,790.

California, Texas, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania have the five highest employment rates in the dental hygienist career field, while Alaska is the top-paying state for this occupation. Dental hygienists in Alaska can expect a median salary of $114,320, over a 50% increase from the national medium annual wage.

How to become a dental hygienist

The first step to becoming a dental hygienist is obtaining an undergraduate degree. Dental hygienists are only required an associate’s degree to practice but have the opportunity to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees if they wish to move up in the field. Regardless of the degree, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) must approve each program of study. CODA approve programs cover four areas of study: general education, biomedical science, dental science and dental hygiene science.

Along with classroom study, clinical experience is critical to a dental hygienist’s course of study. This typically begins with eight to 12 hours of clinical services, with an increase to 12 to 16 hours in the second year. If you’re obtaining your degree online, this clinical experience is still required for licensure.

Once your degree is completed, you must obtain a license for the state you’re hoping to work in. Every dental hygienist-to-be must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. The test is a sit-down, multiple choice examination with discipline-based and case-based sections. Along with a written exam, each state also requires an individual clinical-based exam. This exam reviews basic hygiene procedures, ones practiced with clinical experience and needed on the job.

After you’ve completed your degree and passed your exam, you can practice as a fully licensed dental hygienist. Should you wish to provide more specialized care, practice or develop programs in school settings, become an oral disease prevention specialist or lead dental health education programs, higher degrees — a bachelor’s or a master’s — are needed for qualification.

How long does it take to become a dental hygienist?

The typical course of a dental hygienist’s career preparation is two to four years. Most programs run three years so dental hygienists can gain both classroom knowledge and clinical experience. Those who wish to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree will take longer to become a hygienist; bachelor’s degrees are typically four years long, while master’s programs are an extra one to two years after.

Benefits of being a dental hygienist.

• The option to work part-time

Because dentists may hire multiple hygienists for one practice, many dental hygienists will work part-time. However, benefits like vacation and sick leave may only be available for full-time positions.

• Working directly with patients and other medical professionals. 

Being a dental hygienist gives you the best of both worlds—if you’re interested in both patient and medical professional relationships. Dental hygienists are the first people patients see once they’ve started their appointment, and they often spend the most time with the patient during their visit. Dental hygienists also get to work alongside a licensed dentist, who may use their assistance during oral procedures or the discussion of treatment plans.

• Job variety. 

Not only do dental hygienists get to work with a mix of patients and medical professionals, but they also have the opportunity to work with a a variety of patients. Hygienists can help specific population groups like the elderly or the disabled; they can also work with younger patients in pediatric dental care, or provide oral health information in children’s schools.

• Employment growth.

Employment for dental hygienists is projected to grow 20 percent by 2026, while the average for all occupations is only 7%. As the population ages, people need dental hygienists to help clean and treat their teeth; dental hygienists will be more in-demand than ever before. The expansion of oral health awareness — and the link between oral health and general health — has driven more patients to dental services, especially cleanings and treatment performed by dental hygienists.

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Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.