How to become a dental hygienist in 2024

Last updated: July 23, 2024
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How to become a dental hygienist in 2024
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Dental hygienists are in high demand. In the next ten years, there will be more than 19,000 new dental hygienist positions in the US. This is a job growth rate of 9%.

If you're interested in healthcare and enjoy working with people, a dental hygiene career is worth considering.

Choosing a new career pathway can be daunting, and you want to make the right decision. To help you decide if this is the job for you, we've put together the following guide.

In this article, we'll tell you how to become a dental hygienist and share the top skills it takes to be successful.

What is a dental hygienist?

Before we tell you how to become a dental hygienist, let's go over some of the daily duties you’re likely to encounter in this position.

These dental professionals support patients with their oral hygiene. For example, they examine patients and take x-rays, and they use different tools to remove tartar and plaque. They also offer treatment for gum disease and other oral conditions.

Dental hygienists can remove minor stains and apply products that strengthen the teeth. They keep detailed records and work closely with licensed dentists. And, of course, part of their responsibilities include educating patients about oral health care and creating at-home treatment plans.

Dental hygienists can work part-time or full-time. Shifts are usually during the day, and they can have weekends and evenings off.

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These workers can be found in a range of settings. The most common workplaces are dental offices, but they can also work in public health clinics, educational facilities, nursing homes, and research departments.

Steps to becoming a dental hygienist

If you're thinking of becoming a dental hygienist, you may be wondering how to get there.

Here's a step-by-step rundown of how you can get started in this profession:

1. Enroll in a degree

While you’re in school, consider choosing relevant subjects such as biology, chemistry, and math. While not essential, these subjects will give you a good foundation. It’s never too early to start thinking about whether a career in dental health is right for your personality type.

  • Are you passionate about helping others?

  • Are you comfortable looking into people's mouths?

  • Are you confident with critical thinking skills and leadership skills?

  • Do you have an eye for detail?

Take time to think these through before committing to this career path.

Keep in mind that you'll need to meet the minimum age requirement for licensing. This can vary between states but is usually around eighteen years old. In some areas, you may need to be twenty-one before you can get your dental hygiene license.

Once you’re ready, there are a variety of degree programs, and ‌eligibility requirements can vary.

For example, a local dental school, college, or university may offer an associate degree program in dental hygiene.

There are also bachelor's and master's degrees for those who want to improve their long-term career prospects. Advanced degrees can open up roles in research, training, and development.

You should be prepared to study for two years or more, depending on the type of degree you choose.

Dental hygiene students can expect to cover a wide range of topics. For example, you'll learn about oral hygiene techniques, infection control, medical ethics, preventative treatments, and oral diseases.

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During your degree, you'll gain laboratory and clinical experience. This is your opportunity to network with others in the industry and practice your technical skills.

3. Pass an exam

After you've finished your dental hygiene program, you'll need to pass an exam. This step may happen toward the end of your degree, or it may be something you need to organize afterward.

The most common exam is the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE). The test is in-person, and you'll need to pay an application fee.

This exam is one of the candidate requirements for licensure. It has two components and usually includes a multiple-choice questionnaire and a clinical exam. Keep in mind that you may need to bring your own patient with you on the day. You can expect the exam to take around nine hours to complete with scheduled breaks.

The exact details can vary depending on where you live.

Before you can work as a dental hygienist, you'll need to get a passing score. If you fail the first time, you may be able to retake the exam.

4. Get a license

In most states, a license is essential. Once you've completed your training and passed the NBDHE exam, you can apply for your dental hygienist license.

You'll need to show your transcripts and share your exam results. It can take a few weeks for your license to be mailed to you. Once you have your license, you can officially start your career.

These are ongoing licensure requirements. For example, it'll need to be renewed each year, which comes with a fee. You may also have to keep your skills up to date and provide proof of training.

5. Complete a first aid course

To work as a dental hygienist and keep your license, you'll need to be prepared for an emergency. Because it's a hands-on field and you'll be dealing with oral health, patients may have reactions and medical conditions.

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CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) training is usually a requirement, and you'll have to renew your certification every two years.

Your employer may expect other first aid certifications, such as AED (automated external defibrillator) training.

Having first aid skills could save someone's life, and you can feature any certifications on your resume.

6. Apply for jobs

It can take time and effort to become a dental hygienist. But, once you've put in the hard work, you can apply for an oral health care job.

You may have made professional connections during your clinical placement. If you've kept in touch, you can ask them if they are aware of any job openings.

You can also check out our job board. It's updated regularly and features positions from all over the country. Search for dental hygienist positions along with your location to see what's available near you. Sign up for job alerts and complete your profile to start networking.

With your new qualifications, it's time for a resume refresh. Take a look at our healthcare resume guide for formatting tips.

7. Keep learning

As a licensed hygienist, you'll need to keep your training up to date to keep working. Even though it's a requirement, any additional training can also be good for your career.

For example, you can enroll in a graduate degree and study part-time while you work.

Mentors and other dental professionals can support you and tell you about new industry trends. Any short courses you complete can help to boost your skill set.

What skills does a dental hygienist need?

To be successful as a dental hygienist, you'll need a few key skills. Here are the top five:

Communication skills

Dental hygienists need excellent communication skills. For many, sitting in the dental chair can be daunting, so you'll need a calm and compassionate nature.

You'll be providing specialized care to dental patients, and you'll need to explain each step. As an oral health professional, you should be confident explaining at-home treatment plans.

Good body language should also be a priority.

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Dental hygienists use their interpersonal skills to greet patients, answer phone calls, and talk to other team members. They also need excellent written communication skills to prepare reports, write letters, and send emails.

Problem-solving skills

Another essential skill for hygienists is problem-solving.

Patients can have a range of oral conditions, and appointments can be short. The dental hygienist needs to come up with solutions and treatments on the spot. They use their technical knowledge to make the right decisions.

Furthermore, dental patients may be nervous or distressed. Dental hygienists may need to modify their service to make the patient feel comfortable. For example, if they are treating a child, they can play a movie or offer stickers as a reward.

Manual dexterity

Dental hygienists work with teeth, gums, and oral hygiene. Patients can have sensitivity, and any treatments need to be precise. For example, the dental hygienist may apply a numbing agent to a small area of the gums.

They use a range of dental tools, including sharp ones, that can be dangerous if used incorrectly. So, you'll need manual dexterity to do this job.

A steady hand helps dental hygienists perform their daily duties to a high standard. And physical fitness is also required because some tasks require bending or stretching. Dental hygienists need to be comfortable being on their feet for long hours.

Attention to detail

Mistakes can impact a patient's health, so attention to detail is required. What does this mean? Dental hygienists need to take care and focus on every task.

If a dental hygienist has attention to detail, they'll be able to offer better patient care. For example, they'll be more likely to flag any serious issues such as oral cancer. They'll also know what to look for when diagnosing periodontal disease.

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Patient files also need to be updated, and dental hygienists may write referrals to other specialists. Any written information needs to be accurate so every dental patient gets the right treatment.

Computer skills

Even though it's a hands-on role, dental hygienists still need good computer skills.

They use a range of programs, including common software such as Microsoft Office and Google Workspace. For example, they may use MS Word for typing documents or Google Sheets for inventory management.

Dental hygienists rely on dental software to update patient files and store photos and x-rays. And computer-based calendars help them keep track of scheduled appointments.

Dental hygienists may use email and social media to communicate with the public. Fast, accurate typing will be an advantage.

How much does a dental hygienist make?

Dental hygienists get competitive salaries. In the US, the average salary for these professionals is $77,810 per year or $37.41 per hour.

Actual salaries can vary depending on your qualifications, experience, and location. For example, the highest-paying state for dental hygienists is Alaska, where the median salary is $115,510 per year.

Next is California, where the average salary is $108,200 per year, followed by Washington at $106,200.

In Nevada, the average is $89,460 per year, while in New York, it's $83,600 per year.

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Dental hygienist salaries can also vary between workplaces. Those working in dental practices have a median wage of $77,810. If you get a job for the government, the average wage is much lower at $64,110 per year.

Let's compare these statistics to dentists. Keep in mind that dentists need an advanced degree. The average salary for these professionals is $163,220 per year or $78.47 per hour.

Alternatively, dental assistants make $38,660 per year or $18.59 per hour. Dental assistants can usually start work after one year of study.

Where to find a job as a dental hygienist

There are career opportunities for dental hygienists across the country.

When you’ve completed the steps above, you can browse dental hygienist positions on our job board. Make sure you read the job description carefully before applying to make sure your skills are a good match.

Don’t forget to customize your cover letter to fit the job. You can use our cover letter guide for examples and free templates. And you should have your professional references ready.

Working as a dental hygienist

By now, you know how to become a dental hygienist. You’ll need a high school diploma, degree, and license. Plus, you’ll need to complete a first aid course and keep your training up to date.

There are a few essential skills you’ll need to do the job. For example, dental hygienists need excellent communication skills and problem-solving skills. Manual dexterity, attention to detail, and computer skills are also important.

It’s a career that’s in demand with a positive job outlook over the next ten years. If you’re interested in oral hygiene, this could be the right pathway for you.

Have something else in mind? Visit our job board to see what jobs are currently available. Want tips for your resume? We have everything you need in our resource center.

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