When it comes to healthcare, there are certain medical professionals that everyone should visit at least once a year. For a yearly physical, patients should see their general practitioner. To make sure they’re skin cancer-free, adults should visit a dermatologist. And, of course, children and adults alike should make time to see their dentist every six months, to have their teeth cleaned and gums examined.
Dentists serve a vital role in the health and well-being of their patients. However, it’s not dentists who spend the most time with dental patients. Instead, it’s dental hygienists. Dental hygienists are responsible for conducting preliminary oral exams, taking dental x-rays, applying fluorides and sealants, and cleaning patients’ teeth to remove stains, plaque, and tartar. They also educate patients on how to best take care of their oral health. Because dental hygienists are so important, the demand is increasing. National statistics show that employment of dental hygienists is growing fast, with an estimated 15,600 openings for dental hygienists projected each year.
Today, there are a few different ways to become a dental hygienist. Depending on how quickly you’d like to enter the field, where you are in your current career, and where you are located, the requirements to become a dental hygienist will vary. Generally speaking, there are four, basic requirements for dental hygienists:
- Earn an associate degree or bachelor’s degree from an accredited Dental Hygiene program
- Complete practical training and gain experience in the field
- Successfully pass the national board examinations
- Pass state-level examinations to earn licensure
However, if you are working in dental hygiene and looking to advance your career, your path may look a bit different. Below, we outline the various dental hygienist education requirements and degree paths available.
General Dental Hygienist Requirements
Dental hygienists need at least an associate degree in Dental Hygiene to launch their career. Some employers prefer to hire dental hygienists with a bachelor’s degree, or may require a master’s degree for advanced positions.
No matter which degree path you choose, the program must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). CODA is the primary accrediting body for Dental Hygiene degrees, certifying that a program is highly credible and reliable.
As stated on the CODA website, “Graduation from an accredited program is almost always stipulated by state law and is an eligibility requirement for licensure and/or certification examinations.”
As noted by the American Dental Association, an associate degree, at minimum, makes aspiring hygienists eligible to take their board licensing exams and, upon passing, become a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH).
All states require dental hygienists to be licensed, though specific license requirements vary by state.
Degree Requirements for Dental Hygienists
While an associate degree in Dental Hygiene is the minimum educational requirement for dental hygienists, it is not the only option. Aspiring dental hygienists can pursue higher levels of study, as well, such as a bachelor’s degree. Some dental hygienists will advance their education with a master’s degree.
Most dental hygiene programs will cover a variety of content areas, including general education, science, and career-oriented coursework. In preparatory programs, students learn the fundamentals of oral health, dental software, radiology machines, infection control and prevention, pain management, and more. Dental hygiene students also develop ample skills in communication and patient care.
Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene
An associate degree in Dental Hygiene prepares students to master the fundamentals of dental hygiene processes, including assessment, diagnosis, evaluation, and documentation. Students learn how to effectively communicate with patients and how to function as an integral part of a dental healthcare team. Students in this program are typically required to complete general education courses in addition to their program-specific courses. Additionally, an associate in Dental Hygiene requires students to complete clinical experiences that prepare them to provide direct patient care in a practical setting.
- Oral Anatomy
- Introduction to Periodontology
- Nutritional Biochemistry
As noted above, receiving an associate degree in Dental Hygiene allows graduates to sit for licensure examinations (national and state, or regional) and become licensed to work in a dental office. Students may later decide to pursue additional training in business administration, public health, or dentistry in order to broaden their career opportunities. However, earning an associate degree is sufficient to begin a career as a dental hygienist, after passing licensure examinations.
Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene
Though basic dental hygienist education requirements end at an associate degree, students may decide that a four-year bachelor’s degree in Dental Hygiene is more in line with their career goals. This program requires students to complete general education courses as well as program specific courses such as oral anatomy and periodontology. However, this course of study also allows students to minor in a subject area that corresponds with their interests. For example, these minors can include education, marketing, psychology, or human services, though there are a plethora of other options as well. By combining the standard, professional dental hygiene curriculum with a more extensive liberal arts education, students expand their career opportunities, gain additional professional skills, and become well-rounded caregivers.
- General and Oral Histo-Pathology
- Dental Materials
- Advanced Clinical Concepts
- Introduction to Counseling OR
Students who earn their bachelor’s degree in Dental Hygiene are prepared to sit for national and state, or regional licensing examinations. A licensed dental hygienist who holds a bachelor’s degree can work in a clinical setting as a care provider. They are also qualified to work in research, education, or in a clinical practice in public or school health programs. A bachelor’s degree provides graduates with a larger variety of employment opportunities.
Master’s Degree in Dental Hygiene
Though it’s more rare for dental hygienists to pursue a graduate degree, a master’s degree in Dental Hygiene is the perfect choice for licensed hygienists who want to advance into leadership positions in education and public health. This two-year program provides students with field site opportunities in the areas of public health, education, administration, research, and more. Students will also be required to student teach and complete a master’s capstone project that is typically research-based.
- Global Healthcare
- Dental Hygiene Student Teaching
- Public Health
- Statistical Reasoning
Graduates of the master’s degree in Dental Hygiene program are prepared for a career in research and education. While they’ll be able to continue working in clinical settings as dental hygienists, they’ll also qualify for advanced positions in public health, administration, clinical management, and higher education.
Admission Requirements for Dental Hygiene Programs
The requirements to enroll in a dental hygiene program will vary, depending on each institution. Common prerequisites for entry-level dental hygiene programs include:
- Complete an application for admissions into the college or university
- Submit an application into the specific dental hygiene school of choice
- Submit proof of high school graduation and, if a transfer student, any official transcripts from the colleges or universities previously attended
- Complete prerequisite courses in Anatomy, Physiology, Microbiology, and Chemistry (note: many schools allow these to be “in progress” at the time of application)
- Gather and submit letters of recommendation
- Complete a personal essay demonstrating your abilities and desire to enter the program
Because dental hygiene is a clinical field, accepted students will often have to fulfill requirements like:
- Submit health records and proof of vaccinations
- Earn and maintain current CPR certification
- Complete a background check and drug screening
Dental Hygienist Licensing Requirements
Upon graduating from an accredited Dental Hygiene degree program, students are qualified to pursue licensure to practice. Licensing must be earned through a series of examinations at the national and state level. In general, there are three, main requirements for dental hygiene licensure:
- Education requirement
- Written examination requirement
- Clinical examination requirement
Although specific licensing requirements vary by state, most states require aspiring dental hygienists to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, as well as state or regional clinical board exams. Be sure to research your state-specific requirements, or contact your school’s admissions team for information.
The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE):
Aspiring dental hygienists must complete the national board examination to obtain licensure. The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) is a series of standardized tests that evaluate the preparedness of hygienists for practice. This national examination serves as a universal test that supports state boards in determining the qualifications for dental hygienists. It tests on a wide variety of topics, including biomedical sciences, dental hygiene sciences, as well as problem-solving skills.
To qualify for the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, one must fulfill the basic dental hygienist education requirements, which is an associate degree (at least) from an accredited dental hygiene program. Then, one will be eligible to fulfill the written examination.
To apply for the NBDHE, prospective dental hygienists must register for a DENTPIN from the American Dental Association (ADA). This is a personal identifier number that helps to protect your personal, identifying information online.
All candidates have six months of eligibility to complete the NBDHE, starting on the date one’s application is processed.
Most jurisdictions in the United States will also require a clinical examination, in addition to the NBDHE written examination. According to the American Dental Association, most state boards rely on regional testing agencies to administer a clinical examination.
Because licensing requirements vary by state, it is important to contact your school or local licensing authority for specific education and certification requirements. Remember, the goal of these licensing requirements is to ensure that dental hygienists are fully prepared for the field, from the clinical aspects to patient safety and care.
Connecticut Dental Hygienist Requirements:
In Connecticut, dental hygienists must successfully complete the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) as well as a clinical performance examination issued by the state. These include:
- The Commission on Dental Competency Assessments
- Council of Interstate Testing Agencies
- Southern Regional Testing Agency
- Central Regional Dental Testing Service
- Western Regional Examining Board
One must also submit proof of award from a CODA-accredited dental hygiene school, an official report of the NBDHE scores, and a report of successful completion of a regional board examination. This grants licensure for Connecticut dental hygienists. Learn more here.
Dental Hygienist Skills Requirements and Qualifications
Dental hygienists spend much of their days cleaning teeth, conducting examinations, and operating dental equipment. For this reason, they must be highly skilled in oral care, tool operation, and patient communication. Some of the top skills required of dental hygienists include:
- Dexterity, with fine motor skills to work in tight spaces and with small equipment
- Communication and compassion, when delivering patient care
- Problem-solving skills, to be able to think critically and address issues quickly and effectively
- Decision-making skills as they relate to patient care
- Interpersonal skills, not only with patients but also with the larger dental team
- Attention to detail, as hygienists must follow specific rules, procedures, and be attentive to symptoms or issues that may arise
Other dental hygienist requirements for skillsets include physical stamina, as these professionals often work on their feet for long periods of time. The manual job duties also demand a lot of the upper body, especially the arms and hands.
Frequently Asked Questions About Dental Hygienist Careers
What does a dental hygienist do?
Dental hygienists evaluate the oral health of their patients and provide preventive dental care services. They often can be found cleaning patients’ teeth, looking for symptoms of oral disease, operating dental machinery, and teaching patients about good oral hygiene. Examples of dental hygienist duties include:
- Cleaning teeth and removing plaque, tartar, and stains
- Applying sealants and fluoride to patients’ teeth
- Conducting and developing oral X-rays
- Performing preliminary examinations for oral disease and issues, such as cavities
- Assisting with dental procedures, such as applying local anesthetics
- Documenting patient symptoms, care, and treatment plans
- Educating patients about oral hygiene techniques, such as how to floss correctly
- Using a variety of small dental tools and ultrasonic equipment
How much does a dental hygienist make?
On average in the United States, dental hygienists earn over $77,800 annually. However, salaries will range depending on the place of work, position held, and state of licensure. For example, those in dental offices earn $77,810, on average, per year. Those in government, however, earn closer to $64,000 annually. Additionally, state-level salaries range between $50,000 and $115,000 for dental hygienists.
In Connecticut, dental hygienists can expect to earn $88,610 annually, as of May 2021.
How do I choose a dental hygienist program?
It is important to find a Dental Hygiene program that meets your needs, both personally and professionally. As you research the various programs, ask yourself how much time you can commit to an education and what your long-term career goals are. Find a program that supports your answers. For example, if you determine a long-term career in dental research or public health leadership, an advanced degree program may be a better fit than an associate degree. However, if you are looking to launch a dental hygiene career fast, an associate degree in Dental Hygiene may be the best fit, as it takes just 2-3 years to complete.
Most importantly, look for a program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Again, this is a requirement if you’d like to pursue licensure and maintain credibility in the field.
Getting Started: How to Become a Dental Hygienist
If you find yourself wondering, “What degree do you need to be a dental hygienist?”, it’s important to first consider your career goals. If your passion is patient care and you’re eager to begin your career quickly, an associate degree may be the right choice. However, if you’re interested in providing education to future hygienists or conducting research, you may want to consider pursuing a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in Dental Hygiene. The choice is yours.
All degree options are available at University of Bridgeport, home to the world’s first Dental Hygiene School. Visit us online today to learn more.