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How to Become a Dental Hygienist
Interested in working in the dental field, but don’t want to spend years and years in dental school? If so, becoming a dental hygienist may be a great option for you! Dental hygienists conduct a number of preventative, evaluative, and non-invasive procedures on patients to help maintain their oral health.
If this sounds interesting to you, keep on reading! We’ll not only go over what a dental hygienist does, but also how you can become one yourself.
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What is a dental hygienist?
Great question! As mentioned earlier, a dental hygienist is a dental professional who performs mostly preventative and evaluative procedures on patients. Some of their more common duties include conducting regular teeth cleanings, taking x-rays, and providing oral hygiene instruction to patients. However, their other responsibilities may include:
- Conducting preliminary patient exams and assisting dentists as needed
- Evaluating patients’ teeth/mouths for symptoms of dental problems or diseases
- Providing teeth scaling
- Providing root planing expertise
- Administering anesthesia
- Evaluating and updating patients’ dental history
- Applying fluorides and sealants to patients’ teeth
- Documenting patient treatment plans and overall care
- Updating dentists on their patients’ oral/dental health
- Using a variety of hand, power, and ultrasonic tools to perform their duties
Sounds interesting, right? If so, let’s find out how you can become a dental hygienist yourself!
1. Obtain your high school diploma
As with many careers out there, your first step towards becoming a dental hygienist would be to graduate high school. However, before you do so, we would recommend trying to complete a few prerequisites for dental hygienist programs. While these ultimately differ by program, here are some typical admission requirements (or recommendations) for dental hygienist programs:
- High school courses: Classes in biology, health, mathematics, chemistry, and psychology may give candidates the knowledge they need to boost their chances of admission into a DH program. However, these are not required – so don’t stress if you can’t take them!
- GPA requirements: While some programs have a specific GPA requirement, others do not. So, we would recommend checking the requirements for the specific programs you’re interested in.
- Skills: Those who wish to become dental hygienists should have good problem solving, manual dexterity, communication, interpersonal, and technical skills. They should also pay close attention to detail and be compassionate and understanding.
With all that said, we would still recommend checking the specific requirements for the programs you’re planning on applying to. Doing so will help you plan out classes and give you a clear reminder of what will help you gain admission.
2. Apply to and complete an accredited dental hygienist program
On the note of gaining admission to DH programs, your next step is to apply to them! However, we should first give a general overview of the different types of programs. Here we go:
Associate degree Dental Hygiene programs typically last two years and give students a general education in oral health. They also often require students to partake in supervised clinical experience, meaning that students will accumulate some hands-on experience in the field alongside a mentor. Such programs typically involve eight to 12 hours of weekly hands-on practice the first year and 12 to 16 hours per week during one’s second year.
The length of one’s bachelor degree program will ultimately depend on their institution and how many credits they choose to take per academic term. These programs will also be shortened for those who enter with an associate’s degree already in-hand. Bachelor’s degree programs typically go more in-depth than their associate degree counterparts and are designed for prospective dental hygienists who wish to pursue specialized care. Course topics may include dental health theory, research, and dental conditions. Depending on one’s university, such programs may also require students to receive a broader, liberal arts education and accumulate supervised clinical experience.
Master’s degree programs in dental hygiene are for those who wish to conduct research, teach, or work in administration. Generally, such programs prefer that applicants have received a bachelor’s beforehand. As this may vary by institution, we would recommend checking the desired prerequisites of master’s programs you’re interested in.
Master’s programs generally last between one and two years, but this will vary by program and institution. In most cases, though, the completion of a capstone project is required during the length of one’s master’s program.
As these programs tend to be more intensive and in-depth than their bachelor’s and associate’s counterparts, we would highly recommend staying focused and organized. Having a support system that provides you encouragement may also help keep you motivated.
And those are your options! No matter which one you choose, we want to emphasize that your DH program must be accredited by CODA (Commission on Dental Accreditation). If it’s not, you will not be able to become a dental hygienist despite how many years you may have spent in your program(s). You can find the perfect DH program for you using this handy list of CODA-accredited education programs.
A few last DH program admission tips
Before we move on, here are some quick, summarized tips we have for choosing and gaining admission into DH programs:
- Make sure it’s accredited by CODA!
- Check the prerequisites! Just as it sounds, do some research on what your prospective DH programs require and try to fulfill such requirements before applying, if possible.
- Write a strong personal statement: Ideally, your personal statement(s) for DH programs should outline what makes you a good candidate and what your career goals are. If possible, try to emphasize what makes you unique and sets you apart from other candidates.
- Demonstrate professionalism during the interview: If an interview is required for admission into a program, be sure to come prepared. This includes researching possible questions beforehand, dressing appropriately, turning off your cell phone, and giving your full attention to the interviewer.
Got it? Great! We wish you the best of luck, and hope you get into the DH program of your dreams. For now, let’s get into our next step.
3. Study for and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE)
Once you’ve finished your dental hygienist education, it’s time to study for and take the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE)! The test can be registered for on the Pearson VUE website and a score of 75 is needed to pass it. In terms of its format, the test consists of two parts and contains a total of 350 multiple-choice questions testing your dental hygiene and care-based knowledge. The topics it may ask about include: dental hygiene practice, provision of clinical dental hygiene services, community health, research principles, and dental hygiene patient case examples.
If you need some help preparing, we recommend checking out these helpful resources:
We wish you the best, and hope you pass! If you don’t, however, there’s no need to worry. You are permitted to take it again 90 days after your last examination. Although this may seem long, this means that you’ll have extra time to practice the topics and components you may have struggled with the first time.
4. Apply for state licensure
Although passing the NBDHE is a major step forward, you may also be required to pass a state or regional licensure exam in order to finally practice as a dental hygienist. Alternatively, your state may require you to accumulate more clinical hours before granting you licensure.
To find the specific licensure requirements for your preferred state of practice, we recommend checking out this “state licensure by credentials” chart. Although the requirements do vary by state, it is common for states to require a minimum of an associate’s degree, a passing score on the NBDHE, and a minimum number of supervised clinical hours in order to gain licensure.
Once you fulfill all your necessary requirements, you should then apply for state licensure through your state’s board of dentistry. If approved, you will be granted a Registered Dental Hygienist License and can start practicing!
5. Start practicing!
As a Registered Dental Hygienist, you have the opportunity to work in a variety of settings. Most common, however, dental hygienists work in community or private dental offices. Some also work in hospitals, health clinics, community centers, and school settings. You may even choose to teach prospective or new dental hygienists if you have the appropriate education and training. Down the line, if you ever want to try something new or specialize, that is also an option. It may simply require going back to school to obtain a higher degree (most likely a master’s).
No matter which route you choose, we hope you love your new profession! Just keep in mind that some states also require you to complete annual or periodical “continuing education” requirements in order to maintain licensure. You can check whether yours does on the same “state licensure by credentials” chart mentioned earlier.
And with that, we’ll send you off. Good luck!
Frequently asked questions
How many years does it take to become a dental hygienist?
Depending on your choice of education (degree), state, and a number of other factors, it can take between two and four years to become a dental hygienist. Roughly, this may include two to four years of undergraduate schooling, a few months to study for and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and some extra time while you wait for your license to arrive.
Do dental hygienists get paid well?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental hygienists made an average of $77,090 in 2020. However, this average varied across industries, with some dental hygienists making more than others. Those working in dentists’ offices made an average salary of $77,330 in 2020. Dental hygienists in physicians’ offices made $75,590, while those in government made roughly $65,080.
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