How To Become A Dental Hygienist: Career, Salary, and Education

teeth cleaning by dental hygienist

According to US News and World Report[1], Dental Hygienist careers are ranked #1 in “best healthcare support jobs” and #24 in “100 best jobs”. The low unemployment rate and high dental hygienist salary are just a couple of reasons why. Depending on the type of dental hygienist schooling/program you attend, training can be completed in as little as 3-4 years.

What Is A Dental Hygienist

Registered Dental Hygienists (RDHs) are licensed dental health providers who perform preventative services such as dental cleanings, periodontal soft tissue therapy, and practice independently of the dentist rather than alongside of them.[2] Hygienists are also responsible for conducting oral cancer screenings, gum disease screenings, nutritional counseling, medical reviews, taking radiographs, administering local anesthetic (in most states) and monitoring nitrous oxide sedation. They may also take impressions for teeth whitening trays, apply fluoride treatments, and perform other adjunctive services depending on the state they are licensed in.

Most people recognize hygienists as the dental team member who cleans away tartar and plaque then polishes their teeth every six months.

Dental Assistants Vs. Dental Hygienists

Dental assistants[3] and dental hygienists are not the same. Each is responsible for separate responsibilities and completes different types of training. A hygienist can legally perform the same duties of a dental assistant, but an assistant is not legally authorized to perform the duties of a dental hygienist (similarly, a dentist can perform hygienist responsibilities, but the hygienist cannot perform those of a dentist.)

Assistants complete training that ranges from on-the-job to technical school or a college certification program. Dental hygienist schooling is similar to that of a Registered Nurse, in that they must complete either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene and then pass a series of board exams. Learn more about Dental Assistant Vs. Dental Hygienist here!

Career Rankings

Job satisfaction, work-family balance, and competitive pay make dental hygienist jobs one of the best in healthcare.[4] Flexibility makes it possible to work full-time or just 2-3 days a week in a traditional 8-to-5 atmosphere.

Median Salary: $77,090

Stress Level: AVERAGE

Work-Life: HIGH

Career Advancement: BELOW AVERAGE

However, in addition to being a best overall job and top healthcare support job, dental hygienists are also ranked as the #1 most unhealthy job because of things like exposure to infectious diseases, radiation, repetitive and musculoskeletal injuries, and the amount of time spent sitting each day. [5] As such, it’s common for hygienists to occasionally reach burnout rates due to neck, shoulder, and wrist injuries.

Dental Hygienist Salary

Depending on cost of living in your area and the amount of experience that you have, the average dental hygienist salary is just over $76,000 per year, with higher earners topping $89,000 per year. In fact, areas of the United States with a higher cost of living may have dental hygienist salaries that are over $110,000 per year. An entry-level hygienist salary in a more affordable area could be as low as $62,000 per year. Most hygienists are paid an hourly rate with some offices offering bonus incentives on a case-by-case basis.  Although dental hygienists can hold either a 2 or 4-year degree, their level of education does not affect their licensure, nor should it impact their salary.


 

 

How Much Does A Dental Hygienist Make Per Hour?

The average dental hygienist salary is right around $36/hour. Again, this number can be higher or lower and depends on what part of the country you’re in as well as the cost of living in that area. Some offices may choose to pay hygienists a flat rate per day or by the number of patients that they see. In the majority of situations, the salary is a flat hourly amount. If you consider things like a paid uniform allowances or continuing education options, the added benefits can make your salary more competitive.

Temporary Dental Hygienist Make More

According to online job placement websites, the national average temping RDH salary is just over $90,000 annually, or about $45 an hour. Keep in mind, pay in certain geographical areas is going to be higher than in others. In fact, some are as high as $124,000 a year!

Best-Paying Cities For Dental Hygienists

Are you interested in relocating or becoming licensed in a different state? Knowing where the most competitive dental hygienist salary exists can help you get more bang for your buck when it comes to a job search. Although pay is significantly dependent on the cost of living where the practice is located, it can still be worth your while to explore which areas boast the highest salary.

According to US News and World Report, the American cities with the highest salary for dental hygienists include

  1. Fairbanks, Alaska (at $113,190 per year)
  2. San Jose, California ($112,210 per year)
  3. Anchorage, Alaska ($110,800 per year)
  4. San Francisco, California ($109,750 per year)
  5. Santa Rosa, California ($108,010 per year)

The Best-Paying States For Dental Hygienists

Maybe you’re not interested in moving to one of those five cities, but you still want to know which states have the highest salary when it comes to dental hygiene jobs. As you might guess, the top two are Alaska and California. But to round out the top five, you’ll also want to consider Washington, Arizona, and New Jersey. A dental hygienist career is a well-paying opportunity, regardless as to which state in which you choose to practice.

  1. Alaska ($114,320 per year)
  2. California ($114,320 per year)
  3. Washington ($114,320 per year)
  4. Arizona ($114,320 per year)
  5. New Jersey ($114,320 per year)

 

What Is The Salary For A Dental Hygienist In California?

The State of California comes in just behind Alaska in regard to the highest dental hygienist salary. Although certain areas are pushing upwards of $110,000 per year, the state average is right at around $100,000 per year. Much of it depends on which part of California you’re practicing in and how expensive it is to live in that area. Being able to commute from out of the area can lower your cost of living and allow you to “make more” so to speak. Simply choosing the highest dental hygienist pay may not be significantly different from other areas of the country that pay lower when housing costs and other cost of living factors come into play.

Average Dental Hygienist Pay Vs. Dental Industry Jobs

If you’re someone who wants to work in the dental industry but doesn’t know much about the various career paths to choose from, other options include becoming a dentist, dental assistant, or a dental lab tech. Dentists make over $150,000 per year. Dental assistants earn an average salary of around $39,000 per year. Or if you prefer not to work directly with patients you can pursue becoming a lab tech (individuals who create prosthetics such as dental crowns or dentures) for average pay of about $53,000 per year.

Depending on how much time you want to spend in school and what interests you, pursuing a dental hygienist career or other job in the dental industry can be the perfect fit. Dental hygienist schooling is usually completed in just 3-4 years (similar to a registered nurse) but if you choose to become a dentist, you’ll be in school for about 8 years. Dentists who choose to specialize in a particular area of dentistry remain in school for an additional 2-3 years on top of completing dental school. On the other hand, lab techs often attend a technical school or are trained under the guidance of a mentor/apprenticeship to learn their trade. Dental assistants earn the lowest salary of dental related jobs, but with their shorter training time it’s also possible to enter a career with little to no student debt.

How To Get A Job As A Dental Hygienist

Does becoming a dental hygienist sound like the best career path? If so, you’ll want to apply to dental hygiene school, which can be quite competitive. Most programs require prerequisite courses in chemistry, anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and core courses such as English, history, college algebra, biology, etc. Some also require an entrance exam in order to apply.

In your final semester of dental hygiene schooling, you’ll complete a written national board exam and a state clinical board exam. The first is a multi-hour written test that is accepted by multiple states. The latter is a clinical or “hands on” process where patient care is rendered and evaluated by dental hygiene examination committees. Additional tests are sometimes needed for things such as nitrous oxide monitoring or local anesthetic delivery, depending on your state.

Upon satisfactory completion of your written and clinical boards, your State Board of Dental Examiners will process and deliver your dental hygienist license. At this time, you can begin practicing as a Registered Dental Hygienist. Licenses must be renewed around every 1-3 years (renewal frequencies vary by state) with appropriate continuing education requirements met as dictated by your state.

Job Satisfaction 

One of the reasons why a dental hygienist career ranks as a top job is because of the career satisfaction. Hygienists are paid well, have a relatively low-stress level compared to other types of healthcare jobs, earn a competitive salary, and enjoy the benefit of knowing they’re helping others enjoy a better quality of life. When it comes to the average hygienist’s working hours, the traditional work schedule is one that makes careers in the dental industry highly attractive compared to other types of medical jobs.

As long as hygienists practice good ergonomics and self-care (to prevent repetitive or musculoskeletal injuries) such as exercise, stretching, and massage, it’s possible to work well into your 60s in the same job role.

On a day-to-day basis, dental hygienist careers typically consist of seeing one patient at a time, with anywhere from 45-90 minutes per patient. Hygienists who work in pediatric office settings may seen anywhere from 2-4 patients per hour, as it’s common to have a hygiene assistant taking X-rays, seating patients, and setting up the hygiene area for you.

Education Requirements

How long does it take to become a Registered Dental Hygienist? Similar to becoming a Registered Nurse, Dental Hygienists can choose to complete either a 2 or 4-year program, receiving an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in Dental Hygiene, respectively. Regardless as to which type of program you complete, the licensure and pay is typically the same. Many aspiring hygienists apply to more than one school due to the competitive admission process. Prior to applying, basic prerequisite science courses must be completed. The typical hygienist attends college between a total of 3-4 years, depending on which dental hygiene program they attend. The actual hygiene coursework and training only takes 2 years. The additional 1-2 years are for degree or prerequisite requirements.

Accreditation

In order to become a licensed dental hygienist, you need to attend an accredited dental hygiene program. Many colleges advertise “pre-dental hygiene” or dental hygiene degree plans for basic program requirements, but they may not have an accredited hygiene department on their campus. Although it’s fine to complete your prerequisite courses at a reputable college or university, you should utilize your State Board website or the American Dental Hygienist’s Association[6] website to research accredited dental hygiene programs. An accredited program is one that meets national and state certification requirements. Newly developed programs may be granted a temporary or pending accreditation and should be researched before applying.

What You’ll Study

There’s more to becoming a dental hygienist than just learning how to clean and polish teeth. Although you’ll complete extensive clinical hands-on training in tartar removal, sealant placement, and soft tissue therapy, dental hygienists’ schooling also consists on extensive lectures over disease management, oral pathology, the oral-systemic health connect (including how dental conditions relate to underlying medical issues), pharmacology, head and neck anatomy, radiography, dental materials, jurisprudence, local anesthesia delivery, and case management.

Dental hygiene students typically begin seeing patients in the second semester of school. Prior to that, they practice on one another. During clinicals, a team of hygienists and dentist(s) monitor patient care, evaluate the student’s accuracy, and provide guidance for case management. Students will complete a wide range of requirements and patient categories, allowing them to experience and perfect their skills when it comes to treating a diverse population of varying oral health needs. In addition to cleaning teeth, aspiring hygienists will also learn how to take X-rays, record impressions, measure soft tissue attachment levels, and complete oral cancer exams.

Upon the completion of two years of clinical and lecture courses, the student will qualify to sit for the national and state board exams.

Types Of Dental Hygienist Degrees

Dental Hygienist Associate’s Degree 

After core science prerequisite courses are completed, the student attends a 2-year dental hygiene program and graduates with an Associate of Applied Science degree.

Dental Hygienist Bachelor’s Degree 

Similar to an associate’s degree, but with more foundational coursework requirements in order to fulfill a four-year university degree. After completing the majority of core courses, students proceed to their lecture/clinical hygiene studies.

Both 2 and 4-year degree programs include similar hygiene coursework (lecture and clinical) and sit for the same board exams. Associate’s degrees are awarded at junior or community college settings, while bachelor’s degrees are completed at universities. Admissions to both degree programs are highly competitive.

Dental Hygienist Master’s Degree 

Hygienists who want to pursue careers in academia, research, or public health may choose to return to college to complete a master’s degree in Dental Hygiene. In order to teach at the college level, hygiene instructors must have – or be working toward – a higher degree. Master’s degrees can frequently be completed online. Additionally, states such as Minnesota are now bridging into “dental therapist” programs, which is a master’s degree mid-level practitioner below a licensed dentist (dental therapists can perform a wider range of services than a dental hygienist, but fewer than a dentist.)

Online Courses

Most dental hygiene programs that offer online degrees are for licensed dental hygienists who hold a 2-year associate’s degree and want to pursue a 4-year bachelor’s degree, or, bachelor’s degree holders who want to complete a master’s degree in dental hygiene. The American Dental Hygienist’s Association maintains a list of credentialed universities throughout the United States that offer online degree completion for hygienists.[7] Due to the hands-on nature of clinical courses and patient care requirements, online dental hygiene programs are not an option. However, you can choose to complete most prerequisite classes and core degree requirements via online learning, depending on the college or university that you attend.

National Boards

Regardless of which state your dental hygiene program is located, all dental hygiene students must sit for the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (or “NBDHE”). This multi-hour written, 350-question exam covers all core competencies in patient care, ranging from case management and disease recognition to dental materials and soft tissue therapy. Due to its length, the NBDHE is usually broken up into a morning and afternoon session, with a lunch break in between. Scores range from 49-99 and a minimum score of 75 is necessary to pass.

State Requirements/Boards

The final phase of dental hygienist schooling and exams is the state board. State boards typically consist of clinical hygiene cases, where patients are cared for and then the student is scored by other clinicians. Some states also require separate written exams (i.e. jurisprudence or sedation monitoring) that must be completed. Due to the diverse nature of state requirements, your dental hygiene program will usually direct you toward the standards set in place by the state and guide you throughout the process. However, you may need to do your own research if you plan on practicing in multiple states or moving out of state after graduation.

Find Out More About YOUR State here.

How To Get Your Dental Hygiene License

During your final semester of dental hygiene school, your program coordinator will provide instructions on which exams and clinical boards to register for (just another reason why it’s important to attend an accredited program). The type of testing that you’re required to complete will depend on the state where your school is located and the state in which you plan to practice. In most cases, you will sit for your written national board exam at your hygiene school. When it’s time for the clinical exam, you and a patient will arrange to attend one of the authorized testing sites on a specific date and time. Your testing scores are then returned to you and/or your state dental board. Once processed by the state and you’ve completed all application requirements (such as CPR and proof of degree completion), an annual license is mailed to your home address.

RDH License Renewal

Now that you’re a licensed hygienist, you’ll need to maintain and renew your licensure as dictated by your state. Failing to comply with renewal requirements can result in your license being suspended.

Most renewal protocols require a refreshed CPR and BLS course for healthcare professionals, a minimum number of continuing education (CE) course hours, and jurisprudence updates. Typically, the required professional development courses can be completed in just a couple of weekends per year. Some states will allow you to carry over hours for a year or two, making it easier to lump your training into fewer sessions. Courses must be accredited and can usually be obtained through independent CE providers, online, or at regional dental conventions. Check with your state dental board for specific requirements.

Dental Hygiene Continuing Education 

Continuing education courses (CE/CEUs) allow practicing and seasoned dental hygienists to remain abreast of the current research and trends in dentistry for years after graduation. Depending on the state you’re licensed in, you may need an average of 12-24 hours every 1-2 years. Many dental providers choose to complete additional CE courses, simply to learn about new technology and incorporate practical strategies into their everyday services. Always document the courses that you complete (most will include a special code or certificate) and make sure they’re provided by a certified ADA CERP or similar provider.

Becoming A Dental Hygienist

A career as a dental hygienist can be extremely fulfilling. Not only do you get to work with amazing people each day, you can also earn an awesome salary doing it. Depending on where you live (city, state, and cost of living) an average dental hygienist salary is over $76,000 (with top earners making over $100k annually.) But to begin a dental hygienist career, you’ll need to complete a 2 or 4-year hygiene program, which can be extremely competitive to get into, and then pass national and state hygiene boards along with maintaining annual continuing education hours. Industry experts repeatedly rank dental hygiene as a top job in healthcare because of its satisfaction rate, work/life balance, and salary. Just be warned – it also ranks high in exposure to infectious disease! 

Related Articles


now hiring

How To Find A Job As A Dentist

dental grad student with dental license

Getting Your Dental License: Boards, Exam, and Renewal

traveling dental hygienist

What is a Travel RDH All About?

color town travel rdh

How to Become a Travel RDH

dental hygienist polishing patient's teeth

How Much Do Temp RDHs Make a Year?

© 2022 Teeth Talk Girl

How to Choose the Right Dental Hygiene Temp Agency