Interior view of an exam room at a modern dental office

Dental Assistants vs. Dental Hygienists - What's the Difference?

By Natalie Winzer, iHire, LLC

Dental Assistants vs. Dental Hygienists – What’s the Difference?

Thinking about a career in the dental field? Not sure whether to pursue a hygienist or assistant position? While there are some core traits that all dental professionals should have – caring demeanor, attention to detail, dexterity, physical stamina – the career paths and requirements for a hygienist and assistant differ significantly. Compare these roles to determine which option is best for you.

EDUCATION

Dental Hygienist

Most dental hygienist programs last at least 2 years and are offered by community colleges, technical schools, dental schools, and universities. Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees are available from some universities if teaching, research, public health, or other special areas are of interest.

Dental Assistant

Dental assistant programs are available through community colleges, vocational and technical schools, universities, and dental schools.  Most programs take 9 to 11 months to complete and generally result in a certificate.

CREDENTIALS

Dental Hygienist

Upon graduation from a dental hygiene program, candidates are prepared and eligible to take licensure exams (national and state/regional). Exams vary by state, though most include written and oral components.

All 50 states require a dental hygienist be licensed in order to practice. Nearly all states require dental hygienists to graduate from an accredited program to be eligible for licensure. A full list of accredited programs can be found on the Commission on Dental Accreditation website.

Dental Assistant

National certification is available through the Dental Assisting National Board’s (DANB) Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam.

To be eligible to take the DANB CDA exam, candidates must have completed a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation or have at least two years of full-time experience as a dental assistant.

Not all states have formal education requirements for dental assistants and some offer registration/license options in addition to national certification.

GENERAL JOB DUTIES

Dental Hygienist

Often caring for patients independently, hygienists will:

  • Perform prophylaxis, scaling, and root planing
  • Apply sealants and fluoride
  • Take/develop X-rays
  • Administer local anesthetics
  • Complete preliminary steps in identifying dental diseases
  • Maintain patient charts/records
  • Educate patients on proper oral hygiene

Dental hygienists may be called upon to fulfill the duties of a dental assistant as well, depending on the size/setup of the office they work in.

Dental Assistant

Filling more of a direct support role, assistants will:

  • Prepare patients and rooms for treatments/procedures
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Provide chairside assistance to dentists during treatments/procedures
  • Take X-rays
  • Perform lab duties
  • Handle office tasks including billing/payment processing, appointment scheduling, and supply ordering
  • Maintain patient charts/records
  • Educate patients on proper oral hygiene

Depending on the state, dental assistants may also be permitted to perform coronal polishing as well as sealant, fluoride, and topical anesthetic application.

MEDIAN SALARY & JOB OUTLOOK (US Dept. of Labor, 2012)

Dental Hygienist

  • $70,210 per year, $33.75 per hour
  • Projected growth of 33% between 2012 and 2022

Dental Assistant

  • $34,500 per year, $16.59 per hour
  • Projected growth of 25% between 2012 and 2022

Sources:

American Dental Association— Dental Hygienist Education and Training Requirements

Bureau of Labor Statistics— Occupational Outlook Handbook— What Dental Hygienists DoWhat Dental Assistants Do 


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