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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Often caring for patients independently, hygienists will:
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.
Filling more of a direct support role, assistants will:
Depending on the state, dental assistants may also be permitted to perform coronal polishing as well as sealant, fluoride, and topical anesthetic application.