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How to Become a Dental Hygienist: A Comprehensive Guide

Dental hygienists are oral health professionals who provide preventive and therapeutic services to patients. They work under the supervision of dentists and perform tasks such as cleaning teeth, taking x-rays, applying sealants and fluoride, educating patients on oral hygiene, and screening for oral diseases. Dental hygienists are in high demand, as they play a vital role in promoting oral health and preventing dental problems.
If you are interested in becoming a dental hygienist, you may wonder what it takes to enter this rewarding and challenging career. In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about how to become a dental hygienist, including the education, licensing, skills, and career prospects of dental hygienists.

Education Requirements for Dental Hygienists

The first step to becoming a dental hygienist is to complete a dental hygiene program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). CODA is the national accrediting agency for dental and dental-related education programs in the United States. CODA ensures that the programs meet the standards of quality and prepare graduates for entry-level practice.
There are different types of dental hygiene programs available, depending on your level of education and career goals. The most common types are:
Associate degree programs: These are two-year programs that prepare graduates for clinical practice as dental hygienists. They typically include courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, dental materials, radiology, periodontology, dental hygiene theory and practice, and general education. Associate degree programs are offered by community colleges, technical schools, and dental schools. They are the minimum requirement for licensure in most states.
Bachelor’s degree programs: These are four-year programs that provide a more comprehensive education in dental hygiene and related disciplines. They include the same courses as associate degree programs, as well as courses in research methods, public health, ethics, leadership, and management. Bachelor’s degree programs are offered by universities and dental schools. They are not required for licensure, but they may provide more opportunities for career advancement, especially in non-clinical settings such as education, administration, research, or public health.
Master’s degree programs: These are advanced programs that prepare graduates for leadership, teaching, research, or specialized clinical roles in dental hygiene. They typically require a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene or a related field, as well as additional coursework and research in a specific area of interest. Master’s degree programs are offered by universities and dental schools. They are not required for licensure, but they may enhance your credentials and expertise in the field.

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Licensing Requirements for Dental Hygienists

The second step to becoming a dental hygienist is to obtain a license to practice in your state. All states require dental hygienists to be licensed, but the specific requirements may vary from state to state. In general, you will need to:
Graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program: As mentioned above, you will need to complete a CODA-accredited dental hygiene program at the associate, bachelor’s, or master’s level, depending on your preference and career goals.
Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE): This is a standardized exam that tests your knowledge and skills in dental hygiene. It consists of two parts: a written part that covers basic and applied sciences, and a clinical part that covers patient care and management. The NBDHE is administered by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE), which is part of the American Dental Association (ADA).
Pass a state or regional clinical exam: This is a practical exam that evaluates your ability to perform dental hygiene procedures on patients or manikins. The exam may include tasks such as scaling, root planing, polishing, probing, taking x-rays, and applying fluoride. The exam may be administered by your state board of dentistry, or by a regional testing agency such as the Central Regional Dental Testing Service (CRDTS), the Commission on Dental Competency Assessments (CDCA), the Southern Regional Testing Agency (SRTA), or the Western Regional Examining Board (WREB).
Apply for a license from your state board of dentistry: This is the final step to becoming a licensed dental hygienist. You will need to submit an application form, pay a fee, and provide proof of your education, exam scores, and other credentials. You may also need to undergo a background check, a drug test, and a CPR certification. You can find the specific requirements and application forms for your state on the website of your state board of dentistry.

Skills and Qualities of Dental Hygienists

Besides the education and licensing requirements, dental hygienists also need to have certain skills and qualities to succeed in their profession. Some of the most important skills and qualities are:
Manual dexterity: Dental hygienists need to have good hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills to perform delicate and precise procedures on patients’ teeth and gums. They also need to be able to use various instruments and equipment safely and effectively.
Communication skills: Dental hygienists need to have good verbal and written communication skills to interact with patients, dentists, and other members of the dental team. They need to be able to explain procedures, instructions, and recommendations clearly and respectfully. They also need to be able to listen to patients’ concerns, questions, and feedback, and respond appropriately.
Interpersonal skills: Dental hygienists need to have good interpersonal skills to establish rapport and trust with patients, especially those who may be anxious, nervous, or fearful of dental treatment. They need to be able to empathize with patients, show compassion and care, and provide emotional support and encouragement. They also need to be able to work well with others, respect diversity, and handle conflicts or complaints professionally.
Critical thinking skills: Dental hygienists need to have good critical thinking skills to assess patients’ oral health status, identify problems, and plan and implement appropriate interventions. They need to be able to apply their knowledge and experience to different situations, evaluate the outcomes, and make adjustments as needed. They also need to be able to use evidence-based practices, follow ethical principles, and adhere to infection control and safety standards.
Organizational skills: Dental hygienists need to have good organizational skills to manage their time, tasks, and resources efficiently and effectively. They need to be able to prioritize their duties, multitask, and cope with stress and pressure. They also need to be able to keep accurate and complete records, maintain inventory and equipment, and comply with regulations and policies.

Career Prospects for Dental Hygienists

The career prospects for dental hygienists are very promising, as the demand for their services is expected to grow in the coming years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of dental hygienists is projected to increase by 6% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is driven by several factors, such as:
– The aging population, which will require more preventive and restorative dental care
– The increased awareness and importance of oral health and its connection to overall health
– The expansion of dental insurance coverage and access to dental services
– The shortage of dentists in some areas, which will create more opportunities for dental hygienists to provide primary care
The BLS also reports that the median annual wage for dental hygienists was $77,090 in 2020, which is much higher than the median annual wage for all occupations, which was $41,950. The highest-paying industries for dental hygienists were:
– Offices of dentists: $77,230
– Offices of physicians: $80,540
– Outpatient care centers: $83,440
– Employment services: $84,020
– Federal executive branch: $86,850
The highest-paying states for dental hygienists were:
– Alaska: $114,790
– California: $106,240
– Washington: $92,610
– Arizona: $91,290
– New Jersey: $91,210
Dental hygienists can also advance their careers by pursuing further education, obtaining additional certifications, or specializing in a specific area of dental hygiene, such as:
– Dental hygiene education: Dental hygienists can teach dental hygiene students or other health professionals in academic or clinical settings. They may need a master’s or doctoral degree in dental hygiene or a related field, as well as teaching experience and credentials.
– Dental hygiene administration: Dental hygienists can manage or supervise dental hygiene programs or services in various settings, such as dental offices, clinics, schools, or public health agencies. They may need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene or a related field, as well as leadership, management, and business skills and credentials.
– Dental hygiene research: Dental hygienists can conduct or participate in research projects that aim to improve the knowledge, practice, and outcomes of dental hygiene. They may need a master’s or doctoral degree in dental hygiene or a related field, as well as research skills and credentials.
– Dental hygiene public health: Dental hygienists can work in public health settings to provide dental hygiene services to underserved or vulnerable populations, such as children, elderly, low-income, or rural communities. They may need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene or a related field, as well as public health skills and credentials.
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