Dental hygienists perform several important asks such as cleaning teeth, examining mouths for signs of disease or decay and offer preventative dental care and advice. The information they provide is to educate patients on how to maintain good oral health.

The official range of duties that a hygienist will cover include but are not limited to:

  • Removing plaque/tartar and other stains form teeth
  • Protecting teeth by applying sealants and fluoride
  • Assess patient’s overall oral health to help dentists
  • Take and develop x-rays
  • Notate patient oral care for their files and document treatment plans
  • Inform and educate patients about good oral hygiene and techniques such as proper brushing and flossing.

The functions of a dental hygienist’s job require an assortment of tools. They clean and polish teeth with hand, power and ultrasonic tools and some had used lasers for certain tasks. Stain removal calls for an air-polishing device which uses a mixture of baking soda, water and air. This powered tool works similar to an automatic toothbrush. Hygienists also have to use x-rays to identify any problems with both the jaw and teeth.

The most important part of a hygienists job is to work with patients to help them develop good oral health habits. They can provide information on the effects of diet as well as advise what toothbrushes and other home devises or accessories are best to use.

Each state has different requirements as to the tasks a dental hygienist will perform and also what level of supervision they need. Some are allowed to work independently to diagnose health concerns and provide treatment plans like sealants and fluoride washes.

The Work Environment

Recent studies have shown that there were about 200,500 dental hygienist jobs and the majority of these worked in a dentist’s office. There are other settings that they can operate such as physicians offices, schools, and outpatient clinics. Regardless of physical stetting, they always work in close collaboration with dentists.

The job requires that safety glasses are worn as well as surgical masks and gloves. This is not only to protect themselves but also patients from any infectious diseases. There is also a strict protocol for using x-rays for the safety of both the hygienist and the patients with regards to radiation exposure.

Work Schedules

Half of the current jobs filled are only part time positions and many only work a few days a week. It is also not uncommon for a hygienist to work for several different dentists.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

The best place to start is to look for the specialized schools and training courses. You will need an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Most programs will take about three years to complete, and all states require licensing to work. You are advised to check on the requirements of your state because they do vary.

Education

Apart form the associate’s degree you can also get a bachelor’s degree, bu these are not as common. The higher degrees, bachelor’s and masters are typically required for research, teaching or clinical practice in both public and school programs.

Programs can be found at community colleges, universities and technical schools. To date, more than 300 dental hygiene programs have been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which is part of the American Dental Association.

The three-year programs offer clinical, laboratory and classroom learning. The areas of study that are usually covered include anatomy, physiology, radiography, pathology, nutrition and medical ethics. You also learn head and neck anatomy, periodontics (the study of gum disease) and patient management.

If you think you are going to be interested in this field and career, it is advised to take biology, chemistry and math courses in high school. To enter a dental hygiene program it is usually required to have completed at least one year of college, but requirements do vary by school.

Important Qualities

Critical thinking skills are essential for assessing and evaluating patients and the cases they present.

Visits to dentists are not everyone’s favorite, so compassion is recommended to help those who are scared or have pain. It is necessary to be sensitive to their emotions to make their experience as pleasant as possible.

There is a need to follow specific rules and protocol to efficiently help dentists, so being detailed oriented is an important skill. Depending on the state you are in, you will work directly under a dentist’s supervision.

Dexterity is an essential quality to possess as you will be working with your hands. You have to work within the tight quarters of the mouth. With small body parts and small instruments, precision and fine motor skills are a definite need.

Dental hygienists work in close collaboration with professional staff and patients, so interpersonal skills are required.

Licenses, Certifications and Registrations

Every state requires that a hygienist be licensed, and most require a degree from an accredited institution. Passing grades on both written and clinical exams are needed to get a license and to maintain the current licensing you must complete any continuing education requirements. These can be obtained from your local or state health board. It may also be necessary for you to complete CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) certification.

Salaries

The median annual wage for a hygienist is approximately $72,330, and this changes each year. Half of the workers earning less than this amount and half earning more. The lowest 10% in the field earned approximately $50,140 while the top 10% brought in more than $98,440.

Some will get benefits like vacation, sick time and retirement fund contributions, but these do vary by employer and may only be offered to full-time employees.

Job Outlook

Over the next ten years, the demand for dental hygienists is expected to grow 19% which is faster than the average growth rate for other occupations. This growth is expected in response to current research that links oral health to general health, thus providing a need for more preventative dental services.

Demand is also expected to grow as a result of the aging population and need for cosmetic dentistry. Health insurance is expanding to cover these treatments, meaning more people will seek them out. Procedures like whitening are also more popular. This trend is not expected to slow down especially with newer technologies that make it faster and less invasive.

Life expectancy is longer today, so a large number of elderly populations need to maintain their treatments driving further demand for dental care.

Health insurance coverage, in general, has expanded and more people have access. Federal health insurance reforms promise to keep this momentum going, so more people now have dental insurance when they did not previously. More people are now seeking dentists and dental care, so the field is going which means job openings will too.