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Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant: Do You Know the Differences?

If you are considering a dental career, you may be wondering if there is a difference between a dental hygienist vs dental assistant.

A lot of people think they are the same job, but that is not the case. That is why it is important to understand the differences between the two before entering the field.


Dental Assistants

Dental assistants usually work alongside a dentist as patients are treated. Duties vary based on state guidelines and may include:

  • Performing general office tasks
  • Taking and developing x-rays
  • Preparing and sterilizing dental instruments and equipment
  • Teaching patients about oral hygiene in order to prevent cavities and other issues

dental hygienist vs dental assistantDental Hygienist

Hygienists also work alongside dentists and perform some of the same duties as assistants. But they are also responsible for teeth cleaning and more. Day-to-day responsibilities include:

  • Applying decay preventives and fluorides
  • Removing calculus, plaque, and stains during teeth cleaning
  • Administering local anesthetics to a patient before a procedure (depending on state laws)
  • Removing dressing and sutures
  • Preparing diagnostic tests that will be performed by the dentist
  • Examining gums and teeth to check for disease (though they cannot diagnose any conditions)

Educational Requirements

Dental Assistants

To work as a dental assistant, all you may need is a high school diploma. It depends on the state in which you work. Some states require assistants to finish a training program that takes about one year to complete, and students earn a certificate or diploma. There are several topics covered such as:

  • Dental Anatomy and Orthodontics
  • Dental Office Emergencies
  • Dental Radiography
  • Dental Specialties
  • Laboratory Procedures

Dental Hygienists

Working as a hygienist requires more education. You will need an associate or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. Most take a two-year program (associate degree), but either way, your studies will include clinical, classroom, and laboratory instruction. You will take many courses such as:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Dental Anatomy
  • Introduction to Dental Hygiene
  • Microbiology and Immunology
  • Patient/Pain Management
  • Periodontics
  • Pharmacology for Dental Hygiene
  • Radiology

Certification and Licensure

Dental Assistants

Depending on the state, you may need to pass the Certified Dental Assistant exam given by the Dental Assistant National Board. Eligibility requirements are:

  • Successful completion of an accredited program, or
  • A high school diploma and two years full-time or four years part-time dental assisting work experience
  • CPR certification

Dental Hygienists

All states require dental hygienists to be licensed, though requirements vary throughout the country. In most cases, you will need to pass the exam administered by the American Dental Association’s Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations. After hygienists earn a license, they may use “RDH” after their name to show they are a Registered Dental Hygienist.

No matter which exam you take, studying beforehand is a must in order to have the best chance of passing on your first attempt.  Taking practice tests and making flashcards of the material are two great ways to study.

Outlook and Salary

Dental Assistants

The job outlook for assistants looks promising as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says there should be over 74,000 new jobs up until the year 2022. The salary is anywhere from $24,220 to $48,350, and is generally determined by education and location.

Dental Hygienists

In regards to hygienists, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says employment is expected to grow in this field 33% until 2022, which is faster than average for all other occupations. The reason is continuing research linking oral health to general health will keep up the demand for preventive dental services which are typically provided by dental hygienists.

Now that you know the differences between the two professions, take some time to decide which one is right for you. If you have any questions, contact us for more information.