How to become a Dental Hygienist

How to become a Dental Hygienist

You have decided to pursue a career in dental hygiene and want to become a dental hygienist.

You chose well, dental hygienists are a highly sought-after profession. As a consequence, there are plenty of open positions and the pay is excellent.

Most dental hygienists are employed by a dentist as part of his dental office. An entry-level position requires you to become registered or licensed with the state where you want to work.

A pupil sitting at a desk thinking about his career
How to build a career in dental hygiene?

License Requirements

Dental hygienists must be licensed to work in all 50 US states and territories.

Typically you need:

  • Pass the exam of the “American Board of Dental Examiners” (ADEX) or the “National Board of Dental Hygiene Examination” (NBDHE)
  • Graduate from an accredited college program in dental hygiene, at least with an associate’s degree
  • Proof of a clean criminal background check
  • Paying the registration fee

Some states require also, passing an exam on state or local regulations in dental hygiene.

Education Requirements

The main educational requirement is graduation from a dental hygiene program. The program must be accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA).

Degrees & Courses

The minimal degree is an associate’s degree. An associate’s degree is a 2-year college degree. It requires ~ 40 credit hours of studies in general education as well as in dental hygiene.

The next step up is a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. A bachelor’s degree requires typically a 4-year college program. Yet, many colleges set a 2-year undergraduate requirement and a 2-year bachelor’s study program. The undergraduate studies consist of general education and introductions to related fields. Related fields are for example biology and anatomy.

Most degree programs in dental hygiene are competitive. They require certain Grade Point Averages (GPA) to be accepted.

Presenting a rolled-up degree at a graduation ceremony
What degree do you need to become a dental hygienist?

Some graduate schools offer a master’s degree and related advanced studies. Yet, this is optional for entry-level jobs in the field. Besides, a master’s degree will open up new career opportunities. Many practitioners return to university for a master’s degree after some years in practice.

Preparation for the Examination

The second most important licensing rule is the examination in Dental hygiene.

Your state may ask for one of two examinations. Some states want the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE). Others request you take the American Dental Association Examination (ADEX).

Virtually all college programs prepare their students for one of these examinations. Typically, they prepare specifically for the one that is required in the state where the school resides. Preparation for the examination is part of the studies.

Continuing education courses

As a professional, you commit to lifelong learning. Your patients expect you to have current knowledge of oral hygiene and dental care.

Your registration or license is not perpetual. You will have to renew the license periodically. At renewal time, you are required to show proof of certain continued education hour credits.

Job Market 2020s

Dental Hygienists are in great demand. Their preventative services keep patients healthy and dental care costs low in the long term.

Graphic of a woman in a white dress, standing at the top of three blocks, looking at a line graph zig zagging with an upward trend. Symbolizes the positive job market trend for dental hygienists.
The job outlook for dental hygienists looks great for the next 10 years.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates that the number of dental hygienist jobs will grow by 9% in the decade between 2021 and 2031. This growth comes on top of many dental hygienists from the boomer generation retiring in that same decade.

Regional demand may vary. Also, the number of open jobs can be very different in rural areas vs. larger cities.

The growing demand for dental hygienists is reflected in growing pay. Full-time dental hygienists did earn a median salary of $77,810 as of May 2021.

Many full-time dental hygienists also enjoy benefits such as paid time off, health insurance, and dental insurance.

Some dental hygienists work part-time. Often the hours are negotiable.

Dental Hygiene is the one field in healthcare where people don’t have to work night or weekend shifts.

Opportunities for growth

Developing a career in dental hygiene, you want to understand your opportunities for continued growth.

Some hygienists will seek promotion to supervisory positions. They’ll and manage staff, budgets, and patients in a dental office.


Others will seek teaching positions. The continued education requirement for all practitioners creates demand for training and seminars. This provides an opportunity for part-time and full-time teaching.

You can also learn specialized skills. Popular areas are periodontics or study general dentistry.

Key Takeaways

A career in dental hygiene starts with a degree in dental hygiene. You can enter the profession either with an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree. Degrees must be awarded by an accredited college or university.

In addition, you need to get licensed through an examination of dental hygiene. Different states ask for different exams to register dental hygienists for work.

Before you apply to a college for a dental hygiene program, we recommend you check if a “career in dental hygiene is for you?”

4 Steps to a Career in dental hygiene

  1. Earn a degree in Dental Hygiene, either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Pass the examination(s) required by your state’s dental licensing board.
  3. Register with your state to work; You may need extra examinations and a background check.
  4. Find a dental office with a vacant job.

About Ansar Ullah

My dream was always to become a medical doctor. However, I could not afford to study medicine so I became a writer.
Here I write about dentistry and careers in the wider field of dentistry. I love to research about educational topics and what it takes to be come a dental hygienist or a dental assistant. I also love to learn more about other specializations in the field of oral science.

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