If you are interested in the medical profession and are looking for a rewarding and fulfilling career path, you may be considering training as a dental hygienist, a position that will see you working closely with dental patients and looking after their oral health and dental hygiene.
However, training for jobs like this can also take a certain amount of time and dedication, something that could potentially put you off – so to help you understand everything involved, in this post, we answer the question, how long does it take to become a dental hygienist?
How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist? The short answer
Before we go into the details of how long it takes to become a dental hygienist and the process you need to go through, we can start with a simple answer.
If you want to become a dental hygienist and already have a high school diploma or equivalent qualification, the minimum amount of time it will take to become a dental hygienist is two years, which is the amount of time it takes to receive an associate degree.
Other options are to pursue a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, and if you choose to go down one of these routes, it will take you four years or six years respectively.
In short, this means the minimum amount of time it can take to become a dental hygienist is two years – although you can spend longer than this studying and training if you choose.
It is also possible to study and work at the same time, in which case, gaining the necessary qualifications can take even longer.
So having given the simple answer, now let’s jump in and look at the process of becoming a dental hygienist in a bit more detail.
What does a dental hygienist do?
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists a dental hygienist’s job as including the following responsibilities:
- Removing tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
- Applying sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
- Taking and developing dental X-rays
- Assessing patients’ oral health and reporting findings to dentists
- Documenting patient care and treatment plans
- Educating patients about oral hygiene techniques such as how to brush and floss correctly
A large part of their work involves using specialist tools to clean patients’ teeth and remove stains, and these may include manual tools, power tools, ultrasonic tools, lasers and air-polishing devices.
Hygienists may also need to take X-ray images of patients’ teeth and know how to interpret them.
Another part of a dental hygienist’s job involves educating patients on how to care for their teeth and gums. This may involve talking about brushing and flossing as well as discussing the role that diet has to play in maintaining oral health.
If you want to learn a bit more about what dental hygienists usually do at work, you can check out this video before reading on.
What is the profile of a dental hygienist?
Dental hygienists work in close contact with dentists and other staff in the dental practice, and they also deal with their patients on a daily basis.
As a result, dental hygienists need to have strong interpersonal skills, they need to enjoy working as part of a team and they need to be good communicators, both in terms of speaking and listening.
The main part of the job is concerned with dental health and oral hygiene, so a dental hygienist should be interested in these core aspects.
Dental hygienists need to have good attention to detail in terms of patient care and record-keeping, and they need to be reliable, well-organized and able to complete tasks in a timely manner.
How do you become a dental hygienist?
To qualify to become a dental hygienist, you will first need to obtain a high school diploma or an equivalent qualification.
Following this, you can then begin your training as a dental hygienist – and this may take between two and six years, depending on the level of qualification you hope to obtain after you finish your studies.
To do this, you have three broad options. You can decide to study for an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, which take two years, four years and six years to complete respectively.
1. Associate degree
An associate degree is the minimum level of training you need to receive to begin practicing as a dental hygienist, and during the course, you will learn everything you need to know to perform the basic aspects of the job.
This level of qualification allows you to work as a general dental hygienist, and you will be eligible to apply for positions in most private clinics.
2. Bachelor’s degree
Choosing to study for a bachelor’s degree will broaden the range of jobs you can apply for, allowing you to work in more specialized positions and to work in community centers or schools, for example.
Furthermore, when applying for jobs as a dental hygienist, you will have a better chance of obtaining a position than someone who only holds an associate degree, and you will also be in a stronger position to negotiate a better salary.
It can be possible to start working as a dental hygienist while you study for your bachelor’s degree if you already hold an associate degree qualification.
Another possibility is to complete your associate degree and then spend some time working to gain work experience and then to return to school to complete your bachelor’s degree later.
When doing this, it is usually possible to transfer your credits from your associate degree to your bachelor’s degree to reduce the amount of time you need to study for the higher-level qualification.
3. Master’s degree
A master’s degree is necessary if you want to teach or train other dental hygienists. This qualification also opens up higher-level positions that are not available to those who only hold associate or bachelor’s degrees.
Obtaining your license
Once you have finished your dental hygienist’s training, you will need to obtain your license before you can start working.
This will obtain passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and depending on local requirements, you may have to take a state-level exam too.
Having passed both exams, you will then be entitled to look for your first job as a dental hygienist.
Why become a dental hygienist?
Becoming a dental hygienist is an attractive proposition for many reasons.
First, if you are interested in dentistry and oral hygiene but don’t want to become a dentist, becoming a dental hygienist is a great option.
You’ll be able to learn a lot about a fascinating subject, and you’ll be able to put your knowledge to use in a rewarding professional capacity.
Furthermore, qualified dental hygienists are in great demand, so after completing your training and education, your job prospects will be extremely positive.
You’ll be able to find a well-paid and interesting job with a regular salary that also gives you the opportunity to work with other people, including your co-workers in your dental practice and the patients you help to care for.
How much do dental hygienists earn?
According to the US Bureau of Labor, in 2021, the median salary for dental hygienists was $77,810. The top 10% earn more than $100,200 while the bottom 10% earn $60,000.
Can dental hygienists work part-time?
While most dental hygienists work full-time, many also work part-time. However, the full benefits associated with the position, such as vacation and retirement contributions, may only apply to full-time workers, depending on the employer.
What’s the difference between a dental hygienist and a dental assistant?
A dental hygienist is responsible for patients’ dental hygiene and oral health and carries out certain procedures such as cleaning while also teaching patients about how to take care of their teeth and gums.
A dental assistant, on the other hand, may be required to assist dentists or dental hygienists as they carry out dental procedures, and they are also responsible for some admin work, record keeping, preparing rooms for dental procedures and check-ups and a range of other tasks.
What are the job prospects like for dental hygienists?
Job prospects for dental hygienists are considered good since they are much in demand.
In the next decade, about 16,300 positions are expected to open each year for dental hygienists in the US, and employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow by 9% from 2021 to 2031.
This is partly due to an aging population as well as the development of modern dental practices.
As a result, trained dental hygienists holding the necessary qualifications and licenses stand a good chance of finding employment.
A minimum of two years to begin working as a dental hygienist
So as we’ve seen, if you want to pursue a career as a dental hygienist, the minimum amount of time you’ll have to spend in training and education before you can start working is two years.
However, if you want to seek the better-paid jobs or you hope to advance your career beyond a basic entry-level position or even to move into training other dental hygienists, you’ll have to plan on studying for four or even six years to obtain the necessary levels of certification.