Why You Should Consider a Dental Hygienist Career

Why You Should Consider a Dental Hygienist Career

8 minute read

Good dental hygiene makes a huge difference in the quality of people’s lives, and as a dental assistant or hygienist, you can have a direct impact on delivering that kind of care. Whether you’re considering becoming an assistant or hygienist, you can start working in the field of dental care in no time with a quick training program and by fulfilling certain requirements. Let’s take a closer look at why you might consider a dental assistant career path or a dental hygienist career path.

There's Never Been a Better Time to Become a Dental Assistant or Hygienist

Jobs in dental assistance are growing due to an aging population in the U.S. that needs more dental care throughout the duration of their lives, as well as an increase in demand for preventive dental services. Another strong point of consideration for a dental assistant career path is some training programs take as little as 9 months to complete. In addition, you can often become a dental administrator in less than 24 months or a dental hygienist in about 2 years.

Things to Consider When Mapping Out Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist Career Paths

Becoming a dental assistant or hygienist might seem straightforward enough — you’re working toward learning how to take care of people’s teeth and oral health. But there are a couple of other factors to keep in mind:

What's the Job Outlook for Dental Assistant Career Paths and Dental Hygienist Career Paths?

Employment of dental assistants is projected to grow by 8% by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow by 9% over the next 8 years. An estimated 56,400 dental assistant jobs and 16,300 dental hygienist jobs are expected to open up each year as more and more Americans require preventive and elderly dental care. The median annual wage for dental assistants in 2021 was $38,660. The lowest 10% of dental assistants earned less than $29,580, while the top 10% earned more than $59,540. On average, the highest-paid dental assistants work for the federal government.  For dental hygienists, the median annual wage was $77,810 in 2021. The lowest 10% earned less than $60,100, while the top 10% of dental hygienists earned more than $100,200. The highest-paid dental hygienists tend to work at dentists’ offices.

Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist Career Job Settings

The most common place for dental assistants and hygienists to work is in dentists’ offices. A more comprehensive list of job settings includes: 

  • Private dental or orthodontics offices
  • Group dental or orthodontics practices
  • Government jobs
  • Hospitals
  • Dental suppliers
  • Public health facilities

Where Will a Dental Assistant Career Path or a Dental Hygienist Career Path Take Me?

During your education, you’ll be required to work a certain number of hands-on training hours in clinical internships. The number of hours you need will depend on the program you choose. Once you’ve completed your training, you can jump into your dental assistant career path. From there, you might decide to continue your education to become a dental hygienist. Dental hygienists make nearly twice as much as dental assistants ($77,810 annually) because they’re specially qualified to treat patients without a dentist present. They clean teeth, apply fluoride treatments, and report any findings about their patients to the dentist. Dental hygienists have more training than assistants – typically around 2 years. That’s why becoming a dental assistant is a good first step – or a great career by itself!

Dentist's Office

91% of dental assistants and 94% of dental hygienists work in a dentist’s office, which can be a private or group practice. Assistants help put patients at ease, clean teeth, and assist the dentist. Hygienists, in turn, do much of the work themselves, without assisting the dentist. Job duties for both roles include:

  • Preparing patients for dental exams
  • Taking dental x-rays
  • Making sure all dental instruments are sterilized between patients
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Managing patient records
  • Dental assistants help the dentist with checkups, cleanings, and other dental procedures
  • Dental hygienists apply fluoride treatments, clear plaque and tartar off teeth, and administer local anesthesia

Educational Institutions

Another path you could take is to educate new dental students and provide them with the opportunity to acquire firsthand experience in the dental field through an externship or other clinical experience. Dental hygienists with advanced bachelor’s or master’s degrees in dental hygiene can teach dental students at colleges and universities. They may also supervise students in labs or clinics. Job duties include:

  • Explaining to students the basics of the job and dental assistant duties
  • Training students
  • Overseeing clinical training

Dental Supplier

Some manufacturers and distributors of dental products hire dental assistants and hygienists to collaborate with dental care facilities so they can learn their clients’ needs. Job duties include:

  • Representing dental suppliers to dental offices
  • Demonstrating new dental tools and supplies

Public Health

Dental assistants and hygienists can also help fill a community need by traveling with dentists to areas where residents don’t have easy or affordable access to dental care. Job duties include:

  • Educating the public on good oral health care
  • Assisting with presenting dental care demonstrations to schools or community groups

Government Jobs

2% of dental assistants work for the government, which, on average, is the highest-paying dental assistant job. Government jobs for dental assistants include:

  • Assisting dentists on military bases
  • Providing dental care on Indigenous reservations
  • Working in Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics

Licenses and Certifications

The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) provides exams to earn your National Dental Assistant Certification. The two certificates for brand-new dental assistants are the National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) and the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA).

NELDA Requirements

  • Successful completion of a DANB-accepted dental assisting program located within a post-secondary institution accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (NOT a Commission on Dental Accreditation [CODA] program).


  • Graduation from a U.S. Department of Labor Job Corps dental assisting program.


  • Successful completion of a DANB-accepted dental assisting program located within a high school or high school-level career technical school recognized by that state’s Department of Education. The program must encompass at least one semester of a dental assisting curriculum.


  • A high school diploma or its equivalent plus a minimum of 300 and up to a maximum of 3,000 hours of work experience as a dental assistant in any general or specialty dental practice or setting, accrued over at least two months and no more than three years. Work experience hours must be verified by a licensed dentist.

CDA Requirements

  • You need to be a graduate of a Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)-accredited dental assisting or hygiene program 


  • You need to hold a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) license, which is usually given at the state level.

Specialty Requirements

If you choose to pursue a specialty career in dental assistance, you’ll need additional certifications from the Dental Assisting National Board. These include:

  • Certified Orthodontic Dental Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)
  • Certified in Dental Infection Prevention and Control (CDIPC)

Each state has its own additional requirements for certification, licensure, education, or training. Be sure to check your state’s requirements as you progress through your dental assistant training. Dental hygienists require more education and training than dental assistants, but your training and experience as a dental assistant will certainly help you get there. Dental hygiene programs result in, at a minimum, an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Once you graduate, you’ll need to get certified by the National Board Dental Hygiene Association (NBDHA).

What Classes Can I Take to Pursue a Career as a Dental Assistant or Hygienist?

Dental assistants and hygienists need a comprehensive understanding of oral hygiene and how to assist dentists or orthodontists. They also need to know the basics of office management, communication, and patient care. Dental assistant and hygienist programs require you to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent for admission. After receiving your high school diploma, the classes you may need to take to prepare to become a dental assistant or hygienist will depend on whether you’re just starting out or you’re finishing up more specific requirements. If you’re just starting on your degree, focus first on general education classes, like English Composition or College Algebra. These courses are often prerequisites for dental assistant and hygienist programs. If you’re further along in your education, you can turn your focus to more specialized courses. You might be looking to fulfill health and science requirements for your chosen program, like Anatomy & Physiology or Medical Terminology. StraighterLine has a wide range of courses that can help you fulfill both general education and core curriculum requirements for your dental assistant or hygienist career path.  EXPLORE COURSES

Fast Track Your Dental Assistant or Hygienist Career Path with StraighterLine

Take the first step in your dental assistant career path or dental hygienist career path with StraighterLine's self-paced, affordable online courses. Your credits are guaranteed to transfer to any of our partner schools or through the ACE CREDIT service to over 2,000 colleges and universities worldwide.

Check out our health science courses today to get started on the career pathway that is right for you.

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