What Does A Dental Hygienist Do?

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A dental hygienist works alongside the dentist in a clinic and plays an invaluable part in the dental work chain.

What Does A Dental Hygienist Do?

In this article, you’ll learn more about what a career as a dental hygienist entails and the intricacies of working in a dental office environment.

What Is A Dental Hygienist?

A dental hygienist is not the same as a dentist. They are dental care professional who works in a dental clinic but unlike the dentist, do not perform dental procedures like fillings and extractions. 

Instead, they are purely concerned with the health of their patient’s teeth and usually perform dental cleanings, X-rays, and preventative dental care to help mitigate infections and poor oral well-being. 

Dental hygienists use many types of oral care devices and demonstration models to inform patients about their oral health and how to better take care of them, including teaching proper techniques for toothbrushing, flossing, and tongue scraping.

They do not go to dental school but typically have diplomas in dental hygiene to practice in a dental practice as a licensed professional. Another name for a dental hygienist is an oral hygienist, however, it is much less commonly used in the U.S.

Job Outlook: What does a dental hygienist do?

As they are focused on taking care of their patient’s oral health and hygiene, a dental hygienist’s regular job description includes some of the following duties:

Conducting Dental Cleanings and Examinations

During your regular dental cleaning, an oral hygienist uses specialized, state-of-the-art equipment to remove plaque and tartar from your teeth surfaces.

Conducting Dental Cleanings and Examinations

Regular cleaning (at least once every six months) is essential to prevent gum disease and maintain proper oral well-being and hygiene.

Dental hygienists remove stains and tartar not only from the visible portions of your teeth but also from beneath the surface of your gums in a procedure called root planing.

They smooth out the root surfaces to prevent plaque from reattaching, especially in the back teeth.

They’ll also polish your teeth with a paste and rubber cup to keep your teeth and gums healthy and free of decay or infections.

Taking Dental XRays

A lot of what a dental or oral hygienist does is preventive care, which means that they try to prevent problems from arising instead of restoring the tooth once it is affected. 

To do this, they take dental X-rays to give the dentist a clearer view of your teeth, roots, and supporting tissues that cannot be observed with the naked eye.

Any nascent dental problems can be easily identified on the X-rays early on before they become a staggering problem.

Reviewing the patient’s dental and medical history

Before starting any treatment, the patient’s dental and medical history must be known to the dentist or operating professional. The dental hygienist conducts a thorough review of the patient’s history.

Being privy to the patient’s history enables the hygienist to understand:

  • If any previous dental work has been done; 
  • If they are currently suffering from any systemic conditions;
  • If they are taking any prescription medications or supplements for said conditions;
  • If they have any allergies;
  • If the treatment poses any dental health risks.

Screening patients

Dental hygienists also perform routine oral health screenings of the patients. During these examinations, they assess the patients for signs of oral diseases such as cavities, gum inflammation, and signs of oral cancer.

Screening patients

These findings are then reported to the dentist as part of the patient’s current dental and medical history.

The information they gather from thorough history-taking and screening allows the dentist to formulate a personalized dental treatment plan for the patient.

It also helps prevent potential medical and dental emergencies from occurring.

Providing preventive care

After oral cleanings, the hygienists typically take preventive measures by educating the patient on proper oral hygiene. Some precautionary treatments such as fluoride application may also be implemented to prevent the risk of tooth decay.

At times, these preventive treatments may involve dental sealant application, where the hygienist applies a protective coating to your back teeth.

What this does is it prevents tooth decay in decay-prone areas like deep crevices and pits where food lodgement is most likely.

Providing patient education on oral health

The American Dental Association recommends everyone visit the dentist for routine checkups and cleanings every six months. However, these suggestions are not followed in real life.

According to the 2023 State of America’s Oral Health and Wellness Report commissioned by Delta Dental Plans Association, approximately 4 in 5 adults (81%) visited their dentist only once a year.

With over 160 thousand dental clinics in the U.S. presently, you’d have to wonder if there is a forewarning signal to a much larger problem. When you visit a dental office, you’ll encounter different dental professionals who strive to improve your oral health needs.

The hygienist informs patients on the importance of getting regular professional cleanings as part of their preventive dental care. Regular and proper flossing, brushing, and tongue scraping help prevent oral diseases.

A dental hygienist provides proper awareness and education to patients about the link between diet and oral health and may make recommendations to help patients select toothbrushes and other oral care supplies that best fit their needs and lifestyle.

Providing patient education on oral health

They may also conduct school programs to educate young and impressionable students. The goal is to help them maintain both their oral health and general health to reduce dental endemics in the community through these regular dental advocacy programs.

What are some Dental Hygienist Requirements?

Dental Hygienist requirements vary by state but every state follows similar steps that lead to licensure.

One is expected to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program, pass the Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and complete a state clinical board examination to be eligible for licensure.

The career path to receiving qualifications in dental hygiene programs goes as follows:

Associate degree

The minimum requirement to get accepted into a pre-dental program is to have a high school diploma or GED. 

To become a dental hygienist, you need to begin by working towards earning an associate degree at minimum. For this, you’ll typically need to take introductory science courses like biology, anatomy, chemistry, microbiology, pathology, and physiology. 

The American Dental Association informs that there are over 300 accredited programs in the U.S. Generally, dental hygiene programs take about three years to complete.

According to the American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA), graduating from a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is mandatory to ensure dental hygienist license dispensals.

Get through the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination

Next, you need to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination to be able to obtain a license issued by the state in which you’d like to practice. These exams are offered by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE).

National Board Dental Hygiene Examination

The test is made up of 350 questions and divided into two parts – the first being discipline-based and the second, being case-based questions.

Complete any required state licensing

Once you have cleared the necessary exams, you need to search for a type of dental hygiene license that is required by the state you’ll practice in. This will vary widely from state to state. 

Before this, you may also need to pass a state or regional clinical board examination.

Practice at a dental practice

Once you acquire your license, you need to spend adequate time with patients and collaborating or assisting dentists, dental assistants, and other office staff to refine your human skills. 

To become an experienced dental hygienist, you need to develop critical learning, communication, and quick decision-making skills that come with daily interactions with other professionals and patients.

Consider continuing education courses

Even after years of working in the industry, many dental hygienists choose to take courses on additional training. If you have a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, you can work in other settings like education, school health programs, or public health programs.

A master’s degree, on the other hand, will allow you to pursue your career in education courses, research, health care administration, public health, and advanced clinical positions.


Choosing to be a dental hygienist is an exciting and rewarding professional path. With the demand for licensed dental hygienists steadily on the rise, they are a valuable asset within the dental family. 

Dental hygienists play a crucial role in the structural framework of dentistry, enhancing oral health and general health one patient at a time.


Are dental hygienists in high demand?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists are in high demand. They estimate the demand for dental hygienists to grow 11 percent between 2020 and 2030, with about 15,600 jobs opening for the same each year, on average.

How much does a dental hygienist make?

While this can vary from state to state, the average salary for a hygienist is $77,810, equating to roughly $37.41 per hour, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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