How to Become a Dental Hygienist

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How to Become a Dental Hygienist

You may not have considered being a dental hygienist, but it is actually a fast growing career that offers a very competitive salary. You can start working in the field with as little as an associate degree, but there are also opportunities for higher degree study and you may choose to continue to a master’s or doctorate degree in dentistry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the professional outlook for dental hygienists is expected to grow a huge 20% between 2016 and 2026, and the median annual wage is about $74,000 a year. It is also a good career for obtaining part-time work which can suit people who also might wish to concentrate on raising a family or other activities.

Dental hygienists not only clean teeth and examine patients for signs of oral disease, they also educate patients to improve and maintain their oral health. This is increasingly important as more and more links are being made between oral health and overall health.

This article “How to Become a Dental Hygienist” includes a step by step guide to becoming a dental hygienist and provides a list of the some of the top dental hygiene programs in the country.

Step 1: Complete a Dental Hygiene Education Program

The first thing you will need is to complete an accredited dental hygiene education program. Your program of education will need to be recognized by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) of the American Dental Association so that you will be able to register to practice. There are hundreds of CODA-accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States.

There are numerous levels of programs available, and the minimum qualification is usually an associate degree. Courses may be offered through community colleges, technical colleges, dental schools or universities. Community college courses generally take 2 years to complete and will give you an associate degree upon completion.

Universities offer bachelor and sometimes master degrees in dental hygiene, which generally require at least two years of further schooling. These higher degrees may be required if you wish to pursue a career in teaching or research, as well as for clinical practice in public health programs or schools.

Typical courses available are:

  • Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene
  • Associate of Arts in Dental Hygiene
  • Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene

Admission requirements for dental hygiene programs vary but undertaking high school subjects such as health, biology, psychology, chemistry, mathematics, and speech will be helpful. Some programs may specify chemistry or maths as a requirement.

Some bachelor programs will only admit students which have already completed two years of college. You will need to find the program that interests you and look at their specific requirements. Below we give you some recommendations for top programs across the country.

Dental hygiene programs involve courses in basic sciences, like anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, immunology, chemistry, microbiology and pathology; and specialist clinical sciences including dental hygiene, radiology, and dental materials.

They will generally also offer liberal arts courses which can be included in your program of study. You will be given clinical training which includes being placed directly in a practical setting where you will perform dental hygiene services under the instruction of a licensed dentist.

After completion of your course, you will be able to pursue additional training in areas such as public health, education, business administration, or basic sciences. Graduation from an accredited dental hygiene program prepares you to take the national and regional board exams in the next steps.

Step 2: Take a Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) Course

You generally need to also become certified in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) before you can be licensed as a dental hygienist. In most cases, you will need to ensure your certification remains up to date whilst you are registered.

In some states, you will also require additional certifications in such things as anesthesia, restorative treatments, and nitrous oxide. You will need to check the requirements with the particular state board you will be applying to.

Step 3: National Examination

Most states require graduation from a CODA accredited program, and to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, in addition to passing the state-authorized licensure examination.

The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination is a comprehensive written examination, which includes 350 multiple choice questions. It will test your knowledge of clinical dental hygiene services, the theory of dental hygiene, and community health, plus present you with patient cases you will need to answer questions on.

Step 4: State examinations and licensing

Dental hygienists need to be licensed in the state in which they will be working. Following the national testing, candidates’ clinical dental hygiene skills and knowledge of dental hygiene and related subjects is further tested through the state or regional examinations. State examination will include a clinical component, where your practical skills are tested.

Clinical Experience: you may be asked for a minimum number of documented hours of clinical experience. In some cases, you will also require experience with patients suffering from complicated dental issues, such as gingivitis.

Once registered dental hygienists may use “R.D.H.” after their names, which signifies recognition that they are a Registered Dental Hygienist.

Top Dental Hygiene Programs

According to, these are some of the top schools for studying dental hygiene:

University of Alaska Fairbanks

This university offers an Applied Science in Dental Hygiene degree. Core subjects include pharmacology, pathology of oral tissues, oral pain and principals of dental health. A dental hygiene clinic is operated where students can practice and a clinical practicum and a clinical seminar are held during the later semesters.

Idaho State University

ISU’s Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene degree provides adults with skills in areas like community disease prevention, tooth morphology, dental materials, leadership, and health policy and oral pathology.

Clinical training covers how to perform root planting, apply fluoride therapy and develop x-rays. Freshman and transfer students are accepted, and advanced training is also available in a Master of Science program.

New York University

Here you can choose from either a 17-month fast track Associate in Applied Science in Dental Hygiene or the more advanced Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene.

A minimum of 128 credits is required for the bachelor degree, and there are options for completing the course or part of the course at another accredited school.

Throughout the year, New York University hosts healthcare and informational sessions that are related to the dental programs.

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