Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant

by Genevieve Carlton
• 6 min read
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Dental hygienists and dental assistants both work in the healthcare industry, but have differing responsibilities.

Many people confuse dental hygienists and dental assistants. When weighing the job responsibilities, career requirements, and earning potential of dental hygienists vs. dental assistants, the differences become more clear. The median dental hygienist salary is nearly twice the median dental assistant salary, and dental hygienists also spend twice as long in school.

This article explains how to become a dental assistant vs. how to become a dental hygienist and covers educational and licensure requirements for both career paths.

What Is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants work in dental offices, where they care for patients and complete administrative tasks. They maintain records of dental treatments, schedule patient appointments, and manage billing and payment systems. Before procedures, dental assistants may also prepare patients and the work area.

Dental assistants can also sterilize dental instruments, assist dentists during procedures, and instruct patients on oral hygiene techniques. In some offices, dental assistants process x-rays and provide lab assistance for dentists. Dental assistants work directly with patients and provide administrative support, so they need strong organizational and interpersonal skills.

In many states, dental assistants must complete an accredited program and take an exam to gain licensure. In other states, dental assistants primarily train on the job. New dental assistants can train under the supervision of a dentist or dental hygienist to learn about dental terminology, dental instruments, and administrative responsibilities. In some states, a dental assistant must hold a license or certification.

What Is a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists provide patient care in dental offices. They conduct examinations and clean teeth while also educating patients about oral hygiene techniques. During a patient appointment, a dental hygienist will remove plaque and tartar from the patient's teeth, look for signs of oral diseases, and apply treatments to protect teeth. They also take dental x-rays to learn more about a patient's oral health.

As part of their responsibilities, dental hygienists document treatment plans and report the findings of their exams to dentists. Successful dental hygienists have a detail-oriented outlook that helps them evaluate patients and create dental care plans. They also draw on interpersonal and communication skills to work with patients, dentists, and dental assistants.

In every state, each dental hygienist must hold a license. The local state Board of Dental Examiners sets the requirements for licenses, which typically include at least an associate degree from an accredited program and an examination.

Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist Snapshot

  Dental Assistant Dental Hygienist
Duties Assists dentists during procedures; completes administrative tasks like billing and scheduling appointments; interacts with patients Examines patients and cleans teeth; reports findings to dentists; documents treatment plans; educates patients about oral hygiene
Education A one-year certificate or diploma A two-year dental hygienist degree
Licenses Not required in every state Every state requires a license
Training Most dental assistants complete on-the-job training under a dentist or dental hygienist Dental hygienists complete clinical training as part of their degree
Salary $40,080 $76,220

Education

The educational requirements for becoming a dental hygienist vs. dental assistant differ. However, neither career path requires a bachelor's degree. Instead, a dental hygienist typically holds an associate degree, while a dental assistant either completes a one-year certificate program or trains on the job.

Dental hygienists must hold associate degrees from accredited dental hygienist programs. During their degrees, students take classes in anatomy, periodontics, and dental terminology. Programs also provide laboratory and clinical training, where students learn to care for patients under the supervision of experienced dental hygienists. Completing a dental hygienist associate degree typically takes 2-3 years. Some programs also offer bachelor's degrees for dental hygienists.

A dental hygienist typically holds an associate degree, while a dental assistant either completes a one-year certificate program or trains on the job.

For dental assistants, on the other hand, educational requirements vary by state. In some states, a dental assistant must complete an accredited program, typically offered through a community college or vocational school. These programs generally take one year to complete, with each graduate earning a certificate or a diploma. During dental assistant programs, students explore dental terminology and anatomy while gaining practical experience through laboratory and clinical training.

In other states, dental assistants do not need to complete formal education programs. Instead, they train on the job, learning about administrative and patient care responsibilities under the supervision of experienced dental hygienists, dentists, and other dental assistants.

When it comes to educational programs, accreditation is crucial. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits dental hygienist and dental assistant training programs. Candidates for state licensure usually must attend accredited programs to qualify.

Licenses and Certifications

Dental hygienists and dental assistants must adhere to licensing rules in their states. In every state, a dental hygienist must hold a license from the state's Board of Dental Examiners. In some states, dental assistants also must apply for licenses or certifications. With requirements varying by state, prospective dental hygienists and dental assistants should carefully research regulations where they plan to practice.

Dental hygienists must complete educational and examination requirements to receive licenses. While the exact procedure varies depending on the state, most states require a degree from an accredited education program, passing scores on a written exam, and passing scores on a clinical exam. Most states issue reciprocal licenses for dental hygienists licensed in other states. Licensed dental hygienists often must complete continuing education requirements to maintain their credentials.

With requirements varying by state, prospective dental hygienists and dental assistants should carefully research regulations where they plan to practice.

In California, for example, the Dental Hygiene Board of California requires dental hygieniststo complete approved educational programs, which include CODA-accredited programs, before licensure. Prospective dental hygienists must also pass the National Dental Hygiene written exam and a clinical exam. The Central Regional Dental Testing Services and the Western Regional Examination Board both offer clinical exams that are accepted in California.

Unlike dental hygienists, entry-level dental assistants often do not need licenses, though some states do require a license or certification, especially for specific skill sets. For instance, a dental assistant who takes x-rays may need a license or registration to work in radiography.

Dental assistants who perform certain patient care duties may need licenses from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), depending on their state. A candidate for DANB certification must complete an accredited program or demonstrate work experience. DANB also requires passing scores on an exam.

Employment

Dental assistants and dental hygienists can anticipate strong employment growth. Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate a 7% employment growth rate for dental assistants and a 6% employment growth rate for dental hygienists from 2019-2029.

Dental hygienists receive a higher median pay than dental assistants. While the median dental assistant salary reached about $40,000 in 2019, the median dental hygienist salary exceeded $76,000. This salary gap reflects the additional training and licensure requirements for dental hygienists.

Both types of dental professionals can advance their careers with job experience and by earning higher degrees. Dental hygienists can move into management roles within dental practices, while dental assistants can pursue careers as dental hygienists. Dental hygienists can also pursue roles in public health or higher education with graduate-level training.

Employment Outlook for Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists

Assistants

MEDIAN WAGE

$40,080

PRO JECTED JOB GROWTH

7%

Hygenists

MEDIAN WAGE

$76,220

PRO JECTED JOB GROWTH

6%

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Dental Hygienist Better Than a Dental Assistant?

Dental hygienists typically earn higher salaries than dental assistants. In dentist's offices, a dental hygienist also provides more patient care, while a dental assistant focuses more on administrative duties.

How Can a Dental Assistant Become a Dental Hygienist?

Dental assistants can become dental hygienists by enrolling in accredited dental hygienist programs and earning state licensure. Some programs offer accelerated bridge options specifically for dental assistants.

Can a Dental Assistant Clean Teeth?

Dental assistants generally do not clean teeth. Instead, they assist dentists during procedures, provide administrative support in the office, maintain dental equipment, and interact with patients to schedule appointments or prepare for procedures.

Is Dental Assistant School Difficult?

In dental assistant school, students learn about oral anatomy, dental terminology, and medical assisting. Completing a certificate or diploma generally takes 1-2 years.

Is It Hard to Get a Job as a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists typically complete 2-3 years of training to earn their degrees. After graduation, candidates must pass an exam and apply for a license through their state's Board of Dental Examiners. Dental hygienists benefit from faster-than-average job growth.

Header Image Credit: Luis Alvarez | Getty Images

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