Some people assume dental hygienists merely clean teeth before the dentist sees them. And while that's true, the job consists of much more.
Dental hygienists are often on the front lines of good oral care and perform all the following duties.
Educating patients on proper oral care.
Removing tarter and plaque build-up from teeth.
Taking and developing x-rays of teeth.
Applying sealants and fluoride.
It's an important technical medical support field with a potentially excellent future. Here's what you need to know before becoming a dental hygienist.
How much do dental hygienists make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2014, the mean annual wage of dental hygienists was $71,970, with the lowest-paid 10 percent earning an annual wage of $49,190 and the highest-paid 10 percent earning an annual wage of $97,390.
While the vast majority of dental hygienists work in dentist offices, these professionals may also find work in other settings. In addition, income may depend upon which industry or location a hygienist works. According to the BLS, these were the highest paying sectors in 2014:
- Business, professional, labor, political and similar organizations ($74,910)
- Offices of dentists ($72,300)
- Employment services ($69,360)
However, this isn't the only factor that can affect a hygienist's salary. Where a person works can also impact how much he or she makes. The BLS found the following areas had the highest average salaries for dental hygienists in 2014.
- District of Columbia ($95,570)
- California ($94,370)
- Washington ($91,370)
Even within states, there can be significant differences in pay levels. The three top-paying metropolitan areas for hygienists in 2014 were all in California, according to the BLS, but there is a sizeable gap between what the top metro area pays and average incomes in the other two.
- San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, CA Metropolitan Division ($111,380)
- Vallejo-Fairfield, CA ($103,750)
- Sacramento-Arden Arcade-Roseville, CA ($101,360)
Occupational requirements and job types for dental hygienists
You can't just become a dental hygienist overnight. You have to go to school for it.
Becoming a dental hygienist typically requires an associate's degree in dental hygiene. Bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene also exist, though they're less common. In these programs, you'll likely do laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction, and study nutrition, anatomy, physiology, periodontology (the study of gum disease) and radiography.
You're also required, regardless of what state you live in, to become licensed. In most states, becoming licensed requires obtaining a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program and passing grades on written and practical examinations. To find out for sure, though, you should contact your state's medical or health board.
Once licensed, the American Dental Hygienists Association says professionals in the field may pursue work in one of the following career paths, among others.
- Clinician: The most common role for a dental hygienist is that of a clinician. They may work for a dentist in a private practice or be employed by a hospital, school or the government to provide oral care in other settings.
- Public health professional: Public health workers may be employed by the government to administer programs, set up rural clinics or provide outreach services to vulnerable populations.
- Educator: The field requires competent educators to prepare the next generation of dental hygienists, and seasoned professionals in the field may be hired by colleges and universities as either clinical or classroom instructors.
- Researcher: Some dental hygienists become involved in research regarding how to improve oral health. They may be employed by non-profit organizations, colleges and universities or government agencies.
Projected career growth for dental hygienists
Things are looking way up for the dental hygienist field.
According to the BLS, employment of dental hygienists is expected to grow by 33 percent between 2012 and 2022, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Jobs won't grow equally everywhere, though. According to Projections Central, the American states that are projected to grow the most for dental hygienist jobs between 2012 and 2022, percentage-wise, are:
- North Carolina (55.7%)
- Georgia (48.3%)
- Virginia (48%)
- Arizona (44%)
- Utah (40.9%)
With good job prospects and excellent income potential, it's no wonder so many people are interested in a career as a dental hygienist. You can learn more by contacting dental hygienist schools for additional information regarding coursework and licensure requirements in your state.
1. Dental Hygienists, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, retrieved Dec. 1, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm
2. Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2014: Dental Hygienists, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292021.htm
3. Dental Hygienists, Long Term Occupational Projections, 2012-2022, Projections Central, https://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm4. Career Paths, ADHA, http://www.adha.org/professional-roles