How to Become a Dental Hygientist or Assistant. Programs, Schools, Career OutlookHow to Become a Dental Hygientist or Assistant. Programs, Schools, Career Outlook

Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists and dental assistants both work under the supervision of a dentist to provide patients with oral and dental care. The primary differences between the two lie in their level of autonomy and patient interaction, the education required, and the average salary earned.

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For example, becoming a dental hygienist requires an associates degree (2 years of schooling versus 1 year for assistants), comes with a wider scope of work, and can translate into a salary which is much higher than that of the average dental assistant. In fact, with one extra year of schooling, you could go from earnings in the range of $30,000 per year to a salary that is closer to $70,000. But regardless of which you choose, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects job opportunities in both fields will increase steadily between now and 2022. Read below to learn more about these two promising careers.

Become a Dental Hygentist

Education: Varies by state. The most common is an associate's degree in dental hygiene and obtainment of state licensure, which often requires that you pass a formal state examination.

Median Salary: $70,210 /year (source:

A dental hygienist performs a wider variety of duties, working side by side with dentists in a more professional role. They are often involved in directly cleaning, maintaining, and examining patient's teeth and gums.

The services performed by hygienists vary from state to state; as each state has unique regulations regarding the duties hygienists are permitted to perform. These tasks may include patient screening, keeping dental charts, taking patient vitals, developing x-rays, applying fluoride, making dental impressions, and more. (source:

The most common track to become a dental hygienist is to pursue an associate's degree in dental hygiene. Bachelor's degrees are also available, but are less common. With an associates degree and licensure in your state you may be fully qualified and ready to work within 2 years. However, a bachelor's or master's degree might be necessary if you're interested in research, teaching, or clinical practice.

Employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 33 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. (source

Become a Dental Assistant

Education: Varies by state. The most common requirements include a 9-11 month certification or diploma program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) and a passing score on the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination. Licensure is not required in all states. (source:

Median Salary: $34,500 /year (source:

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Dental assistants perform a wide variety of tasks to support Dentists, often working in a private dental practice or medical setting. Their daily tasks are generally manual in nature and may include anything from preparing the instrument table in advance of a patient visit to advising the patient on proper hygiene and care. Dental assistants may also prep and clean up after procedures, prepare x-ray machines, make dental impressions, hand tools to the dentist when needed, and perform basic administrative tasks like scheduling, record keeping and billing.

A dental assistant's job description varies based on the needs of the Dentist they support and the legal regulations of the state where they work.

Educational requirements also vary by location. Your state may require you to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam prior to certification. Available at community colleges and vocational schools, most of these programs take between nine and eleven months to complete. 2-year associate degree programs are also available, though these are less common.

Employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 25 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. (source:

Become a Dentist

Those interested in going a step further and pursuing a career as a dentist will find the path is significantly more challenging, with a much wider playing field of career options and salary potential. Requirements vary by state but generally require you get a bachelor's degree in dentistry, pass the Dental Acceptance Test, complete a Dental School program including clinical supervised practice, and pass your state's exam for licensure. To pursue a specialization or research track more education and practice are required. All states require dentists to be licensed.