What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Dental Hygienist?


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A college degree is one of the only things standing between you and a rewarding career in dental health. The educational preparation could take a lot less time than you think. As a dental hygienist, you’ll work directly with patients, in conjunction with dentists. You’ll check and clean patients’ teeth and provide preventive care. You’ll also enjoy many personal benefits, such as:

  • a good salary
  • rapid job growth
  • a flexible schedule

But, the first step to becoming a dental hygienist is earning an associate’s degree.

How Do You Become a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists are required to have an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Typical dental hygiene schooling programs take about three years to complete. However, some students may choose to earn a bachelor’s in dental hygiene, or even a master’s degree. Bachelor’s degree programs take four years to complete. Master’s degree programs take an additional two years on top of the bachelor’s degree.

The most common pathway to becoming a dental hygienist is to earn an associate’s degree in dental hygiene from a:

  • community college
  • technical school
  • university

You should only consider accredited programs when deciding where to enroll in school. The Commission on Dental Accreditation, which is part of the American Dental Association (ADA), accredits more than 300 dental hygiene programs.

Education for Dental Hygienist

Unlike dentists, aspiring dental hygienists don’t have to spend years in dental school. A two-year dental hygiene degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation is sufficient for most entry-level dental hygiene positions.

As a dental hygiene student, your education won’t be limited to the classroom. Your degree to become a dental hygienist will include many hands-on aspects. You will also complete laboratory and clinical work to fully develop your knowledge and skills. Coursework will include:

  • Basic orofacial anatomy
  • Dental health education
  • Dental materials
  • Dental radiography
  • Dental sciences
  • Infection and hazard control
  • Nutrition and dental health
  • Periodontology
  • Practice management

As a dental hygiene major enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program, you will study many of the same subjects offered in an associate’s degree program. However, you will also take courses that allow you to earn a four-year degree. More information on bachelor’s degree programs in dental hygiene is available below.

Best Degrees for Dental Hygienists

The best dental hygiene degree programs are fully accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. There are over 300 accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States. However, there are several types of degrees you may earn on the road to completing dental hygiene schooling.

Associate’s Degree
Associate’s in dental hygiene degree programs typically take just three years to complete. These programs are usually small in class size and offer hands-on experience, among other benefits. Associate’s programs prepare graduates for a career in dental hygiene through:

  • labs
  • coursework
  • extensive training

Bachelor’s Degree
Earning a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene can open doors to supervisory positions at dental offices, and it can provide career advancement opportunities. These careers all require four-year degrees in dental hygiene:

  • clinical research coordinators
  • dental hygiene educators
  • public health administrators

Master’s Degree
Master’s degrees in dental hygiene give dental hygienists the knowledge and experience needed to teach in a dental hygiene program. These programs are designed for students who work as licensed dental hygienists and hold bachelor’s degrees. Programs are available online or in-person and cover topics in the following areas:

  • Clinical dental hygiene instruction
  • Dental hygiene knowledge
  • Education methodology
  • Research analysis
  • Theory and practice of laboratory

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What Degree Do You Need to Be a Dental Hygienist?

As indicated above, becoming a dental hygienist requires only an associate’s degree. However, some aspiring hygienists pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. Still, the most common path toward a dental hygiene career is to earn an associate’s degree. As a dental hygiene major, you’ll take a series of classes that prepare you to work in dental offices providing dental hygiene care to patients. In some states, you may have full autonomy and work independently as a dental hygienist. In other states, you may be required to work closely with a licensed dentist.

If you aspire to teach in a dental hygiene program, you may be required to hold a bachelor’s degree at minimum. Most teaching positions require candidates to hold master’s in dental hygiene degrees.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

The time it takes to become a dental hygienist is contingent on which degree you choose to earn. Earning an associate’s degree in dental hygiene is the first, and perhaps most important, step to this career. This step takes about three years.

After getting your degree, though, you will need to obtain a license to practice in your state. In most states, this means earning a passing score on an examination as well as holding a degree from an accredited program. Some dental hygienists choose to further their career through additional studies. They can earn a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in dental hygiene. The bachelor’s degree takes four years to earn. The master’s degree takes a total of six years, including the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s or master’s degrees are generally required if you plan to pursue roles in research, teaching, or clinical practice in school health programs. And if you choose to pursue doctoral education in dental hygiene, plan on spending at least eight years in college.

Other Important Qualities for Dental Hygienists to Have

The ideal candidate for a dental hygienist career has the ability to learn the technical skills required to clean teeth and communicates well with others. The best dental hygienists have the compassion and interpersonal skills needed to relate well to the patients they serve and put nervous patients at ease. They must also pay close attention to details, like office procedures and potential symptoms of diseases.

Below are important qualities for dental hygienists:

  • Critical-thinking skills: Dental hygienists must be able to think critically when examining patients and providing oral hygiene plans. They must also synthesize instructions given to them by dentists. To carry out these tasks, a dental hygienist must be able to think critically.
  • Communication skills: Dental hygienists receive directions from dentists. They share this information with patients. They also collect information from patients and share it with dentists. They instruct patients on oral care, communicate oral hygiene plans, and even provide lifestyle coaching.
  • Detail-orientation: Specific rules and protocols must be followed by dental hygienists to help dentists diagnose and treat patients. In some states, dental hygienists work without the direct supervision of dentists. In other states, they work under the supervision of dentists. They must be detail-oriented people in order to carry out these tasks.
  • Dexterity: The job of a dental hygienist involves working in tight, compact spaces, and in small parts of the body (the mouth). Fine motor skills are necessary to use and maneuver tools and instruments for dental treatments. Dental hygienists must have:
    • good dexterity
    • nimble fingers
    • the ability to work with their hands

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    • Interpersonal skills: Interpersonal skills are as important as communication skills. Dental hygienists work closely with dentists and patients. They must be empathetic and considerate in their work with patients, especially those who have anxieties about undergoing dental treatments. Good interpersonal skills are important for this occupation.
    • Optimism: A good dental hygienist can motivate and inspire the patients they treat. Since most people don’t enjoy going to the dentist, it’s important for a dental hygienist to help patients respond positively to oral hygiene instructions and suggestions for improved health outcomes.
    • Problem-solving skills: To develop oral hygiene care plans designed to improve patients’ oral health, a dental hygienist must have good problem-solving skills.
    • Sense of humor: To help eliminate the stress of certain dental procedures, it’s important to present a good sense of humor to patients. A healthy balance of work ethic and fun can build a positive environment. As a result, dental hygienists can help patients feel more at ease when undergoing challenging procedures.

    How Much Money Can Dental Hygienists Earn?

    There are many advantages to a career in dental hygiene. Despite only needing an associate’s degree, dental hygienists earn a median salary of $77,090 per year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s close to twice the median annual wage for all occupations, which is $41,950. The BLS also reports that the highest 10% of earners in this occupation make more than $104,420 per year. So, becoming a dental hygienist can be very rewarding.

    However, certain factors can impact the earnings potential for this occupation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are three top-paying industries for dental hygienists. These industries are:

    • Dentist offices
    • Physician offices
    • Government

    The median annual wages for dental hygienists working in dental offices is $77,330, which is slightly higher than the average for this occupation. About 94% of the 206,000 dental hygienists working last year were employed by offices of dentists.

    In addition to industry type, geographic location impacts earnings for dental hygienists. The BLS reports five top-paying states for this occupation, and this information was published by the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS). The top-paying states and their annual mean wages for dental hygienists are:

    • Alaska: $115,050
    • California: $109,970
    • Washington: $95,450
    • District of Columbia: $94,650
    • Nevada: $89,360

    Certain metropolitan areas also pay above-average earnings for dental hygienists. In fact, after earning a degree to become a dental hygienist, you might want to consider living in one of these high-paying metro areas:

    • Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, California: $133,730
    • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California: $120,340
    • Santa Rosa, California: $118,980
    • Fairbanks, Alaska: $117,760
    • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California: $117,470
    • Santa Cruz-Watsonville, California: $116,960
    • Vallejo-Fairfield, California: $115,050
    • Napa, California: $113,870
    • Bremerton-Silverdale, Washington: $112,900
    • Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California: $112,030

    If you don’t want to live in a metropolitan area, there are non-metropolitan areas that also offer higher-than-average wages for this occupation. According to the BLS, the five top-paying non-metro areas are:

    • Alaska non-metro: $122,340
    • Hawaii/Kauai non-metro: $113,520
    • Eastern Sierra-Mother Lode region of California: $104,280
    • Western Washington non-metro: $102,680
    • North Valley-Northern Mountains region of California: $102,230

    As you’re considering becoming a dental hygienist, pay attention to these very lucrative locations that offer low costs of living and high wages.

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    What Is the Job Outlook for Dental Hygienists?

    The job outlook is very good for dental hygienists. The BLS predicts an increase of 11 percent in employment opportunities over a decade compared to the eight percent growth expected across all occupations. Given the high salary, excellent job prospects, and other benefits, U.S. News & World Report recently ranked dental hygienist 12th on its list of 100 best jobs. The work of a dental hygienist is rewarding in more ways than one.

    In your research on becoming a dental hygienist, it’s important to study the job outlook. The job outlook gives you a clear picture of what to expect in this occupation over the next several years. According to the BLS, about 15,600 openings are expected for dental hygienists each year, on average, for the next 10 years. These openings will mostly result from the following:

    • Growing number of baby boomers
    • Recovery efforts following the COVID-19 recession
    • Replacement of workers who retire
    • Replacement of workers who transfer to different occupations

    Due to the COVID-19 recession that started in early 2020, employment growth for dental hygienists is on the rise as recovery efforts begin. Demand for dental services is also expected to increase over the next several years as the large baby boomer population ages and more people keep their original teeth than they did in previous generations.

    Job growth is also expected to rise due to the increased efforts to expand access to oral hygiene services. Many studies are linking general health to oral health. These studies will drive demand for preventive dental hygiene services, as well as routine dental services.

    BDP Staff
    January 2022

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    This concludes our article on the best degree path for becoming a dental hygienist.

    Brenda Rufener
    Author

    Julie McCaulley
    Expert

    Carrie Sealey-Morris
    Editor-in-Chief