Learn about the unique differences in roles, requirements, and salaries between Dental Assistants and Hygienists
Careers in healthcare are both stable and fulfilling, not to mention reputable! If you’re interested in dental care, you should be aware of two important positions: Dental Assistants (DAs) and Dental Hygienists (DHs). These positions both support dentists while providing clients with high-quality services, but there are some crucial distinctions between the two.
Keep in mind that Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists are separate professions. Dental Assistants work under the supervision of dentists in their day-to-day activities, while Dental Hygienists complete a wider range of job duties and responsibilities.
If you’re considering entering in the dental field, becoming a Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist are two very rewarding career paths. Both of these professions are in high demand and are expected to see positive job growth over the next ten years. Before you make a career change you should know the responsibilities, program requirements, and certification process for each role. Continue reading to discover everything you need to know about these two noble professions.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Definition
What is a Dental Assistant?
Dental Assistants perform several different tasks, including patient care, recordkeeping, and appointment scheduling. Their duties can vary by state and employer. DAs typically have an eye for detail, maintain impressive dexterity, and support dentists while patients are treated.
(Click here to read our comprehensive career guide on how to become a Dental Assistant)
What is a Dental Hygienist?
While both roles support the dental team, there are specific duties that only a Dental Hygienist can perform. They examine patients for signs of oral diseases, provide preventive care, and educate patients on oral health as well as oral hygiene.
Both roles are ideal for those who enjoy working with their hands while caring for patients.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Responsibilities
What Does a Dental Assistant Do?
Dental Assistants work closely with dentists and Dental Hygienists. This role is ideal for those who enjoy working with their hands while caring for patients. Dental Assistants provide critical support in the dental office, essentially acting as the dentist’s extra set of hands.
Below is a summarized overview of their day-to-day responsibilities:
- Ensuring that patients are comfortable in the dental chair
- Preparing patients for treatments and procedures
- Sterilizing dental instruments
- Handing instruments to dentists during procedures
- Drying patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
- Instructing patients in proper oral hygiene
- Processing X-rays and completing lab tasks under the supervision of a dentist
- Keeping records of dental treatments
- Scheduling appointments
- Working with patients to complete billing and payment
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
While both roles support the dental team, there are specific duties that only a Dental Hygienist can perform. They examine patients for signs of oral diseases and administer preventive care. They also educate patients about how to maintain proper oral health and hygiene. Dental Hygienists often use several advanced tools on the job. In some cases, they may even use lasers to remove stains with the help of an air-polishing device. Dental Hygienists also utilize X-ray machines to check for tooth or jaw issues.
Below are the summarized day-to-day responsibilities for Dental Hygienists:
- Removing tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
- Appling sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
- Taking and developing dental X-rays
- Assessing patients’ oral health and report findings to dentists
- Documenting patient care and treatment plans
- Educating patients about oral hygiene, such as how to brush and floss correctly
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Education
Educational Requirements for Dental Assistants
Education requirements for Dental Assistants will largely depend on the state in which you seek employment. While some places do not have any formal education requirements—allowing their employees to learn through on-the-job training—others will only accept DAs who have graduated from an accredited program and passed an exam.
Many of these programs can be found in community colleges or vocational schools. They usually take one year or less to complete, leading to a certificate or diploma. In these programs, students learn through a combination of traditional class instruction and hands-on exercises.
Tip #1: High school students who are interested in a Dental Assisting career should pursue courses in anatomy, biology, and chemistry.
Some states even allow their DAs to complete expanded duties such as coronal polishing. In these states, Dental Assistants typically must be licensed, registered, or hold certifications from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).
Applicants of DANB will need to:
- Pass an exam
- Graduate from an accredited program or hold a high school diploma/complete the required amount of work experience
- Maintain current certification in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)
To learn more about specific certifications or licensing requirements, reach out to your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.
Educational Requirements for Dental Hygienists
To become a Dental Hygienist, you will likely need to obtain an associate degree in dental hygiene. These programs often take about three years to complete. Although requirements vary by state, all DHs must hold a license.
Some Dental Hygienists may even pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree. These degrees may be required for research, teaching, or clinical practice in public or school-health programs. To find a program, look at community colleges, vocational schools, or universities. In addition, the Commission on Dental Accreditation has accredited over 300 Dental Hygiene programs. Areas of study in these programs may include anatomy, medical ethics, and periodontics (i.e., the study of gum disease).
Tip #2: High school students who would like to become Dental Hygienists should consider courses in biology, chemistry, and math. Keep in mind that many DH programs require their applicants to complete prerequisites, which typically include college-level courses. Summer school, anyone?
Similar to Dental Assisting, you can learn more about specific certifications or licensing requirements by contacting your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Work Environment
Where Do Dental Assistants Work?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Dental Assistants held about 354,600 jobs in 2019. Their largest employers fell into three main categories:
- Offices of dentists
- Offices of physicians
DAs work under the supervision of dentists and often support Dental Hygienists during their day-to-day activities. They might wear safety glasses, surgical masks, protective clothing, and gloves. Many Dental Assistants work full-time, though some may work on the evenings or weekends.
Where Do Dental Hygienist Work?
According to the BLS, Dental Hygienists held around 226,400 jobs in 2019. Their largest employers fell into the same three categories as Dental Assistants, with offices of dentists overwhelmingly at the top (93%).
Similar to DAs, Dental Hygienists follow protocol and wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves. Unlike Dental Assistants, many DHs work part-time. This is because some dentists only hire hygienists to work a few days each week. Because of this, a Dental Hygienist might work for several different dentists.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Salary
How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?
According to the BLS, Dental Assistants earn about $40,000 per year. The top 10 percent of DAs can earn over $56,000. Dental Assisting salaries can vary depending on your location and level of experience.
The following is a list of the highest paying states for Dental Assistants:
|State||Average Hourly Wage||Average Salary|
The highest paying cities for Dental Assistants include:
|City||Average Hourly Wage||Average Salary|
|Santa Rosa, CA||$26.93||$56,010|
|San Jose, CA||$25.18||$52,380|
|San Francisco, CA||$24.76||$51,510|
Dental Assistant Job Outlook
The BLS projects the employment of Dental Assistants to grow 7 percent by 2029, which is faster than the average for all occupations (4%). As the elderly population ages, the need for dental hygiene and oral healthcare will only increase. Dentists will likely need to hire more Dental Assistants to complete routine tasks, which would allow dentists to complete their work in a timelier manner.
How Much Do Dental Hygienists Make?
In terms of compensation, Dental Hygienists are paid more than DAs. According to the BLS, the average salary of a Dental Hygienist is about $76,000. The top 10 percent of Dental Hygienists can earn more than $103,000.
The following is a list of the highest paying states for Dental Hygienists:
|State||Average Hourly Wage||Average Salary|
|District of Columbia||$49.22||$102,380|
The highest paying cities for Dental Hygienists include:
|City||Average Hourly Wage||Average Salary|
|Santa Maria, CA||$67.38||$140,150|
|Santa Rosa, CA||$54.52||$113,390|
|Santa Cruz, CA||$52.89||$110,020|
Dental Hygienist Job Outlook
Like Dental Assisting, employment of Dental Hygienists is expected to grow. The BLS projects that by 2029, employment will increase by 6 percent, which is also faster than the average for all occupations (4%).
The baby-boomer population has increased the demand for dental services. Since they have kept more of their teeth than other generations, they will require more maintenance and overall dental care. Dentists are expected to hire more Dental Hygienists and expand their team in general.
Why Should You Pursue a Career in Dental Care?
Pursuing a career in Dental Assisting is a better choice if you are just starting your post-high school education. The beauty of enrolling in a DA program is that you can complete the program within a year. Moreover, DA training covers a variety of skill sets, which is highly desirable to employers.
Both roles could be an excellent alternative for anyone looking to make a career change. They both require a steady pair of hands and an eye for detail. Since you are likely to serve numerous patients each day, it’s also vital that you present a friendly and personable demeanor.
The BLS reports that Dental Assisting is one of the fastest growing healthcare roles. If you want to climb the ladder in oral healthcare, you may want to start with Dental Assisting.
Jumpstart Your Career as a Dental Assistant
At Unitek College, you can gain the knowledge and skills you need to excel as a Dental Assistant in as little as 10 months. Our dynamic curriculum now combines virtual instruction with simulation training and a supervised externship.
The Dental Assisting Program is available at: