Dental team looking down at their patient

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

Learn about the differences in roles, requirements, and salaries between Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists

Dental team looking down at their patient

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). Both positions 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 a career in the dental field, becoming a Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist are two very rewarding career paths. Both professions are in high demand and are expected to see positive job growth over the next ten years. Before you make a career change, however, you should know the responsibilities, requirements, and certification processes 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 (DAs) play a significant role in dental health. From disinfecting instruments to taking dental X-rays and assisting the dentist during exams, Dental Assistants must juggle multiple responsibilities on any given day. It’s their job to help dental offices run smoothly. Dental Assistants are often the first and last face a patient will see during their visit. In this profession, DAs typically have an eye for detail, maintain impressive dexterity, and support dentists during patient exams.

(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 and 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, acting as the dentist’s extra set of hands.

Below is a summarized overview of their day-to-day responsibilities:

  • Ensuring patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Preparing patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Assisting with oral surgeries
  • Sterilizing dental instruments
  • Handing instruments to the dentist during procedures
  • Evacuating oral cavities and keeping the patient’s mouth dry by using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Making dental impressions
  • Instructing patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Taking and processing dental X-rays and completing lab tasks under the direction of a dentist
  • Installing fixed prosthodontics
  • Maintaining inventory for dental practices
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Working with patients on billing and payment

Dental Assistants are allowed to perform the following procedures in some states, including California:

  • Coronal polishing– Removing soft deposits such as plaque, which gives teeth a cleaner appearance.
  • Sealant application– A thin, plastic substance painted over teeth to seal out food particles and acid-producing bacteria, which will help prevent cavities.
  • Fluoride application– Fluoride is put directly on the teeth as another anti-cavity measure.
  • Topical anesthetic application– Applied to an area of a patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing it to help prepare them for procedures.

(Click here for our in-depth review of Dental Assisting Duties & Responsibilities.)

Close up of a dental team with their patient

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 use lasers to remove stains with the help of an air-polishing device.

Below are the summarized day-to-day responsibilities of Dental Hygienists:

  • Removing tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
  • Applying sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
  • Taking and developing dental X-rays
  • Assessing patients’ oral health and reporting 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 where you seek employment. While some places do not have 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 traditional classroom instruction and hands-on exercises. Many students find real-world simulations to be one of the most exciting parts of their program.

Tip #1: High school students 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. Dental Assistants must be licensed, registered, or hold certifications in these states. To learn more about specific certifications or licensing requirements, contact 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 anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and math. Remember that many DH programs require their applicants to complete prerequisites, which typically include college-level courses. Summer school, anyone?

Like Dental Assisting, you can learn more about specific certifications or licensing requirements by contacting your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.

Dentist showing her patient dental X-rays

Professional Dental Organizations

For dental professionals, joining a professional organization can provide numerous benefits, from ongoing education and certification opportunities to networking and industry support. Here are a few notable professional dental organizations for Dental Assistants and others in the dental field:

1. American Dental Association (ADA)

    • Overview: ADA is a leading source for the latest research on oral health, practical guidelines, and industry trends.
    • Membership Benefits: Depending on the membership level, ADA offers various resources and benefits, including dental CE courses by ADA CERP-recognized providers and the adoption of policies by the ADA House of Delegates to bolster the dental profession.

2. California Dental Association (CDA)

    • Overview: As the largest state association in the ADA, CDA is a robust community of 27,000 dental professionals.
    • Membership Benefits: Membership offers advocacy, insights, protection, education, expertise, and resources. CDA also offers public programs about oral health and connects members to community resources.

3. American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA)

    • Overview: Dedicated to Dental Assistants, the ADAA offers specialized resources and education.
    • Membership Benefits: Members can access over 120 free online continuing courses, a system for tracking continuing education history, Professional Liability Insurance (PLI), Accidental Death and Dismemberment Insurance (AD&D), and membership in state and local chapters.

Being part of these organizations not only aids in professional development but also ensures that dental professionals stay updated with the latest best practices and advancements in the industry.

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 358,600 jobs in 2021. Their largest employers fell into three main categories:

  • Offices of dentists
  • Government
  • 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 in the evenings or on weekends.

Where Do Dental Hygienists Work?

According to the BLS, Dental Hygienists held around 214,000 jobs in 2021. Their largest employers fell into the same three categories as Dental Assistants, with dentists’ offices overwhelmingly at the top (94%).

Like 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 $45,00 per year or about $22 per hour. Dental Assisting salaries can vary depending on your location and level of experience.

Dental Assistant Job Outlook

The BLS projects the employment of Dental Assistants to grow 8 percent by 2031. 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, allowing 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 $85,000 per year or about $41 per hour.

Dental Hygienist Job Outlook

Like Dental Assisting, the employment of Dental Hygienists is expected to grow. The BLS projects that by 2031, employment will increase by 9 percent, which is also faster than the average for all occupations (5%).

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 might be better if you are 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 seeking 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, you must also present a friendly and personable demeanor.

The BLS reports that Dental Assisting is one of the fastest-growing healthcare roles. To climb the ladder in oral healthcare, you may want to start with Dental Assisting.

Close up of a Dental Assistant with a clipboard

Advantages of Choosing a Dental Assistant Program

As you look into Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists, you’ll likely come across many misconceptions about these career paths. These professions are valuable but different. While Dental Hygienists receive greater salaries, Dental Assistants benefit from numerous perks. Their programs require much less schooling, which allows them to seek experience, potential office management, additional licenses and credentials, specialties, and more.

Here are just some of the possible benefits of becoming a Dental Assistant.

Shorter Duration and Affordability

Unlike Dental Hygienist programs, Dental Assistant training takes much less time and is more affordable. For instance, the DA program at Unitek College can be completed in as little as 10 months. Most Dental Hygienist programs require about three years of your time.

High Demand and Job Opportunities

Aspiring Dental Assistants can look forward to a job-growth rate almost double the average of all occupations. In addition, DAs have more than three times as many job openings as Dental Hygienists. Not only is there high demand and more opportunity, but these rates are only expected to grow as the population ages.

Career Growth and Advancement

There is room for career advancement in the field of Dental Assisting. Some states allow DAs to perform expanded duties, like coronal polishing, which requires additional licenses or certifications. At Unitek College, graduates of the Dental Assisting program receive certificates in Infection Control, Dental Practice Act, HIPAA, Radiology, Coronal Polishing, and Pit & Fissure Sealants.

While these certificates are not required for initial employment, they may be of great value depending on a student’s career goals. Graduates may also be qualified to take various professional certification exams, such as the California Registered Dental Assisting (RDA) exam.

Versatility and Collaboration

If you’re familiar with healthcare careers, you might know about the dynamic profession of Medical Assistants. Dental Assistants are very similar in that they fill both clinical and administrative roles. On the job, their tasks can range from helping dentists during exams to scheduling appointments and greeting patients. There’s never a dull moment for a Dental Assistant!

Job Satisfaction and Patient Interaction

Dental Assistants spend most of their days interacting with patients. Whether it’s preparation, assistance, or comfort, they are almost always on hand to make your experience a good one. This can bring great job satisfaction to Dental Assistants across the country. Unlike Dental Hygienists, who often perform the same daily tasks, Dental Assistants can usually count on various tasks.

Woman smiling at a dental professional

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: