How to Become a Dental Assistant
Duties, Responsibilities, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary
If you’re considering a career as a Dental Assistant (DA) and you’re curious about the benefits and requirements that go along with it, this article will serve as a great resource for you. Below you’ll find a wealth of information about how to start your career in oral hygiene.
Dental Assistants have great interpersonal skills, and they prefer to work with their hands rather than at a desk. They also have an eye for detail, maintain impressive dexterity, and support dentists while patients are treated. Some benefits of Dental Assisting include a sunny job outlook and career stability. If you’re interested in helping others, then learn more about this hands-on profession!
How to Become a Certified Dental Assistant
Our comprehensive career guide will cover the following questions:
- What qualifications do you need to be a Dental Assistant?
- Do you make good money as a Dental Assistant?
- How long do you go to school to become a Dental Assistant?
- How much does it cost to become a Dental Assistant?
- Are Dental Assistants in demand?
- Where do Dental Assistants get paid the most?
- Do you need a license to be a Dental Assistant?
- What are key traits a Dental Assistant needs to have?
But first, let’s start with the definition of a Dental Assistant…
What is a Dental Assistant?
Dental Assistant Definition
Dental Assistants play a major role in dental health. On any given day, they might do everything from disinfecting instruments to taking dental X-rays and assisting the dentist during exams. Dental Assistants are responsible for putting a diverse group of patients at ease while providing encouragement to patients that range in age and background.
(Click here to learn the differences between Dental Assistants vs. Medical Assistants)
Dental Assistant Job Description
What Does a Dental Assistant Do?
Dental Assistants play a vital role in the dental office, supporting dentists as they examine and treat patients. Essentially, they are the dentist’s extra hands. While job duties may vary depending on the location and employer, a Dental Assistant’s role typically includes the following:
- Ensure patients are comfortable in the dental chair
- Prepare patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
- Assist with oral surgeries
- Sterilize dental instruments
- Hand instruments to the dentist during procedures
- Evacuate oral cavities and keep the patient’s mouth dry by using suction hoses and other equipment
- Make dental impressions
- Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
- Take and process dental X-rays and complete lab tasks under the direction of a dentist
- Install fixed prosthodontics
- Maintain inventory for dental practices
- Schedule patient appointments
- Work 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 that’s 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.
(Related: To learn more, click here for our in-depth review of Dental Assisting Duties & Responsibilities)
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist
Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists are two separate professions.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Dental Assistants work under the supervision of dentists and assist Dental Hygienists with their day-to-day activities.
Dental Hygienists have a wider range of job duties and responsibilities. While Dental Assistants assist the oral hygiene team, Dental Hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases and provide other dental care.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Education
Some states require Dental Assistants to complete an accredited program and pass an exam. Others do not require formal education, though many employers will only hire trained applicants.
Dental Hygienists, on the other hand, typically need to earn an associate degree in dental hygiene. They also must be licensed in all states.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Salary
As of 2020:
- The median annual salary for Dental Assistants was $41,180 (BLS)
- The median annual salary for Dental Hygienists was $77,090 (BLS)
(Click here to learn more about the differences between a Dental Assistant vs. a Dental Hygienist).
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Technician
If Dental Assistants are the face of the office, then Dental Technicians provide structure behind the scenes. Typically, Dental Technicians construct, fit, or repair medical appliances and devices (i.e. dentures). One of the biggest differences between these two professions is patient contact. Dental Assistants spend most of their days interacting with patients, whereas Dental Technicians usually work in labs.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Technician: Education
Like Dental Assistants, Dental Technicians do not always need formal training to find employment. However, unlike Dental Assistants, Dental Technicians often complete on-the-job training. They typically need a high school diploma or equivalent.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Technician: Salary
As of 2020:
- The median annual salary for Dental Assistants was $41,180 (BLS)
- The median annual salary for Dental Technicians was $38,620 (BLS)
Dental Assistant Soft Skills
What Are the Key Traits a Dental Assistant Needs to Have?
To become a DA, you should have:
- A detail-oriented nature, as Dental Assistants must follow specific rules and protocols when helping dentists treat patients.
- Dexterity, as Dental Assistants generally work in tight quarters on a small part of the body, using very precise tools and instruments.
- Interpersonal skills, as Dental Assistants work closely with dentists and patients.
- Listening skills, as Dental Assistants often listen to patients and other healthcare workers. They may need to follow directions, assist a distressed patient, etc.
- Organizational skills, as Dental Assistants should have the correct tools in place for a dentist or dental hygienist to use when treating a patient.
Dental Assistant Requirements
What Qualifications Do You Need to Be a Dental Assistant?
In the U.S., there are several paths you can take to become a Dental Assistant. It really depends on your employer and location, as some states require aspiring DAs to graduate from a formal or accredited program and pass an exam. In other states, there are no such requirements.
To learn more about your state’s requirements, visit the Dental Assisting National Board.
How Long to Become a Dental Assistant?
Dental Assistant School
There are three routes you can take to become a Registered Dental Assistant. Each one requires a different level of time and dedication.
Formal Dental Assistant training may generally take anywhere from nine months to two years to complete, depending on whether it’s a certificate/diploma or degree program. For instance, the Dental Assisting program at Unitek can be completed in as little as 10 months.
Option 1: On-the-Job Training
How to become a Dental Assistant without going to school?
Assuming you live in a state that doesn’t have formal requirements, you might be able to find employment without attending a Dental Assistant program. In these situations, you would gain experience through on-the-job training. A Dental Assistant, hygienist, or dentist in the office would teach you about dental terminology, the names of instruments, how to complete daily tasks, and how to interact with patients.
Option 2: Dental Assistant Certification
In some states, you must graduate from a Dental Assisting certificate or diploma program. They usually require about a year of school. Most Dental Assistant programs are offered by vocational schools or community colleges.
Dental Assisting classes often cover topics like infection control, medical emergencies, dental X-rays, and dental instruments.
Bonus tip: High school students who want to become Dental Assistants should take courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy.
Option 3: Dental Assistant Degree
Some schools offer an associate degree program for aspiring Dental Assistants. In these degree programs, general education courses are combined with Dental Assistant education. According to the BLS, however, degree programs that last two years are less common for entry-level DAs.
Dental Assistant Degree vs. Certificate
To become a competitive Dental Assistant, it would be wise to seek formal training. However, degree and diploma-certification programs have different advantages.
While degree programs lay the foundation for higher study—and potentially more job opportunities—they also require more time in school. Additionally, they are often not necessary for entry-level Dental Assistants.
On the other hand, you can typically complete training for a certificate/diploma program in a year or less. These programs may not set the foundation for higher study, but they will equip you with the necessary skill set to launch a successful dental assisting career. They are also more widely offered than DA degree programs.
Dental Assisting Program
What Should You Look for in a Dental Assisting School?
Prospective students may value different things in a Dental Assistant program. Some students feel that a close student-to-teacher ratio is vital to their success in the classroom, while others might place greater value in the number of hours set aside for externships. Take a moment to consider what is important to you and ask the right questions when meeting with admissions representatives.
Here are some sample questions you might want to ask when applying for dental assistant school:
- What are the tuition costs and financial aid options?
- What are the academic prerequisites?
- How long does it take to complete the program?
- What specific topics are covered?
- Are there any clinical externships or simulations?
- What percentage of the program’s students graduate?
- What percentage of the program’s graduates find employment?
Dental Assistant School Cost
How Much Does It Cost to Become a Dental Assistant?
Out-of-pocket school costs can vary depending on your individual situation. They will also depend on the location, school, and type of program. Generally speaking, Dental Assistant school prices can range anywhere from $4,000 to $16,000.
Some programs might also charge a higher price for more clinical externships or cutting-edge medical equipment. Again, be sure to research your favored schools and ask the admissions representatives about tuition costs as well as financial aid options. You might be eligible for financial aid, which can cover many college expenses, such as:
- Room and Board
- Computer Equipment
- Living Expenses
Dental Assistant Certification
Do You Need a License to Be a Dental Assistant?
More often than not, states don’t require licenses for Dental Assistants. However, some states might require Dental Assistants to be licensed, registered, or certified. Additionally, some states have specific licensing requirements for DAs to work in radiography (X-ray), infection control, or other specialties. To learn more, contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.
Other states require Dental Assistants to pass an exam before they perform expanded duties (i.e. coronal polishing). These exams are administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Educational requirements for DANB exams/certifications often include:
- Graduating from an accredited program or
- A high school diploma and the necessary work experience
- Current CPR certification (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)
Below are the five national certifications that DANB offers.
- National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA®)
- Certified Dental Assistant™ (CDA®)
- Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA®)
- Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA®)
- Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA®)
Dental Assistant Jobs
Where Do Dental Assistants Work?
Dental Assistants usually find employment in the offices of dentists or physicians. In 2020, Dental Assistants held about 330,200 jobs. The largest employers of DAs are as follows:
|Offices of dentists||90%|
|Offices of physicians||2%|
Dental Assistant Work Hours
According to the BLS, most Dental Assistants work full time. Some might choose to work evenings or weekends, though. Keep in mind that, as an aspiring DA, you might be asked to come in at odd hours for dental issues or emergencies.
Dental Assistant Salary
How Much Does a Dental Assistant Make?
A Dental Assistant’s pay varies depending on their location, employer, and experience. However, the 2020 median annual salary for Dental Assistants was about $41,180.
Dental Assistant salary may increase, given the sunny job outlook for DAs (more on that in our Job Outlook section). Here are the top industries where the highest-earning DAs work:
|Industry||Average Dental Assistant Salary|
Where Do Dental Assistants Get Paid the Most?
Top States for Dental Assisting Employment
Though Dental Assistants can find employment anywhere in the country, there are some states with more opportunities than others. Currently, the highest-paying states for Dental Assistants are Minnesota, District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Alaska, and North Dakota.
Here’s the breakdown by location and average salary:
|State||Dental Assistant Hourly Salary||Dental Assistant Annual Salary|
Highest-Paying Cities for Dental Assistants
Now that we’ve covered the top states, let’s delve into the U.S. cities with the best salaries for Dental Assistants (BLS).
|City||Dental Assistant Hourly Salary||Dental Assistant Annual Salary|
|Santa Rosa, CA||$28.16||$58,570|
|San Jose, CA||$26.08||$54,250|
|San Francisco, CA||$25.72||$53,510|
|San Luis Obispo, CA||$25.52||$53,080|
|Santa Maria, CA||$25.22||$52,460|
Dental Assistant Job Outlook
Are Dental Assistants in Demand?
The Dental Assisting profession is expected to grow. In fact, the BLS predicts that employment opportunities will increase 11 percent by 2030! Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will likely continue to fuel the demand for preventive dental services, which will push dentists to hire more assistants.
How to Get a Job as a DA
We know it isn’t always easy to start a new career. Time and money can be two major obstacles to overcome, not to mention the fear of jumping into something new. However, it’s no secret that while some industries are cutting back, healthcare professions are on the rise.
Here are some practical tips to help you get ahead while looking for that perfect Dental Assisting job.
- Career-services. Pick a school with a stellar career-services team who will provide you with employment assistance. Additionally, they can often help you with job-search strategies, resume cleanup, and interview prep.
- Network. Don’t forget to make connections in your DA program. You could also seek a mentor within the Dental Assisting faculty.
- Resume. Make sure your resume is polished and ready. Check for typos, fix messy font, and make sure your skills are displayed concisely and efficiently. Remember, a resume is your chance to make a good first impression.
Why Pursue Dental Assistant Training?
The vital world of dental care is full of great specialties, careers, and people. There are various paths you can choose, as dental workers will always be needed. This is especially evident when you consider the expected job growth for Dental Assistants—which is faster than the average for all occupations—as well as overall growth in the healthcare field.
Without a doubt, Dental Assistants play an important role in dentistry. They not only support dentists on a daily basis, but their actions support the general wellbeing of their communities. Furthermore, the short duration of DA programs allows busy adults to enter the field quickly, making this profession both convenient and attainable.
The Dental Assistant Program at Unitek College
At Unitek College, we offer a Dental Assisting program with a career-driven curriculum. Our 10-month program provides the skills, experience, and knowledge that students will need to excel in the field.
Courses cover all aspects of the profession, including infection control and sterilization techniques, handling medical emergencies, taking dental X-rays, making impressions, and the use of dental instruments. Plus, students benefit from a supervised externship and employment assistance.
You can find the DA program at these three campuses:
- Dental Assistant school in San Jose
- Dental Assistant school in Sacramento
- Dental Assistant school in Concord, CA
The future is yours—you just have to take that first step!