Dentist examining X-rays of teeth

Step-by-Step Guide to Dental X-rays

Learn the procedures, steps, risks, and requirements for dental X-rays.

Dentist examining X-rays of teeth

Dental X-rays are a simple yet highly effective tool in oral health care. They are just as vital as regular teeth cleanings and checkups. Dental X-rays, or radiographs, are images of your teeth that offer clues to your overall health. Mastering this skill will provide a much better experience for dental professionals and their patients.

Taking dental X-rays is vital for the prevention of various medical issues. For example, long periods without professional intervention can lead to cavities, tooth decay, impacted teeth, and more. Therefore, it’s essential to follow the proper method of dental X-rays to ensure patient health.

This article focuses on the art and science of dental X-rays, one of the most important dental procedures for medical staff.

(Click here to see our list of the most common Dental Assisting duties and responsibilities)

Dental X-rays Definition

What are Dental X-rays?

Dental radiographs, or X-rays, contain images of your teeth that a dentist can use to monitor your oral health. Low radiation levels create a still image of a patient’s gums and teeth. X-rays allow dentists to identify problems or potential issues, such as cavities, impacted teeth, tooth decay, and more. X-rays may also determine if there’s bone loss and malignant or benign masses.

Although it typically depends on the age and health of the patient, dental X-rays are usually taken annually. However, children may require X-rays more often to monitor their growing adult teeth.

What is the Purpose of Dental X-rays?

Dental X-rays are a standard procedure that’s usually performed for one of the following reasons:

  1. To identify decay between the teeth.
  2. To identify decay beneath existing fillings.
  3. To help the dentist diagnose issues with your teeth or jaws.
  4. To monitor the growth of a child’s adult teeth.
  5. To get a clear picture of a new patient’s dental health.

How Long Does it Take to Perform Dental X-rays?

Although it depends on the type of X-ray and number of teeth, dental X-rays should not take more than 30 minutes to complete. For instance, a single tooth would likely only require a few minutes, while a full-mouth series could take 25 minutes or more. A good rule of thumb is this: the more time you spend maintaining your oral health, the less time you’ll spend in the dentist’s chair.

Who Can Take Dental X-rays?

Dental hygienists usually take X-rays. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these healthcare professionals offer preventive care, assess patients for signs of oral diseases, and educate patients on oral health. While a dentist supervises dental hygienists, hygienists often supervise Dental Assistants.

Some Dental Assistants may take X-rays depending on their training and location. For instance, DAs in California must obtain their California Radiation Safety (X-ray) certificate before taking X-rays in a dental office. Additionally, those who apply for the Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) licensure must submit proof of completion for an approved radiation safety course.

(Go here to learn how to become a Dental Assistant)

Students completing admissions process

Training Requirements for Dental X-rays

The requirements for taking dental X-rays vary and depend on your location and profession. For instance, dental hygienists usually need to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. Some may earn a master’s degree, though this path is less common.

Dental hygiene programs typically take about three years to complete. They include both clinical and classroom instruction. The Commission on Dental Accreditation accredits over 300 dental hygiene programs in the United States. In addition, every state requires that dental hygienists obtain a license. Contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners for specific requirements.

Dental X-ray Procedure

Like any other skill, dental X-rays require time and practice to get right. So, the first step is to understand proper dental X-ray procedures.

Dental X-ray Prep

Practice makes perfect! Think about it this way: the positions of the sensors and tube head angles can determine how well an image comes out. Of course, this will also affect the diagnosis of your patient. Although many dental professionals learn to take dental X-rays in school, the procedure can take several years to perfect.

Dental X-ray Steps

Here are general guidelines you should follow when taking dental X-rays:

  1. Greet your patient and guide them to their exam room. Ask them to sit in the dental chair.
  2. Ensure the patient is comfortable before you proceed.
  3. Place a lead apron and thyroid collar around your patient.
  4. Insert the image sensors or receptors into the patient’s mouth. Talk them through this process.
  5. Instruct the patient to hold the position and not move.
  6. Repeat the process as needed.


Because this is a painless procedure, there is no recovery time necessary for patients. Digital X-rays are instantly available. This means the dentist can review the images and check for abnormalities during your patient’s visit. If the dentist finds any issues, such as tooth decay or cavities, they will provide the patient with treatment options.

Necessary Equipment for Dental X-rays

Typically, the supplies for dental X-rays include the following items:

  • Dental chair
  • Lead apron
  • Thyroid collar
  • X-ray sensor or film
  • X-ray machine
  • Computer

Medical professional taking a dental X-ray

Potential Risks or Complications of Dental X-rays

Although dental X-rays use radiation, the levels are so low that they’re considered safe for adults and children. In addition, you will further protect your patients by placing lead aprons and thyroid collars on them before the X-ray. Pregnant women are the only exception. This is because developing fetuses should not be exposed to radiation. So before you take an X-ray, always check with your patients to ensure they are not pregnant.

Pro Tips for Mastering the Art of Dental X-rays

Some dental X-ray tips are to practice, have a friendly disposition, and learn the correct use of tools. Here are other pro tips that may assist you in the future.

  • Ask your patient to smile –Because everyone has unique oral anatomy, it’s essential to get a good look at your patient’s teeth before you try to line up the tube head with their teeth and the sensor. Plus, when patients smile, they’re retracting their lips, giving you a better view of their mouth. There’s one other bonus—smiling can help stifle a gag reflex. So, patients who tend to gag will have an easier time if they smile through their X-rays.
  • Instruct the patient on how to tilt their head –Instead of trying to achieve extreme angles with the tube head, ask your patient to change the position of their mouth.
    • Tip: When it comes to bitewing X-rays, always ask your patient to keep their gaze level and look straight ahead. It’s much more challenging to take a clear X-ray if they keep their lips shut or tilt their head.
  • Don’t be afraid to move your bite tab around If you move the tab on the sensor, you’ll have a greater range when positioning the sensor in your patient’s mouth. This is perfect for a bitewing X-ray or an image of a molar.
  • Try to position the sensor in the middle of your patient’s mouth If you can, it’s best to place the sensor in the middle of the mouth. It will make the process more comfortable for the patient and give you more wiggle room when you need it.
  • Remember to X-ray areas with missing teeth – It may sound contradictory, but if a patient has missing teeth, you still need to X-ray those areas. Why? To make an accurate diagnosis, the dentist must see images of the entire mouth. This includes portions of the gums with missing teeth.

Dentist showing her patient dental X-rays

Why Should Dental Assistants Learn How to Take Dental X-rays?

Without regular dental X-rays, we could all suffer from various medical issues, such as tooth decay, impacted teeth, and cavities. Although dental X-rays may sound complex, they’re common but highly effective tools vital to oral health.

Thankfully, Dental Assistants can significantly increase the efficiency of the dental care team. For example, when they assist dentists and dental hygienists during dental X-rays, they help them deliver the highest quality oral healthcare. They also help them save time so they can see more patients daily.

While dental X-rays aren’t a job requirement for every DA, they are a valuable skill that leads to more significant opportunities. Therefore, it would be advantageous for DAs or aspiring Dental Assistants to pursue training and certification in this area. Once experienced, a DA would likely become more helpful to their employer and earn better career prospects.

Start Your Career in Dental Assisting

Dental X-rays are a crucial skill aspiring Dental Assistants or dental hygienists should consider learning for their careers. It’s also an essential dental practice for various diagnoses, tests, and other common procedures.

Without proper and routine maintenance of our mouths, we could develop serious problems. Regular dental appointments with yearly X-rays prevent potential issues and manage your oral health. Remember: Your oral health is linked to your overall health.

If you’re inspired and want to pursue a career in medicine, Unitek College offers various healthcare programs, such as our Dental Assisting program.

Contact us today to learn more about our programs and tuition assistance options. Take the first step toward a rewarding future in healthcare!