Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist
We’ve all been there: you sit in the chair at the dentist’s office while the dentist and his or her assistant peer at your teeth… or lie in that same chair while a hygienist polishes and flosses your pearly whites.
You might not think about it much at the time, but each of those people in the dentist’s office has a highly specific job to perform. If you want to work in health care, especially in dentistry, then it’s good to get clear on everyone’s roles, especially those of dental assistants and dental hygienists.
Dental assistants and dental hygienists may sound like they do very similar jobs. To some extent, they do. They both interact with patients and they both are a key part of the office team.1
But the similarities pretty much end there.
Dental assistants tend to be the dentist’s right-hand man or woman. Their job is to make the dentist’s job easier. That can mean doing any of the following:
- Preparing, sterilizing, and laying out instruments before procedures
- Working closely with patients before, during and after procedures
- Assisting the dentist during procedures
- Taking and developing X-rays
- Taking impressions of teeth
- Applying adhesives and sealants to patients’ teeth
- Sometimes, performing office management and scheduling if there isn’t a dedicated office manager, or if that person is busy.
A dental hygienist, unlike an assistant, tends to work alone. A hygienist helps you keep good hygiene and also performs more complicated procedures.
Sometimes they’ll take X-rays or make impressions of teeth, like dental assistants do, but their duties mostly involve the following
- Performing periodontal and dental exams
- Removing stains and plaque and generally cleaning patients’ teeth
- Reviewing patients’ oral and medical health histories
- Charting dental conditions – such as a patient’s developing cavity – for the dentist
- Applying decay preventatives
- Assessing risk
How do you Become a Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist?
You’ll need training and/or education for both jobs, and more of it to become a dental hygienist.
Some states allow dental assistants to learn their trade on the job, without a formal education. Others require certification via a state exam, a license, and/or a diploma from an accredited program. This could be from a one-year certificate/diploma program, or from an associate’s degree program.1
Most dental assisting programs include supervised, practical training.
Dental hygienists, on the other hand, require a minimum of an associate’s degree, plus a license.2
In most states, licensing requires both a degree from an accredited program and successful completion of both oral and written exams.2
How Much Money do Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists make?
Here again lies another big difference between the two roles. Because dental hygienists require much more education and perform complicated, specialized duties without supervision, they can make twice the amount as dental assistants, according to the federal government. (They also may pay more for their education.)
According to the most recent (2014) US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), median pay for dental assistants was $35,390 per year.3
For dental hygienists, it was $71,520.4
Job outlooks for both roles are healthy and expected to grow much faster than average: the BLS projects employment of dental assistants to grow 18 percent into 2024,5 and of dental hygienists by 19 percent.6
Please keep in mind employment and income cannot be guaranteed by any educational institution for students or graduates. Additionally, salary data cited in this article is based on median data provided by the United States Department of Labor, does not reflect starting or entry level salaries, and can vary widely based on geographic location.