What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Dental assistants make dental offices run more efficiently. They help patients feel comfortable and help hygienists and dentists do their jobs. 

State regulations vary on what a dental assistant can do, and tasks may vary by clinic. But for a hard-working, curious assistant, there is plenty of opportunity.

This job involves both clinical and administrative tasks. Dental assistants schedule appointments, maintain dental records, help patients get settled in the chair and clean dental tools. They work under the supervision of a dentist and alongside hygienists. They also assist with administrative tasks and office management.

Most importantly, an assistant is one of the first dental professionals a patient will meet, so it’s helpful to have a compassionate outlook. 

If you’re someone who enjoys being involved in different areas of an operation, this is a job to consider. It’s also a job that offers room to grow, as we’ll explain in more detail below. 

$ 30,000 - $ 60,000
$ 39,000
A dental assistant prepares dental equipment for a procedure
Dental assistants perform a variety of tasks, from helping out in the exam room to working in office management. (Credit: Arlou_Andrei/Shutterstock)

Job Responsibilities

  • Prepare patients and the work area for examinations
  • Update patient's medical history 
  • Hand the dentist tools and use suction tubes during procedures
  • Provide chair-side support to patients
  • Sterilize dental instruments and equipment
  • Be knowledgeable about dental procedures, tools and equipment
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Keep records
  • Schedule appointments
  • Work with patients on billing issues

How To Become a Dental Assistant: FAQs

What education and training do I need to get this job?

There are several ways to become a dental assistant. 

The requirements vary by state. Some states only require supervised, on-the-job training. Several states require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. 

Community colleges, trade schools and technical schools offer training programs that include classroom instruction, lab work and supervised practical experience. (Learn the difference between trade school, technical college and community college.) Students learn about dental instruments, dental terminology, teeth, gums and other areas of the mouth. 

Look for programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

Are there any other qualifications?

Most states don’t require a license, but getting licensed or registered may create job opportunities. Depending on the state, a separate license may be required to take X-rays. SkillPointe makes it easy to find each state’s licensing requirements. (See link below). Another resource to check is the Dental Assisting National Board, which spells out allowable duties by state

How long does it take to become a dental assistant?

Programs vary in length. Some take a year or less to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma. Other programs last two years and lead to an associate degree. 

Dental assistants can also earn certifications, which can open up new opportunities. Some certifications include Registered Dental Assistant (RDA), National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) and Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA).

There’s room to grow in this career. A dental assistant can get additional training and become a dental hygienist, who does more of the unsupervised, hands-on clinical work. 

What kind of hours do dental assistants work?

Most dental assistants work full-time. Some dental assistants work part-time and may cover evening or weekend shifts, depending on when the office is open. 

Is there a demand for this job?

There’s plenty of opportunity as a dental assistant. Demand for this job is expected to grow 11% between 2020 and 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

What skills and qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?

Successful candidates tend to share these traits: 

  • Good communication skills
  • Empathetic and compassionate
  • Willing and eager to learn new tasks
  • Detail-oriented
  • Good dexterity
  • Tech-savvy and able to pick up new computer applications quickly
  • Strong organizational skills
  • Able to move smoothly and quickly from one task to another
The bottom line:

If you’re looking for a fast-paced workplace with room to grow, this is a career to consider. It’s well-suited to someone who likes variety and is eager to learn new tasks. If that sounds like you, check out SkillPointe’s selection of training programs and get started on your next chapter. 

What Is It Like To Be a Dental Assistant?

Josefina Barco, dental assistant ambassador

What Is It Like To Be a Dental Assistant?

"I like everything about my job," says Josefina Barco, who has been a dental assistant since 2010. 

She learned her trade by training with “a very strict and perfectionist dentist.” That eye for detail comes into play every work day. Find out why Josefina can’t see herself doing anything else.

Dental Assistant Training in Your Area

Fox Valley Technical College logo

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