What Does a Dental Hygienist Do: Job Description & Career Information

Good dental care is a team effort, and skilled dental hygienists play a vital role.

Hygienists provide preventative oral care under a dentist's supervision. They clean patients' teeth, take X-rays and examine patients' mouths for signs of gingivitis (gum disease) and other problems. Hygienists also teach patients how to maintain good oral health, including proper brushing and flossing.

Patients often spend more time with a hygienist than they do with any other person in the dental office. It’s important that hygienists are able to work well with many different types of personalities. They educate patients about the importance of dental care for preventing cavities and tooth loss. They also are the key connection between patients and the dentist who signs off on recommended treatment plans.

Hygienists are the beating heart of a well-run dental practice. If you have a calm, compassionate presence and this essential role sounds like a good fit, keep reading to learn more.

$ 63,800 - $ 101,200
$ 82,100
A dental hygienist cleans a patient’s teeth
As dental hygienists are examining and cleaning patients' teeth, they are also educating patients about why good oral health is so important to overall health. (Credit: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)

Job Responsibilities

  • Review patient history
  • Clean patients’ teeth by removing stains, calculus (tartar) and plaque (the hard and soft deposits) from all teeth surfaces
  • Apply protective substances to the teeth such as sealants and fluorides
  • Take and interpret dental X-rays
  • Teach patients good oral hygiene strategies, such as flossing
  • Conduct gingivitis and oral cancer screenings
  • Counsel patients about good nutrition and its impact on oral health
  • Make impressions of patients' teeth
  • Document patients' treatment plans

How To Become a Dental Hygienist: FAQs

What is required to become a dental hygienist?

Most hygienists earn an associate degree in dental hygiene. Training is available at community colleges, trade schools and universities. (This focused training is one of the reasons this career is included in SkillPointe’s list of top jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.) Students may also earn a bachelor’s degree if they want to go into research, teach or do clinical practice in a public health setting. 

Most dental schools’ programs include time in the classroom and lab plus hands-on clinical practice. 

After graduating from an accredited dental hygiene program, hygienists must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, a written exam. Hygienists will also need to earn a license from the state dental board, which requires passing a clinical exam. Specific licensing requirements vary by state. SkillPointe provides a licensing database. (See link below.) The American Dental Association (ADA) website provides a directory of state dental boards.

What other qualifications are required?

Most employers require hygienists to be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

How long does it take to become a dental hygienist?

Programs typically take three years to complete. With additional training, hygienists can extract primary teeth, place or remove temporary crowns and other restorative services. However, each state regulates which tasks are permitted. The American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA) maintains a state-by-state list of allowed tasks.

What does RDH mean?

RDH stands for registered dental hygienist. It means the hygienist has passed the national and state exams mentioned above and is fully licensed to practice. 

Dental hygienist vs. dental assistant: What’s the difference?

A dental hygienist is involved with hands-on patient oral care. A dental assistant does administrative tasks and provides support to the patient, the hygienist and the dentist.

Is there a demand for this job?

There’s plenty of opportunity for a well-trained dental hygienist. Demand for hygienists is expected to grow 11% from 2020 to 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Check out this video from Teeth Talk Girl about other reasons you may want to become a dental hygienist.)

Where and when do hygienists work?

Most work in dentist offices, but they are also needed in public dental clinics, schools, nursing homes and correctional facilities. Many hygienists work part-time, but some work full-time or split their time between two practices. 

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

Successful candidates tend to have these traits: 

  • Excellent interpersonal and communication skills
  • A calm and reassuring manner
  • Detailed-oriented
  • Good dexterity for using hand, power and ultrasonic tools
  • Good problem-solving skills
The bottom line:

This in-demand, high-paying job is a good opportunity. It takes a special person to be the dental hygienist that patients request time and time again. If you think you have the qualities and the drive, check out the dental hygienist training options on SkillPointe.

What Is It Like To Be a Dental Hygienist?

Antonia Lemons, dental hygienist ambassador, Midtown Dental Center

What Is It Like To Be a Dental Hygienist?

Antonia Lemons enjoys seeing people smile — especially when her work as a dental hygienist helps make that smile sparkle.

The job is so much more than that, of course, and that’s what she likes about it.

“It’s important to make the patient feel safe, comfortable and glad they came to the office,” she says.

She’s got more to say about why being a dental hygienist is such a great job.

Dental Hygienist Training in Your Area


Dental Hygiene, A.S.

Florida State College at Jacksonville
Jacksonville (0.0 Miles)
BridgeValley Community and Technical College logo

Dental Hygiene, A. A. S.

BridgeValley Community and Technical College
Montgomery (0.0 Miles)
Guilford Technical Community College logo

Dental Hygiene, A.A.S.

Guilford Technical Community College
Jamestown (0.0 Miles)
Eastern Iowa Community College District logo

Community Dental Health Coordinator Certiifcate

Eastern Iowa Community College District
Davenport (0.0 Miles)
Diablo Valley College logo

Dental Hygiene, A.S.

Diablo Valley College
Pleasant Hill (0.0 Miles)
New Mexico State University - Dona Ana logo

Dental Hygiene, A.A.S.

New Mexico State University - Dona Ana
Las Cruces (0.0 Miles)
Linn-Benton Community College logo

Pre-Professional Dental Hygiene Preparation

Linn-Benton Community College
Albany (0.0 Miles)
Eastern Iowa Community College District logo

Dental Hygiene, A.A.S

Eastern Iowa Community College District
Davenport (0.0 Miles)
Fresno City College logo

Dental Hygiene, A.S.

Fresno City College
Fresno (0.0 Miles)
Athens Technical College logo

Dental Hygiene, A.S

Athens Technical College
Athens (0.0 Miles)
Milwaukee Area Technical College logo

Dental Hygiene Associate Degree

Milwaukee Area Technical College
Milwaukee (0.0 Miles)
Northampton County Area Community College logo

Dental Hygiene, A.A.S.

Northampton County Area Community College
Bethlehem (0.0 Miles)