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Dental hygienists are licensed oral health professionals who focus on preventing and treating oral diseases in order to protect the oral cavity.  They are graduates of accredited dental hygiene education programs in colleges and universities and must pass a written national board examination and a clinical examination to obtain state licensure.

A career as a dental hygienist offers a wide range of challenges. In the dental office, the dental hygienist works with the dentist to meet the oral health needs of patients. Each state has its own specific regulations regarding their responsibilities, therefore the range of services performed by hygienists varies from state to state. Some of the services provided by dental hygienists may include:

  • patient screening procedures; such as assessment of oral health conditions, review of the health history, oral cancer screening, head and neck inspection, dental charting and taking blood pressure and pulse
  • taking and developing dental radiographs (x-rays)
  • removing calculus and plaque (hard and soft deposits) from all surfaces of the teeth
  • applying preventive materials to the teeth (e.g., sealants and fluorides)
  • teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene strategies to maintain oral health;
    (e.g., tooth brushing, flossing and nutritional counseling)
  • counseling patients about good nutrition and its impact on oral health
  • making impressions of patients' teeth for study casts (models of teeth used by dentists to evaluate patient treatment needs)
  • performing documentation and office management activities

The American Dental Association notes that hygienists are in demand in general dental practices and in specialty practices such as periodontics or pediatric dentistry. They also may be employed to provide dental hygiene services for patients in hospitals, nursing homes and public health clinics.

Depending on their level of education and experience, dental hygienists can enjoy other career activities such as teaching hygiene students in dental schools and dental hygiene education programs. Research, office management and business administration are other career options. Employment opportunities also may be available with companies that market dental-related materials and equipment.

Education Programs

A dental hygiene education requires an average of 86 credit hours for an associate degree, or 122 credit hours for a baccalaureate degree.  The majority of programs are semester-based and almost half include summer study.  A few programs offer a part-time curriculum and some offer at least some opportunities for distance learning.

Dental hygiene degrees are offered in a variety of institutional settings.  Entry-level programs are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

Visit the American Dental Hygienists’ Association Web site, www.adha.org, for a listing of educational programs that offer degrees or certificates that provide entry to the professional practice of dental hygiene. To determine the accreditation status of a specific program, please contact the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

According to the ADHA, dental hygienists must exhibit competence in the following five domains:

  • Core Competencies:, the ethics, values, skills, and knowledge integral to all aspects of the profession.
  • A general knowledge of wellness, health determinants, and characteristics of various patient/client communities. The hygienist needs to emphasize both prevention of disease and effective health care delivery.
  • Appreciation of their role as health professionals at the local, state, and national levels. This role requires the graduate dental hygienist to assess, plan, and implement programs and activities to benefit the general population. In this role, the dental hygienist must be prepared to influence others to facilitate access to care and services.
  • Dental hygiene graduates must use their skills to assess, diagnose, plan, implement, and evaluate treatment.
  • Dental hygienists must be aware of a variety of opportunities for Professional Growth and Development.  A dental hygienist must possess transferable skills, e.g., in communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking, to take advantage of these opportunities.


Licensure is granted by individual states.  Dental hygienists practice in accordance with requirements of individual state dental practice acts.

In virtually every state, several steps are required before a license can be granted:

  • Graduation from an accredited dental hygiene program
  • Successful completion of the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Successful completion of a regional or state clinical board examination.

Once these steps have been completed, an applicant for licensure must then contact the state licensing authority in the state where he/she wishes to practice. As licensing requirements vary from state to state, it is necessary to contact each licensing authority in a given state for its specific application requirements and procedures.

Examples of other types of requirements and information needed are:

  • Successful completion of a jurisprudence exam
  • Proof of CPR certification
  • Letters of recommendation from dentists licensed in the state in which you wish to obtain licensure
  • Official transcripts from high school and colleges attended
  • Official letters from the boards of dentistry where licensure is held.

Typically state boards have the authority to deny a license to an applicant who has committed an act for which the board could revoke a license.  Persons convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor may be refused licensure, as well as those disciplined for other reasons.  Most states conduct background checks on a case-by-case basis.