What Does A Dental Hygienist Do?

A dental hygiene students cleans a patient's teeth under the supervision of a faculty member.

What does it mean to be a dental hygienist? With competitive pay and room for new skills and advancement, a career in dental hygiene provides consistent challenges and opportunities to grow your healthcare practice.

Applications for Pacific’s Bachelor’s of Science in Dental Hygiene degree open this fall! Transferring with an associate’s degree? See how you can graduate in just two years.

On one hand, the duties of a dental hygienist are limited to routine cleanings, with a licensed dentist required to perform other dental procedures and checkups.  

On the other hand, dental hygienists are some of the most accessible and affordable preventative healthcare professionals in many communities, with many opportunities for providing care.

With that in mind, you may be wondering: what exactly does a dental hygienist do?

Highly-trained and surrounded by a team of healthcare experts, dental hygienists have the capacity to work as primary care specialists, identifying everything from gingivitis to oral cancer.

Want to learn more about this well-paid and rapidly-growing career? Let’s explore the role of a dental hygienist.


What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Your experience with dental hygienists may only involve routine cleanings, but due to their professional training, registered dental hygienists (RDH) can perform many more procedures necessary to provide complete care.

Dental hygienist duties and responsibilities include:

  • Performing maintenance cleanings. RDHs spend up to two years learning the most up-to-date methods to help remove plaque, tartar, and accumulated stains.

    Dental hygienists also use cleanings as a way to look for tooth decay and gum wellness, two prevalent indicators of overall health.

  • Screening for disease. Training in oral pathology (the diagnosis and treatment of conditions commonly found in and around the mouth) empowers RDHs to help spot diseases as soon as possible.

    Dental hygienists are often the first healthcare professionals to notice and address potentially debilitating issues such as tonsillitis, oral cancers, and gum disease.

  • Taking dental x-rays. An essential aspect of the modern dental practice, especially in offices without dental assistants, training in dental radiology allows RDHs to collect and examine dental imagery.

  • Creating patient treatment plans. By educating patients about healthy oral hygiene habits, dental hygienists have become one of the most accessible forms of public health

What is the Difference Between Dental Hygienists and Dentists? 

Dental hygienists and dentists work in tandem to provide comprehensive oral healthcare, collaborating to solve problems and create treatment regimens. 

However, due to the large difference in formal training, the duties each role can perform can be quite different, leading some dental hygienists to pursue continuing education or professional programs in oral health.




Requires completion of a two-year or four-year program in dental hygiene

Requires a four year undergraduate degree and four years of medical school

Can identify medication needs but must partner with a dentist to prescribe 

Can prescribe medication and administer local anesthesia 

Requires dentist assistance when performing procedures beyond routine maintenance

Can perform more complex procedures such as filling cavities or installing dental crowns

While comparing the responsibilities of dental hygienists to that of a dentist may make it seem as though the gulf of experience between the two is very wide, there is an exciting new avenue for dental hygienists that is gaining traction: dental therapy. 

What is Dental Therapy?

Two dental hygiene students practice cleaning techniques on a medical dummy.

Much like how a physician assistant or nurse practitioner can greatly service patients without the presence of a medical doctor, dental therapists can perform a wide variety of dental procedures in a primary care setting.  

Dental therapists can perform routine cleanings like a dental hygienist, but also fill small cavities and conduct tooth extractions, greatly expanding their scope of care, especially in underserved communities. 

Pursuing a career in dental therapy often requires a bachelor’s degree, something Pacific offers at the dental hygiene level

As more states begin to authorize dental therapists, greater opportunities will open up for dental hygienists to expand their scope of practice and make more money serving their patients.

How Much Do Dental Hygienists Make?

Due to their robust training and hands-on education, dental hygienist pay is high for healthcare roles that only require an undergraduate degree. 

The average national dental hygienist salary is $81,460 for those who work in dental offices, with hourly rates as high as $56 an hour in metro areas like those near Pacific.

Apart from the real-world training dental hygienists receive, the high pay for dental hygiene professionals also comes from an increased demand in RDHs.

Demand for dental hygienists is 4% higher than the national average, meaning that, as the field evolves, there will still be space for those wanting to break into the career.

How Do I Become a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygiene is not only an accessible way for those to receive consistent care, but it is also an accessible career for those interested in greatly helping their communities. 

Because a career as a dental hygienist only requires education at the undergraduate level, it is a much more affordable option for healthcare professionals looking to start a lifelong career.

Becoming a registered dental hygienist consists of:

  1. Completing a dental hygiene program. Whether at the associate’s or bachelor’s level, successful completion of an accredited dental hygiene program is required to practice.

    Combining expert instruction with real-world experience through on-campus clinics, a degree in dental hygiene prepares you to take the next step in your healthcare career.

  2. Passing certification exams. Accompanying your professional program are exams at both the national and regional level which, when passed, will allow you to pursue licensure.

    Through both the intensive practicum experience and clinical rotations, students are well-equipped to tackle these exams right after graduation.

  3. Gaining licensure. Dental hygienists are able to practice on a state-by-state level, meaning you must have appropriate credentials in the state you live in order to work.

    Becoming a registered dental hygienist is only possible after completing the above steps in order, and once finished you will be able to practice within all states you are licensed.

Got questions about applying to Pacific’s BSDH program? Inquire today and connect with an admissions counselor who can help you prepare your application for success.