Your Career as a Dental Hygienist

What is a dental hygienist?

Dental hygienists are licensed healthcare professionals who provide preventive, educational and therapeutic dental health services directly to patients. They focus on preventing and treating dental diseases to improve oral health, in support of the patient’s overall health.

Dental hygienists must be licensed in each state in which they practice. Licensure requirements vary from state to state.  In most states, candidates must graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program, pass a national written board examination and pass a state or regional clinical board examination. The RDH credential stands for Registered Dental Hygienist and indicates that the dental hygienist is licensed to practice. 

The scope of practice for dental hygienists varies from state to state. Most dental hygienists perform oral health assessments; expose, process and interpret dental radiographs (x-rays); remove plaque, calculus and stain from the teeth; apply preventive materials including fluoride and sealants; teach patients proper oral hygiene techniques; and counsel patients on maintaining optimal oral health. In some states, dental hygienists can administer local anesthesia and nitrous oxide-oxygen sedation; prescribe fluoride and antimicrobial agents; place temporary restorations; place permanent restorations. 

Where do dental hygienists work? 

Clinical dental hygienists provide direct patient care in a variety of healthcare settings which include private dental offices, managed care organizations, schools, public health clinics, hospitals and long-term care facilities. 

Dental hygienists with a bachelor’s or master’s degree have additional career options which include teaching dental assisting, dental hygiene and dental students in colleges and universities; administering public health and community-based programs; managing dental practices and health care facilities; and marketing dental supplies, products and equipment.

What does a typical day look like for a dental hygienist? 

Most dental hygienists work in clinical practice where they typically treat one patient each hour during an eight-hour day. Many dental hygienists choose to work 3-4 days per week and they may work in more than one dental office. Dental hygienists work closely with dentists and dental assistants and they may work with other health care professionals as part of an interprofessional team. 

Dental hygienists wear safety glasses, face masks and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. When taking dental x-rays, dental hygienists follow procedures to reduce exposure to radiation for themselves and their patients. Dental hygienists are trained to respond to medical emergencies that may occur in a dental setting.

What is the future demand for dental hygienists?

Employment of dental hygienists on a national level is projected to grow 33 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is much faster than for other occupations. In Oregon, the total number of job openings for dental hygienists is projected to be higher than the statewide average number of job openings for all occupations through 2022.

What is the average salary for a dental hygienist? 

On a national level, the mean hourly wage for a dental hygienist in 2016 was $35.05 and the mean annual salary was $73,440.

In Oregon, the average hourly wage for a dental hygienist in 2016 is $37.64 and average annual salary is $78,720.

Where can I find out more about dental hygiene as a career?

American Dental Hygienists’ Association 
Occupational Outlook Handbook
Oregon Labor Market Information System