Your Career as a Dental Hygienist

dental hygienist at workWhat 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? 

Dental hygienists may be exposed to diseases spread through saliva, blood or other bodily substances because they work directly in a patients mouth. Dental hygienists use standard precautions which include: 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 20 percent from 2016 to 2026, 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 2026.

What is the average salary for a dental hygienist? 

On a national level, the mean annual salary was $89,890.

In Oregon, the average hourly wage for a dental hygienist in 2023 is $49.73 and average annual salary is $103,440.

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

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