How to Become a Dental Hygienist

If you want to future proof your career, dental hygienists are in high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that growth is slated to continue by as much as 20% by 2026.

Along with the high demand for dental services, dental hygienists don’t need expensive college diplomas. So if you want to avoid incurring a high student loan debt, this may be a good career choice for you.

Are you ready to find out how to become a dental hygienist? Check out this article to find out education and qualification requirements.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist in 2 Steps

Like many careers, you need to take the necessary steps to become a dental hygienist. However, they are relatively easy in comparison to other career paths.

1. Education

Can you become a dental hygienist without a 4-year degree? Yes, you can. Dental hygienists typically need a minimum Associate’s degree in dental hygiene. These programs can take 2 to 3 years to complete, depending on your college’s scheduling.

If you do enroll in a dental program, expect to attend laboratory and clinical instruction as well as traditional classroom classes. These programs cover a variety of subjects including:

  • nutrition
  • physiology
  • radiography
  • anatomy
  • pathology
  • medical ethics
  • patient management
  • periodontics

Generally, dental programs also include liberal arts classes, as well as the standard dental and science classes.

Are you still in high school? If you are, concentrate on chemistry, biology, and math. They can help you in the dental program, especially seeing as most of the programs have prerequisites.

Specific requirements, though, may vary from school to school. To be accepted into a dental program, you usually have to meet the following requirements:

  • GED or high school diploma
  • Average high school minimum C-average, including English, math, biology, chemistry
  • 40 hours of prerequisite courses, generally in psychology, English, speech, chemistry

You may find dental programs in community colleges, technical schools, and universities. According to the Commission on Dental Accreditation, there are over 1,400 programs available.

Associate’s degrees are acceptable for work as a hygienist in a dental office. However, if you want to work in other dental fields, you may need an advanced degree. That includes teaching, research, or clinical practice in school or public health programs.

Finding a bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene may be a little more difficult. However, if you are a dental hygienist or plan to go beyond that, it can be a good idea to further your career.

2. Licensing

Every state has requirements for dental hygienist license. Most states require you to complete an accredited dental hygiene program. In addition, they may also require proof of clinical and written examinations administered by the American Dental Association (ADA) for licensing. Other licensure requirements may include:

  • cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or Basic Life Support (BLS) certification
  • minimum age of 18 or 21 years old
  • good moral character
  • background check
  • fingerprint verification
  • passed ADA exams with a 75 or better per section
  • specialty degree from a CODA accredited program
  • interview

Dental hygienists are responsible for maintaining their license. That may include continuing education requirements. However, like the initial licensing requirements, maintenance may also vary by state.

Other Skills Needed

There are other skills you may need to be a successful dental hygienist. These skills are not necessarily taught in a dental program. However, they are integral to the profession. They include the following:

Attention to Detail

Dental hygienists need to follow specific protocols and rules. They usually help dentists diagnose and treat patients, but some states may not require direct supervision from a dentist. Attention to detail is thus paramount, especially when working on your own.

Critical Thinking

As a dental hygienist, you won’t simply be cleaning teeth. You may also need to assess and evaluate a patient’s dental health and that requires critical thinking skills.


Dental hygienists work with their hands. You may overlook that fact when considering this career. However, consider that the workspace on a patient’s body is very small. Therefore, you need exceptional fine motor skills to use precision tools and instruments in this tight space.

Communication Skills

You may not talk very much while you’re performing a treatment or cleaning. However, before and afterward, you need to relay a variety of information to dentists and patients. This may include things like oral health status, plans for oral hygiene care, and lifestyle counseling as needed.

Problem Solving Skills

Can you pinpoint a problem and develop a solution? You may be called to do that as a dental hygienist. Creating and implementing oral hygiene care plans would follow under your care, so you need problem-solving skills to maintain and improve a patient’s oral health.

Interpersonal Skills

Lastly, this soft skill may be undervalued in a dentist setting. Still, you will work closely not only with dentists but also with patients who may or may not be happy about having to go to the dentist. Being sensitive to a patient’s fear or pain and managing to relax them and instill trust in them can help you succeed in this chosen career.

Job Prospects

If you do choose this profession, what do your job prospects look like? Employment for dental hygienists is growing faster than the average of all other occupations. From 2016 to 2026, it is projected to grow by 20 percent.

One of the reasons for this is the aging population in the United States. Baby boomers are getting older, but many are keeping their original teeth. That means that dental offices need more hygienists to handle the demand for dental care.

In addition, a growing body of research that links oral and general health is also driving the demand for preventative dental services. However, keep in mind that graduations from dental programs are also higher and that could spell increased competition for jobs.

Final Thought

How to become a dental hygienist? It can be as easy as earning an associate’s degree and passing licensing exams. On top of that, you may not have to contend with monstrous student loan debt to get into this career.

Dental hygiene is a thriving profession with an expected growth of 20% by 2026. There are a few factors that are driving employment in this sector. They include a wider access to dental insurance and the need of the country’s aging population to maintain their original teeth.

While there are numerous dental programs cropping up around the country, make sure that the one you choose is accredited. Many states require CODA accreditation for licensing, so this should be one of the key considerations when enrolling.