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How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Steps to Take from High School

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Looking for a healthcare profession with high earning potential that allows you to help people? Dental hygiene may be the career for you. Not only do dental hygienists perform rewarding work, but they also have plenty of opportunities and a strong potential for career growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that profession will grow by 11% between 2018 and 2028, much faster than the average 5% for all professions.

What does a dental hygienist do?


Often the first professional that patients encounter when they visit the dentists, dental hygienists work with licensed dentists to inspect and clean teeth and gums, advise patients on preventative oral care, take x-rays, obtain medical histories related to the mouth, and apply basic treatments. They also assist dentists during some oral care procedures. 

How much do dental hygienists make?


As of May 2018, the mean annual salary for dental hygienists in the United States was $74,820, according to the BLS. Salaries vary based on employer, experience, education level, and other factors.

How to Become a Dental Hygienist 

High School


In high school, taking math- and science-related courses will help you lay the academic foundation needed once you enter a dental hygiene program. 


To strengthen the skills needed to become a pharmacist, students might pursue extracurriculars in STEM, healthcare, or communication. Some ideas of extracurriculars might be:


  • Working in a nursing home
  • Science Olympiad
  • HOSA (Future Health Professionals, formerly Health Occupations Students of America)
  • Debate team


You might also want to shadow a dental hygienist, or conduct an informational interview, to learn more about the nuances of their career. 


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You’ll need to earn at least an associate’s degree, which generally takes two years to complete. The program must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) and cover four basic areas: general education, biomedical science, dental science, and dental hygiene science. You’ll also need to gain clinical experience, working under supervision, as part of your program.


If you’d like to teach, conduct research, or perform specialized work in the field, you may choose to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree as well. 




In order to practice dental hygiene, you must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination after earning your degree from an accredited program. To receive your license, you must also complete any requirements as stipulated by your state, such as CPR training, and sit for a state clinical examination as well. The national exam will ask for to apply theory to practice, while state exams generally test your knowledge of specific procedures and practices. 


Note that you must renew your license regularly. The exact period of time between renewals and requirements for renewing vary from state to state. In general, you will need to complete a certain number of continuing education credits to keep you up to date on current practices in the field.


Advancing Your Career


Gaining experience and completing additional coursework can help you advance in the field. Be on the lookout for specialized courses and networking opportunities, such as the American Dental Hygienists Association Annual Conference. Membership with this and related organizations will give you access to plenty of resources to help you grow in your career, too.


You may also choose to earn a doctorate in dentistry, enabling you to be a dentist. To gain admission into a program, you’ll need a four-year degree. That said, you can usually apply your dental hygiene coursework if you have an associate’s degree, and complete additional credits as needed. You’ll also need to pass the Dental Admission Test. 


Looking for guidance on pursuing a career in dental hygiene or another profession? The college admissions process can be tricky to navigate, but our free platform will equip you with the tools and resources you need to impress colleges. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to discover schools, estimate your chances of acceptance, get peer essay review, and more!

Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.