What Exactly Is A Dental Hygienist?

You will certainly have heard of this profession, many of you will attend a hygienist regularly, some of you may even wish to become one. This article is written as a summary guide to give some info on this rewarding career.

A Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) is a semi-autonomous position within the dental office, specializing in cleaning and polishing teeth as well as providing advice on overall oral healthcare. All dental hygienists must be licensed by the state in which they work. Even so – in most states/countries – they must still work under the direct supervision of a dentist.

Hygienists are somewhat autonomous because they typically work alone and have their own schedule of patients. The number of patients seen by a hygienist in a given day will vary, and they typically have between 45min-60min per patient. At this rate they could easily treat 8-10 patients per day. In some clinic or large group practice settings a RDH may have a dedicated dental assistant, in which case the number of patients they could see would increase significantly.

Lady dental hygienist

What does a dental hygienist do?

The duties of a hygienist include:

  • Periodontal health evaluation (measuring gum pockets and bleeding)
  • Radiographs (x-rays) to help (with the above evaluation) to diagnosis the presence, extent and changes of any disease
  • Preventive teeth cleaning (traditional scaling and/or ultrasonic instrumentation) – to help remove any minor tartar deposits, thus making the mouth easier for the patient to keep clean
  • Periodontal cleaning (a.k.a. “deep cleaning”) – where there is disease present, this is done to remove tartar under and above the gum line. Tartar helps drive the gum disease process and must be completely removed
  • Teeth polishing – Helps to remove staining and plaque
  • Flossing and interdental cleaning advice
  • Home care instructions – Vitally important if any treatment is to have any chance of success.


This is hardly an exhaustive job description list but is typical of what the average dental hygienist does on a daily basis. The regulations vary greatly depending on where you are in the world, but many hygienists are allowed to deliver mild anesthesia (laughing gas) and analgesia (Novocain). A RDH in extended functions is allowed even more responsibility under the law.


Requirements to become a registered dental hygienist

Again, laws vary from country to country, and state to state, but in general the first step in becoming a RDH is to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school. Interestingly, some schools offer a BS in dental hygiene while other programs offer an AS degree. There is a distinct advantage to having a BS in dental hygiene if one is interested in a teaching or political position in the field. Otherwise, the core education is virtually identical.

Teeth being polished

In the US, after graduation comes a grueling 8 hour written exam followed by a tough clinical evaluation where clinical abilities are monitored, timed and ultimately judged by a panel of dentists.

Still, a RDH must then complete 25 hrs of continuing education units every 24 months in order to maintain their license in “active” status. Additionally, they are required to update their BLS or CPR certification every 2 years.


What is the salary of a dental hygienist?

The pay scale of a RDH varies greatly from state to state and office to office. Some hygienists are paid a flat hourly or daily rate while others may be paid on a sliding scale or percentage. This means their pay can go up significantly based on the amount of dollars they can produce for the office (this could be by way of services provided or products sold, etc…).

Either way, a RDH has good earning potential. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the mean wage for 2011 was about $33.54/hr with the highest paying state being California at nearly $45/hr. The schedule is also attractive since many hygienists are able to set their own workdays and hours. Many hygienists work only 2 or 3 days per week.


However, a career in dental hygiene is very rewarding not just because of the flexible hours and good pay, but also because it helps people to be healthier and live longer, more satisfying lives.


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