How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienist teaching young boy how to brush his teeth

If you’re looking to pursue a career in the dental field, but you don’t have the inclination or aptitude for dentistry, then why not consider a career as a dental hygienist? After all, the money is good, the hours are flexible, and you are providing a beneficial service to your patients.

If you don’t know where to start, or if you’re unsure about whether or not it’s the right move for you, then you’re in the right place; we’ve got all the information you need about the education, qualifications and training required to do this role.

So, whether you’re a wide-eyed school leaver or you’re considering a career change, this is how to become a dental hygienist.

Is it the Right Job for Me?

Before you make any big career decision, you first need to ensure that the job is the right fit for you. Dental hygienists need to possess the right blend of scientific knowledge, patient care skills and hands-on clinical proficiency, so if you enjoy working with the general public and you have a strong academic background in biology and anatomy, then you could be a perfect candidate.

You should also understand the differences between a dentist and a dental hygienist; a hygienist is focused primarily on preventing mouth and gum diseases, including giving advice to children, whereas dentists deal with new and existing issues. While dental hygienists perform basic procedures such as scaling and polishing, dentists are trained to perform a broader range of more complicated procedures.

To get a better picture, do as much research as you can into the realities of the day-to-day role. There are numerous resources available online, such as dental forums, student forums and Reddit, where you can get an insight into the job; don’t be afraid to get in touch with dental hygienists in your area as well, who might be willing to answer your questions and give you an honest appraisal of the work.

What Qualifications do I Need?

As with many healthcare roles, dental hygienists require a state or regulatory body license in order to legally practice. Therefore, there are many prerequisites that any aspiring registered dental hygienist (RDH) must meet.

In the US, the minimum educational requirement is an associate’s degree that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), while in the UK, a foundation degree (or Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)) accredited by the General Dental Council (GDC) will suffice. Alternatively, you can pursue a full bachelor’s (or even master’s) degree, as long as the course is accredited, so make sure you check with the education provider before you enrol.

As these are higher education courses, you’ll need some level of education prior to enrolling, too. In the UK, you’ll generally need at least 2 A-Levels (or equivalent) with one in a science subject, while in the US, admission criteria can vary depending on the state.

What Skills do I Need?

As previously mentioned, there are several skills you will need to be a successful RDH. These include:

  • Communication skills: Communication is a huge part of any healthcare role, and dental hygiene is no different; you will be dispensing oral hygiene advice to a variety of patients, including children, so you need to make sure that you are clear and easy to understand.
  • Diplomacy skills: Nobody likes having their mouths prodded with needles and mirrors, but some people are more sensitive than others. Therefore, you need to be able to calm and coax nervous or difficult patients into complying, so that you can perform your duties.
  • Attention to detail: This is a vital skill for a dental professional, as even though much of your work will involve routine hygiene tasks such as scaling and polishing, you may notice something amiss that requires further examination by a dentist. You will also need to pay close attention to a patient’s dental records, especially if they have any allergies or conditions.
  • Manual dexterity: As you’re going to be spending a lot of your day manoeuvring sharp tools around people’s mouths, then you’ll need to be dexterous. This could be an issue if you’re a naturally clumsy person.
  • Problem-solving skills: Whether it’s dealing with a particularly tricky patient, trying to figure out the right course of treatment, or getting someone to listen to your advice, one thing is clear: you will have to think on your feet and be able to solve problems quickly.

How Do I Land a Job?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental hygienist jobs are on the rise, which is good news if you are planning on breaking into the industry. Once you have completed your studies and obtained your licensure, you can begin looking for vacancies at public and private dental surgeries, hospitals and other clinics; check out industry-specific job boards, too, as well as tapping into any contacts you may have made at university or on networking tools such as LinkedIn.

Once you’ve built up a good reputation and you have a sizeable pool of patients, then you might want to consider opening your own practice – especially if you have a flair for business. Many dental hygienists go into partnership with dentists, for instance, offering both services under one roof.

Career Progression

Ongoing professional development is important for dental hygienists, with many choosing to finish their undergraduate studies (if necessary) and progress onto postgraduate programmes, while some choose to specialise according to their interests.

Alternatively, you might want to go the whole hog and go to dental school; a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene is the perfect stepping stone to attending a four-year DMD or DDS doctoral programme, or a five-year BDS programme in the UK. It could be worth in the long run, too; while dental hygienists are well paid, dentists have the potential to earn significantly more.

Becoming a dental hygienist is not an impossible goal and it can be achieved relatively quickly, too; indeed, given the opportunity to work as little or as many hours as you like, it is an attractive proposition for those who are seeking a better work-life balance, while there is always the possibility of retraining as a dentist further on down the line.

So, if you have good people skills, a steady hand and an academic background in science, then why not consider this important and interesting role?

Are you hoping to become a dental hygienist? Let us know your story in the comments below!