A dental hygienist works under the supervision of a licensed dentist to teach patients proper oral hygiene. Dental hygienists are in high demand. Becoming a dental hygienist requires an associate’s degree, which means you can begin working in the field without having to invest several years in college. A bachelor’s or master’s degree is necessary if you want to advance in your career as a dental hygienist. Of course, you can always obtain the associate’s degree first and then continue working on advanced degrees.
How much do you make as a dental hygienist? The median annual salary for dental hygienists was $74,070 in 2017 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The steps for becoming a dental hygienist are straightforward, beginning with your education, then continuing with the necessary exams and licensing. Here’s how long it takes to become a dental hygienist, what’s required, and how you can get started.
1) Earn Your High School Diploma or GED
Earning a high school diploma or GED certificate is the first step to becoming a dental hygienist. High school students who are interested in becoming dental hygienists will benefit from taking science courses like biology and chemistry. Math courses will also help prepare for the career. Maintaining a good GPA and scoring well on the ACT or SAT exam will improve your chances of getting accepted into dental school.
2) Earn an Undergraduate Degree
Dental hygienists have a two-year associate’s degree from a community college, vocational institute, or dental school. Choose a dental hygienist school that’s accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation to ensure you can receive your state license once you’ve obtained your degree and passed the national board exam.
The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is the only agency recognized by the United States Department of Education to accredit dental and dental-related education programs. If you attend a non-accredited school, you’ll have to go through additional steps to qualify for the national board exam. Upon graduation, you’ll receive an Associated of Applied Science in dental hygiene.
While a two-year associate’s degree is sufficient to become a dental hygienist, you may choose to further your education for additional career opportunities. A bachelor’s or master’s degree may be necessary for research, teaching, or clinical practice in public or school health programs. Whether you choose an associate’s or bachelor’s program, you’ll spend time in the classroom as well as the clinic experience working with real patients.
Your coursework will include classes in anatomy and physiology, dental anatomy, pharmacology in dental hygiene, nutrition, and patient/pain management. The coursework can be overwhelming. It’s important to come up with an organization system for your work early on in your college career. Finding a mentor can also help relieve some of the stress of the coursework.
3) Pass a CPR Exam
Administering CPR isn’t a normal part of the dental hygienist’s daily routine. However, there may be some instances that it’s necessary to resuscitate an elderly patient or one who has a negative reaction to anesthesia. Being able to apply CPR quickly is necessary to give the victim the best chance of recovery from these incidents. This is why CPR training is essential for becoming a dental hygienist.
Your state may require you pass a CPR class to receive your license. If your state requires you to pass the CPR exam, you’ll also have to keep your certification current by taking a continuing education course every few years. Refreshing your skills ensures your ability to administer CPR correct at any time.
4) Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
All dental hygiene candidates must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) before being licensed. This 350-question test evaluates whether you understand and can apply the information necessary to practice as a dental hygienist. The first part of the exam will test you on the scientific basis for dental hygiene practice, the provision of clinical dental hygiene services, and community health and research practices. The second part of the exam provides dental hygiene scenarios that require you to address how to respond to each case.
To schedule your exam, you’ll need to send proof that you’ve graduated from an approved program. If you graduated from a non-accredited dental school, you may be still be able to take the exam if you provide a letter of recommendation from the dean or director of an accredited program. When you arrive for your test, make sure to bring your ID with you. The name on your ID should match the name you entered on your exam application. The current cost of the exam is $400.
It takes about three weeks to receive your exam results. Your exam will be scored on a range of 49 to 99 and you’ll have to score above 75 to pass the exam. If you pass the exam, you won’t be given a score, but you’ll be notified that you’ve passed. However, if you fail, you’ll be given your specific numerical score and you’ll be able to retake the exam after 90 days. You’re required to pass the exam within the first 5 years of your first attempt or within your first 5 attempts.
5) Get Your State License.
Just like becoming a dentist all states require licensing for dental hygienists. When you apply for your license, you’ll complete an application and provide your national board test scores, letters of recommendation, official transcripts, and drug tests. Your state may require you to pass a regional or state-specific clinical exam to demonstrate your knowledge and skills as a dental hygienist. Check your state’s licensing requirements to determine how to apply for the clinical exam.
You must keep your dental hygienist license up to date to remain employed. If your license is expired or inactive for several years, your state may require you to complete a re-entry program and clinic time to be able to reinstate your license.
Continue Your Education
Once you obtain your state license and become a dental hygienist, your state may require you to complete a certain number of continuing education hours every year or two. Your state may require that some of these hours be clinical in nature. This continuing education is important for keeping up with the latest developments, skills, and technologies in your field. Investing in continuing education is important for keeping your dental hygienist license current, but also for remaining effective and efficient in your career as a dental hygienist.