How to Become a Dental Assistant

To become a dental assistant, you need to be a practical, efficient person with good organizational skills. Dental assistants provide invaluable support to dentists and dental practices at all levels. They perform the essential operational duties that keep dentists efficient and undistracted. Dental assistants work with important, sometimes complex, processes and equipment requiring thorough training and a strong knowledge base.

Education and training

In the past, dental assistants were largely trained on the job. In the US, a system of training and certification for dental assistants has now replaced that methodology. Under the guidance of the American Dental Association (ADA), large numbers of certification training programs have been accredited across America. Prerequisites for this course are a High School Diploma or equivalent. Some courses require science or computer-based subjects in passing grades.

The certification also leads directly to an associate degree, through further studies. This is an important career qualification, and creates a good working link between the dental assistant's expertise and future career progression in the profession. You can contact the ADA directly for information about locally available certifications.


State requirements vary considerably regarding licensing for dental assistants. Unlike the certification process, there are no standardized national licensing requirements, so aspiring dental assistants will need to check review their state requirements. Many licenses specifically define the work of the dental assistant and offer guidelines detailing what the assistant is permitted to do. Some require written examinations for licensing purposes. Others require special courses and the length of schooling can range from 4-12 hours. In some cases state licensing allows dentists to delegate work to dental assistants. A majority of states require additional studies for dental assistants performing advanced duties like radiological work.

The work environment

The physical working conditions for dental assistants are usually clean and hygienic and involve working in professional offices. The dental assistant's job includes making sure the working conditions stay clean. They're responsible for handling the dentist's equipment, sterilization, safe disposal of waste from procedures, and related critically important tasks. A dentist's practice is effectively a clinical practice, in terms of the statutory requirements for cleanliness and hygiene. By law, hygienic practices are one of the bases of a dentist's license to practice.

The dental assistant must be fully familiar with all procedures, instruments and equipment. Dental assistants assist with the dentist's actual work, and they're required to anticipate the dentist's needs. They also provide some materials to patients during treatment in various related supportive roles. This work isn't quite to the level of a surgical nurse, but it's similar in some ways and can be complex. Experienced dental assistants can set up the dental studio for an entire procedure by themselves, and operate all the related equipment as required.