How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Most people would be surprised at what it takes to become a dental hygienist. Apart from their consultative and treatment roles, much of a dental hygienists work isn't obvious. Lab and often complex diagnostic work is involved, and that all takes place out of sight. In fact, dental hygienists have to be fully trained qualified and licensed in practically every aspect of their work, which can be extensive.

Education and training

Basic entry levels for dental hygiene programs start in high school. The standard US entry level requirements are:

  • High school diploma, including biology, chemistry, and mathematics.
  • College entrance scores
  • Some programs require at least one year of college attendance

Please note entry requirements do vary from school to school.  There are nearly 300 accredited dental hygiene programs in the US. It's advised to check out at least two dental hygiene programs to get a good indication of requirements in your state. Also make sure that you're looking at programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.

The program studies are:

  • Physiology

  • Anatomy

  • Chemistry

  • Microbiology: Essential study of microbiology, including infection processes and related studies

  • Pharmacology: Working with the various pharmaceuticals involved in dental hygiene

  • Histology: Tissue structure studies

  • Periodontology: Gum disease studies

  • Pathology: Lab practices, practical studies, practical experience and very important lab safety procedures

  • Clinical dental hygiene: A primary study in this field

  • Social and behavioral studies: Relates to the consultative role of dental hygienists

Studies may also refer to patient issues like allergies and other medical conditions which impact on treatments and therapies.

Licensing

All US dental hygienists require state licenses. The requirements for licensing include:

  • Successful graduation from an approved dental hygiene school. (Except in Alabama, where completion of a formal on the job training program is permissible grounds for applying for a license. The examinations are still required.)

  • Written examination administered by The American Dental Association’s Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations.

  • Successful pass of clinical examinations administered by the state.

  • Most US states also require examinations on the legal issues of dental hygiene.

  • Some forms of equipment and procedures using certain materials may need separate licenses depending on state or Federal requirements.

Skills

Dental hygiene requires high levels of skills in several different areas:

Manual skills: This is a primary requirement, related to the physical treatment of patients.

Procedural skills: The work includes operation of complex equipment with strict requirements for high levels of competence in each field. Radiological testing procedures are an example of these specific skills.

Communications skills: The extremely important consultative role requires dental hygienists to be excellent communicators. Just explaining a health condition or treatment can require patient, step by step descriptions of situations and treatment methods. In some case the dental hygienist may have to deal with serious diseases like pyorrhea, which is a particularly tough disease to treat, requiring extensive therapy and in many cases surgery.

Good social and relationship skills: Working well with people who may be suffering distress requires tact, and careful management of individual cases. A dental hygienist may work for years with patients in difficult cases using successive therapies and treatments. They also need to work well with clinical teams and dentists, creating good professional relationships.