If you are thinking about pursuing a profession in the dental industry, you may be considering becoming a dental assistant or dental hygienist. While they sound very similar, the two jobs are actually quite different.
A dental assistant usually works alongside the dentist—handing them tools and assisting with procedures in other ways—as well as in the front office. Depending on where you live, you may be able to work as a dental assistant right after high school graduation without any experience or you may have to earn your certification.
A dental hygienist, on the other hand, works more independently and is responsible for cleaning teeth and occasionally giving injections. Hygienists receive more training than dental assistants and earn a higher salary.
This guide goes over key differences between dental assistants and hygienists to help you decide which one is the best fit for you.
Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist Overview
Though both are dental-related professions, there are key differences, as well as similarities, between the two.
Dental assisting is considered an entry-level job in dentistry. Many people work as dental assistants while they are in school to become dental hygienists.
Dental assistants handle administrative tasks and help the dentist with procedures like filling cavities and placing crowns, while hygienists primarily clean teeth.
Here’s a quick overview of each:
Dental Assistant Overview
Dental assistants are usually the first people to greet patients when they enter a dentist’s office. They help get patients checked in and may take them back to the chair for X-rays and to prepare for their check-ups and cleanings.
Some responsibilities of dental assistants include:
- Scheduling appointments
- Checking patients in for cleanings and procedures
- Taking X-rays
- Assisting the dentist with procedures
- Sterilizing equipment
- Cleaning exam rooms
- Stocking supplies
- Tracking inventory
The required training and education to become a dental assistant is different in each state. Some require only a high school diploma or GED, while others require completing a certification program, passing an exam, and registering with the state Board of Dentistry. At most, it takes about two years to become a dental assistant but you can typically become one in as little as four months.
To become certified as a dental assistant, you can complete either an online course or in-person training. Dental assistants need to be familiar with infection prevention, chairside assisting, and basic computer skills. You can learn more about the steps required to become a dental assistant here.
Dental assistants typically start their work day before the office opens, preparing the office for patients and getting things organized for the day. They have to stay organized to keep things around the office running smoothly and on time.
They may work directly with the dentist, handing them the correct tools for procedures and providing suction for the patient. At the end of the day, the assistant may have to do some deep cleaning of the office, sterilize equipment, and order new supplies for the office.
Dental Hygienist Overview
Unlike a dental assistant, a hygienist does not deal with big-picture office problems like ordering supplies or scheduling patients. They typically focus on just one patient at a time, making sure they give a thorough cleaning and monitoring their patient for any signs of tooth decay or gum disease.
Some of the responsibilities of a dental hygienist include:
- Dental cleanings
- Taking X-rays
- Patient screenings
- Patient education
To become a dental hygienist, you need to earn at least an associate’s degree from an accredited program. These programs cover infection control, diseases of the mouth, medications, anatomy and physiology, radiology, and dental cleaning techniques.
A hygienist typically arrives at work just before the first patient does. They will get their station ready with their cleaning tools, supplies, and loupes. They will typically have an hour to an hour and a half to clean their patients' teeth, scraping plaque and helping prevent decay and gum disease.
They also communicate with the dentist about any concerns they have and must thoroughly document their findings in the patient's electronic health record.
Key Similarities Between Dental Assistants & Dental Hygienists
While dental assistants and hygienists are different professions, they do share some similarities such as:
- Work environment. Dental assistants and hygienists primarily work in dental offices. Both types of employees may be able to find work in doctors’ offices or employee service centers, but these jobs are rare.
- Patient care. Both assistants and hygienists will spend most of their day interacting with patients. Whether cleaning teeth, scheduling appointments, or assisting with procedures, both need to have good communication skills and help keep nervous patients calm during their visit.
- Work hours. Since both jobs work primarily in dentists' offices, both can expect to keep a fairly normal schedule of working on weekdays during normal business hours. While some offices may open early or close late, there are not many weekend or overnight jobs available.
- Job outlook. Both dental hygiene and dental assistant jobs have a good job growth outlook, at around 7%. This is slightly higher than the national average.
Key Differences Between Dental Assistants & Dental Hygienists
People often think dental assistants and hygienists are the same thing. It may surprise you to find out that the two jobs are actually quite different. The main differences are:
- Education requirements. Dental assistants can usually start working after earning a high school diploma or completing a certification course. Hygienists, on the other hand, must complete at least an associate’s degree and pass a licensing exam before they can legally start to work.
- Job responsibilities. While both professions include patient care, dental hygienists spend a lot more time working on the patients’ mouths than dental assistants. Assistants perform a lot of administrative tasks and clinical tasks under the direct supervision of the dentist, while hygienists clean teeth with some autonomy.
- Salary. Dental hygienists earn almost twice as much as the average dental assistant.
Salary Differences for Dental Assistants & Dental Hygienists
While dental assistants earn a decent wage, they earn significantly less than dental hygienists. On average, dental assistants in the U.S. can expect to earn $44,710 per year working full-time, or $21.40 per hour.
Dental hygienists working full-time earn an average of $81,400 per year per year or $39.10 per hour. Dental hygienists are also more likely to receive bonuses and incentive rewards at the end of the year.
Job Outlook for Dental Assistants & Dental Hygienists
Both hygienists and assistants have good job outlooks, with job opportunities expected to increase by 7% through 2032 for both careers.
Many aspiring dental hygienists work as assistants while they are in school. Dental hygienists who earn a bachelor's degree can become dental hygiene instructors.
Necessary Skills for Dental Assistants & Dental Hygienists
Dental assistants and dental hygienists require a lot of the same skills.
Dental assistants can learn a lot of what they need to know on the job or with a few weeks of training. Skills required to be a good dental assistant include:
- Good communication
- Attention to detail
- Computer skills
- Manual dexterity
- Infection control
- Sterilizing techniques
- Taking X-rays
- Customer service
Dental hygienists need a lot of the same skills as assistants, with a few more advanced skills that they learn in school. These include:
- Giving injections
- Calculating medication doses
- Taking X-rays
- Tooth scaling
- Tooth polishing
- Applying fluoride
How to Choose Between Dental Assisting & Dental Hygiene
The choice between dental assisting and dental hygiene most likely depends on your current situation and future goals. To help you decide, here are a few things to consider:
- Time commitment. Becoming a dental hygienist requires a two-year commitment to full-time school. The time it takes to become a dental assistant is much less. With an online program, you can become a certified dental assistant in just a few weeks.
- Cost of training. Dental hygiene school can be expensive. Even choosing an in-state, public college costs an average of $10,000 per year in tuition. Dental assistant classes and certification can cost as little as $1,000.
- Salary. While dental hygienist training requires more time and money upfront, dental hygienists earn a much higher salary than assistants. If you are looking to work in dentistry for the rest of your career, it might be worth it to attend dental hygiene school.
- Future plans. For those who dream of a career as a dentist, it might be better to start out as an assistant. Getting a degree in dental hygiene does not offer much advantage on the way to dental school. The time and money it takes to become a hygienist aren’t worth it unless you are planning to spend your career as a hygienist.
Education & Certification Requirements for Dental Assistants & Dental Hygienists
In many states, dental assistants can start applying for and accepting jobs with just a high school diploma or GED. In states with stricter requirements, assistants must complete a training program and pass a certification exam. Usually, dental assistants have to be certified in radiology, infection control, and chairside assisting.
You can see a full breakdown of dental assistant requirements by state here.
Dental assistant training programs can last anywhere from four months to two years.
Dental hygienists must earn at least an associate’s degree and pass a licensing exam before they can start working. Some accelerated programs can be completed in 18 months, but most take two years to complete.
If hygienists want to work as instructors or team leaders in their office, they will have to continue on to a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene.
Comparing a Day in the Life for Dental Assistants & Dental Hygienists
Dental assistants and hygienists typically work similar schedules in similar environments. Both jobs typically work during normal business hours and spend a lot of time on their feet, working with patients all day.
A dental assistant spends their day keeping things around the office running smoothly and helping the dentist with procedures. Some assistants are responsible for administrative tasks and clinical tasks, while others are hired specifically for one or the other.
Dental hygienists focus almost all of their time on direct patient care. They spend their workday cleaning patients' teeth and inspecting for signs of decay or gum disease. Dental hygienists have to be mindful of their posture and position and are at risk of shoulder and back problems due to leaning over patients all day.
Job Growth & Progression for Dental Assistants & Dental Hygienists
Dental assisting is considered an entry-level job in dentistry. Dental assistants may work their way up to become office managers or lead assistants, but they have to return to school if they want to make any major career changes or advancements. Dental assistants with many years of experience may be able to earn as much as $30 per hour.
Similarly, dental hygienists can become trainers or teachers for new hygienists, but they have to return to school if they want to advance further. Dental hygienists with a lot of experience can earn over $60 per hour.