Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant: 10 Differences You Don’t Know

Most times, people tend to interchange the term Dental Hygienist with Dental Assistant as they both work hand in hand with the Dentist.

Although they both sound alike, their roles are not interchangeable. As someone who will love to pursue a career in either of the fields, it is of essence you understand the difference between Dental Hygienist and Dental Assistant.

Basically, both dental assistants and dental hygienists work with dentists to help people care for their teeth.

However, the differences between a dental assistant and dental hygienist positions center on their qualifications, the tasks I expect them to perform, and their level of interaction with patients.

Read on to learn more about the two positions; their similarities and differences, along with career data, such as employment outlook and salary projections.

Who is a Dental Hygienist?

Sometimes called an oral hygienist, a dental hygienist is a licensed dental professional, registered with a dental association or regulatory body within their country of practice.

A dental hygienist is an oral health professional who teaches proper oral hygiene, conducts patient assessments, oral inspections, and teeth cleanings.

The primary concern of any dental hygienist is with the preventative oral healthcare of their patients. 

Before taking the clinical and written examinations of the board, registered dental hygienists must hold an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from an accredited college or university.

Once registered, dental hygienists are primary health care professionals who work independently or with dentists and other dental professionals to provide comprehensive oral health care.

They have training and education that focus and specialize in the prevention and treatment of many oral diseases.

Do you know how much schooling you need to be a Dental Hygienist?

Who is a Dental Assistant?

A dental assistant, unlike a dental hygienist, performs more of the administrative and dental office tasks. Also, referred to as a dental nurse, a dental assistant basically acts as an immediate aide to the dentist.

Dental assistants support other dental operators in providing efficient treatment to the patients.

What Can You Do with a Dental Assisting Certificate?

Aside from working in a general dentistry office, there are several job options for dental assistants. Below are other jobs you can do with a dental assisting certificate:

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  • Public health: Dental assistants who want to provide a service to a specific population should look toward public health.
  • Pediatrics: Good dental habits begin in childhood. If you love children, you are most likely going to enjoy a career in pediatric dentistry. Notwithstanding, you will need a solid understanding of the transition from baby teeth to adult teeth. Your job will also involve calming nervous children.
  • Dental schools: Dental schools often hire dental assistants to help students learn dental procedures. You can actually help in teaching others what you know here.
  • Oral Surgery:  Dental assistants are essential for the success of oral surgery. From the handling of the records to the preparation of the operating room and the patient, a dental assistant will remain busy working for an oral surgeon.
  • Insurance companies: Dental assistants have a solid knowledge of dental insurance coverage. If you are organized and like administrative tasks, consider an insurance claims processing job.
  • Dental product sales: If you are good at building relationships, excel at customer service, then, a career in dental product sales could be a good fit. Your familiarity with a variety of dental products, technology, and equipment can help you make a good pitch and reach an agreement.

What are the Similarities Between a Dental Hygienist and a Dental Assistant?

Even with the existence of the differences, dental hygienists and dental assistants have a lot in common as they can be seen working hand in hand with each other.

One of the glaring similarities is that both work with the dentist and are part of the dental team. Other similarities include:

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  • Assist the dentist
  • Patient care duties
  • Exam set-up duties
  • Technical and medical duties
  • Internships
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Patient Care Duties

The priority of both the dental hygienist and assistant is to care for the patients. Although the perform this function at different levels, however, the endpoint is to keep the patients at ease before, during, and after medical treatment.

For instance, the assistant is the first contact the patient makes once he/she enters the clinic. His or her duty is to welcome patients and get them ready for treatment.

The hygienist then takes over the cleaning and treatment independently or under the watch of the dentist while the assistant stays around to ensure that patients remain comfortable and relaxed through the procedure.

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Exam Set-up Duties

Just like the patient care, the both make sure that the exam room is set up for a patient’s visit. Although the dental assistant will usually take the lead, however, hygienists also have some responsibility in the exam preparation and set-up.

In addition, the two can often work together in preparing to receive patients.

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Technical and Medical Duties

Dental assistants and hygienists carry out technical and medical tasks in different capacities. Dental assistants perform technical and medical tasks, such as taking patients’ blood pressure, making study cast of their teeth and also, taking x-rays.

On the other hand, dental hygienists will work much more medical duties with patients. Although they do not have the authority to make diagnoses, they often consult the dentists and give advice.

In addition, hygienists also perform medical tasks such as charting, cleaning, and polishing of teeth, anesthetic application and assisting the dentists in more advanced medical procedures.

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Internships

Internships are very common and an important criterion for both the dental assistant and hygienist.

For dental assistants, they do much of their learning as interns. On the other hand, dental hygienes need to do their internship to practice. For instance, some states require 100+ hours of interning before a hygienist can earn his or her license.

Cost should not be the reason why you are giving up on your dental profession. Attend any of these Top 10 Cheapest Dental Schools In The World

What are the Differences Between a Dental Hygiene And Dental Assistant

To an average patient and other persons not familiar with the dental field, the difference may not be clear and glaring.

However, as one who wants to pursue a career in the dental world, it is best you know these differences as it will help in your decision-making process as you advance in the dental career.

One of the biggest differences between these dental support positions is that while a hygienist often works one-on-one with a patient, and doesn’t receive constant supervision, a dental assistant provides direct help to dentists, conducting office tasks, and small supervised jobs on patients’ teeth. 

Other differentiating factors between Dental Hygienists and Assistants include:

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  • Job description
  • Roles/duties
  • Education
  • Duration of Study
  • Salary
  • Career Outlook
  • Flexibility
  • Independence
  • The highest concentration of jobs
  • Professional preparation
  • Certification

#1 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Job Description

This is one of the major factors that differentiate dental hygienists from assistants.

A dental hygienist performs more medical and technical duties. Many of these tasks are more advanced and independent; involve direct patient care and were once performed only by dentists.

Their duties may include polishing patients’ teeth; removing hard and soft deposits from teeth; and using several tools to remove tartar, plaque and stains.

On the other hand, dental assistants perform more of the administrative and management duties.

They are to carry out both preparatory and breakdown duties in the office. Some of these duties include disinfecting and laying out instruments for a dentist, getting patients’ dental records, handing instruments to dentists during procedures, and instructing patients on how to care for their teeth after they leave the dentist’s office.

Also, other administrative office works such as billing patients, keeping a proper record of payments receipt, and ordering dental supplies.

#2 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Roles/Duties

Just as the various parts of the body have their unique functions, so do each member of various teams.

Likewise, each member of the dental team has their spelled out roles which they are to carry out.

Below are the roles of a Dental Assistant

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  • Working closely with patients before, during and after procedures
  • Assisting and handing instruments to the dentist during a variety of treatment procedures
  • Taking and developing x-rays
  • Preparing and disinfecting instruments and equipment
  • Obtaining patients’ dental records
  • Preparing x-ray machines, impression materials, anesthetics, and cement
  • Billing patients and handling payments
  • Ordering dental supplies
  • Taking impressions of patients’ teeth for study casts (models of teeth)
  • Teaching patients appropriate oral hygiene strategies
  • Performing office management

Below are the roles of a Dental Hygienist

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  • Collecting information about the patient’s oral and medical health history
  • Removing calculus, stains, and plaque (hard and soft deposits) from all surfaces of the teeth
  • Making molds of patients’ teeth used for evaluating treatment
  • Polishing patients’ teeth
  • Using several tools to remove tartar, plaque, and stains
  • Developing x-ray film
  • Charting patients’ dental conditions for the dentist
  • Applying fluorides and decay preventatives
  • Administering local anesthetics
  • Removing sutures and dressings
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#3 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Education

Oftentimes, dental hygienists must have at least an associate or bachelor’s degree in Dental Hygiene from an accredited university or college.

In addition, a state license in the field. In summary, they must pass an accredited training program as well as clinical and written examinations.

On the other hand, dental assistants may or may not need formal higher education, depending on the state in which they work.

Some countries and states’ regulations require that aspiring dental assistants must complete a one-year certificate or diploma program.

From BLS’s report, the entry-level for a dental assistant is a postsecondary non-degree award while a dental hygienist is an associate degree.

#4 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Duration of Study

Generally, earning a dental assistant diploma requires less time and money than earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree to become a dental hygienist.

Typically, a dental assistant’s certification, and associate degree programs take one to two years to complete. However, in some institutions, it takes less than a year. According to Delta Technical College, it takes 9 months to get a dental assistant diploma certification.

On the other hand, it takes up to 4 years to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Dental hygiene and extra 2 years to obtain a master’s degree.

However, both programs culminate in a clinical experience.

#5 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Salary

According to the 2019 US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage of a Dental Hygienist is $74,820 per year and $35.97 per hour. In addition, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $51,930, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $101,820.

When spread across industries, below is the dental hygienist’s salary report from the statistics:

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  • Offices of dentists – $75,090
  • Offices of physicians – 71,630
  • Government – 60,630

Also, from the report, the median wage of a dental assistant is $38,660 per year and $18.59 per hour. Furthermore, the lowest 10 percent received less than $26,940, and the highest 10 percent received more than $54,800.

Meanwhile, when spread across industries, below is the dental assistant’s salary report from the statistics:

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  • Government – $42,390
  • Offices of dentists – 38,670
  • Offices of physicians – 35,760

#6 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Career Outlook

The 2019 BLS job outlook for dental hygienists shows that employment is projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Furthermore, the demand for dental services will increase as the population ages and as research continues to link oral health to overall health.

On the other hand, the job outlook report for dental assistants shows that employment is projected to also grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.

In addition, the aging population and ongoing research linking oral health and general health will continue to increase the demand for preventive dental services.

#7 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Work Schedule Flexibility

The work of dental assistants is less flexible as most of them work full time. Also, some may work evenings or weekends.

Meanwhile, the work of dental hygienists is more flexible as they mostly work part-time. Typically, dentists may hire hygienists to work only a few days a week, so some hygienists work for more than one dentist.

In addition, due to the flexibility of their work, they can easily schedule their personal activities,

#8 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Independence

Most of the activities of the dental assistant are done under the supervision of a higher member of the dental team. In a case where the activity is not supervised, the work done is examined later on.

Meanwhile, licensed dental hygienists can work independently in the absence of a dentist.

#9 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Highest Concentration of Jobs

From the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics, the following states have the highest job concentration for dental hygienists in the USA:

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  • Rhode Island
  • Idaho
  • Connecticut
  • Vermont
  • Michigan

From the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics, the following states have the highest job concentration for dental assistants in the USA:

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  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Illinois

#10 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Professional Preparation

According to Dentalcareersedu.org, there are currently over 330 accredited dental hygiene programs and over 270 accredited dental assisting programs in the U.S recognized by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

Basically, dental hygienists and dental assistants complete their education through community/junior colleges, technical colleges, and dental schools, although there are instances where some dental hygienist programs can be found through four-year colleges and universities.

However, the difference between an educational program for a dental hygienist and a dental assistant is that a dental hygienist program offers an associate’s degree, while for a dental assistant, the result is generally a certificate.

Dental assistant programs are typically focused solely on the aspects of the profession, both clinical and administrative, while dental hygienist associate degree programs also include:

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Upon completion of a dental hygienist associate degree, students must take a licensure examination (state or regional) to become licensed and begin working in a dental office.

The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and NBDHE certification are accepted in all states to allow dental hygienists to fulfill all or part of their written examination requirements for licensure.

For dental assistants, the process is generally quite different from one state to the next. Some states have no educational or certification requirements, while others require dental assistant graduates to take and pass state examinations or examinations through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

The most common DANB certification for dental assistants is the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA).

In addition, in the USA, dental assistants have not licensed healthcare professionals, although they may be registered in some states.

#11 Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant – Certification

Upon completion of a dental hygienist associate degree, students must take a licensure examination (state or regional) to become licensed and begin working in a dental office.

The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and NBDHE certification are accepted in all states to allow dental hygienists to fulfill all or part of their written examination requirements for licensure.

For dental assistants, the process is generally quite different from one state to the next. Some states have no educational or certification requirements, while others require dental assistant graduates to take and pass state examinations or examinations through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

The most common DANB certification for dental assistants is the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA).

In addition, in the USA, dental assistants are not part of licensed healthcare professionals, although they may be registered in some states.

Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist; Which is Right for You?

Choosing your professional or career path is an important decision.

In this case, if you like the idea of working closely with dentists and patients and also, helping with important procedures that help people, becoming a dental assistant might be a great option for you.

Meanwhile, if you like working independently, and also, have the time and resources to complete a two to four-year university program, dental hygiene can be an interesting career choice.

FAQs

Is a Dental Hygienist more important than a Dental Assistant?

Just as each part of our body has its unique function, so are the functions of the hygienist and assistant in the dental team.

They do not override each other, rather; they carry out their roles for the oral healthcare of the patients.

Which is in charge of the accreditation of the Dental Hygiene programs?

The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is in charge of the accreditation of dental hygienist programs. They must approve the dental hygienist program in the school you have chosen for you to practice.

If your Dental Hygienist degree does not have accreditation by CODA, you will not be able to gain a license and practice as a professional hygienist.

Which body oversees Dental assisting programs?

The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) is the body in charge of dental assisting programs.

Although some states do not have any educational or certification requirements for dental assistants, however, others require dental assistant graduates to take and pass state examinations or examinations through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

Can you go from dental assistant to dental hygienist?

Most dental assistants move up to become dental hygienists because of so many factors like the salary and work schedule of the hygienist.

All you have to do is to enroll in accredited dental hygienist programs if you have the money and resources(for instance, time) to do so.

Also, professional assistants with at least two years of full-time experience are also eligible to take the exam.

Conclusion

According to Careerswiki, 9 in 10 working-age Americans either currently have or have had at least one cavity in their lives. 

With this increasing rate of dental issues, the place of both dental hygienists and dental assistants, as well as other members of the dental team, cannot be overemphasized.

Therefore, understanding the roles of dental assistants and hygienists will be in order. Also, as one who wants to pursue a career in the dental field, I hope this helps you in making your decisions.

GoodLuck and Success!!!

References

AUTHOR’S RECOMMENDATION

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