Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

dental assistant vs. dental hygienist

When you go in for a check-up at the dentist, as you know, you don’t see just the dentist. When you’re getting your teeth cleaned, you interact with a completely different person. There’s even an employee to assist the dentist with small tasks during more technical procedures. These faces you see around the dentist’s office are known as support staff.

Two of the most prominent support staff members in a dentist’s office are a dental assistant and a dental hygienist. Although their work within an office allows a dentist to practice successfully and efficiently, they are two extremely different positions.

So how do these positions differ? Let’s find out.

Discussing the Differences

  Dental Assistant Dental Hygienist
Degree While a degree is not required, a certificate in dental assisting often is

Associate’s degrees are offered, but may not be necessary

An associate’s degree is most common

Some earn bachelor’s degrees, but they are not required

Time Spent on Education On average, certificate programs take about a year to complete Earning an associate’s degree can take between two to three years
Cost of Education Averages around $15,000 Around $23,000
Required Knowledge Anatomy
Equipment terminology and sterilization
Front desk skills
How to assist with radiography
First aid and CPR
Medical Ethics
Patient Management
Periodontics (study of gum disease)
License May be required depending on job position and state Must obtain a license through the state
Certification Preferred by many employers and required by some states

Popular certifications offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB):
National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)

Because dental hygienists must be licensed, certifications are not necessary
Responsibilities Assist dentist during procedures
Give patient care instructions
Sterilize equipment
Maintain patient records
Manage front desk
Schedule patient appointments
General teeth cleaning including the removal of plaque and stains
Examine gums for signs overall health
Perform X-rays
Chart and report findings
Administer anesthetics

Expanding on Responsibilities

The specific tasks that are assigned to dental assistants can vary significantly from those that are expected of dental hygienists. Because of this, the overall level of responsibility varies as well.

Dental hygienists can perform dental work independently. They interact with patients one-on-one and then give a report to the dentist afterwards. Because of their training and license they are qualified to work at this more advanced level of practice.

Dental assistants on the other hand, cannot perform dental work independently. They must be supervised by a licensed dentist to do any hands-on work. Usually they assist the dentist by sterilizing and preparing equipment prior to the start of a procedure.

Salary Differences

One of the most notable differences between a career as a dental assistant and dental hygienist is income. To many people, it’s the most important difference, especially if you are trying to decide between the two careers.

Dental Hygienist Median Annual Salary:



Dental Assistant Median Annual Salary:


For those who are primarily interested in making a larger salary, becoming a dental hygienist is the way to go. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists made a median annual pay of $72,910 in 2016. To sweeten the deal, the top 10 percent earned more than $100,170.

While the wages for dental assistants aren’t as impressive as those for dental hygienists, they still make a respectable income. The BLS reports that in 2016 dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $36,940. Considering that dental assistants do not need to spend as much time or money on their education, this career could be the better route for you.

Job Growth

When deciding what career to pursue, you should always consider what the projected job growth will be. It can indicate how easy or difficult finding a job within that field will be. Fortunately, the career outlook for both dental assistants and dental hygienists looks promising.

Dental Hygienist Job Growth:



Dental Assistant Job Growth:


Through at least the next decade, the BLS expects the employment of dental hygienists to grow by 20 percent. Many factors contribute to this increase, such as the popularity of cosmetic dental procedures and the growing access to healthcare.

The growth within the field of dental assisting is also predicted to increase. In fact, they are reported to be just one percent behind dental hygienists, which lands them at a growth rate of 19 percent.


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