Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Which Career Is Right for You?

To most people outside the field of dentistry, they may not know the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist. In fact, they may seem like the same profession.

But the reality is that these two roles are pretty different, and each career path requires its own amount of study and licensing. Yes, both roles care for the needs of dental patients. This means that the duties of a dental assistant and dental hygienist do overlap, but not always.

If you’re considering a career in dentistry, here’s a comparison of the roles of dental assistant vs. dental hygienist. Hopefully, this can help you make the best-informed decision.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Each Role Explained

No matter which role you choose, it’s important that you hold a few characteristics to be successful in either role. To build a career in dentistry, you must have good interpersonal skills, great attention-to-detail, high focus, and good communication. Dexterity also helps! Here’s more on each role to help you choose the right career path:

The Role of a Dental Assistant

Contrary to what many people may assume about the role of an ”assistant” in any profession, they usually carry a plethora of important duties. So, what exactly does the role of a dental assistant include?

  • They are responsible for both dental and administrative patient care duties
  • They handle the logistics of a patient’s visit — ensuring they’re comfortable, seating patients, etc.
  • Dental assistants sterilize all dental instruments
  • They process x-rays and other laboratory tasks
  • Dental assistants educate patients on good oral hygiene practices
  • A dental assistant prepares and takes impressions of patient teeth for study casts
  • They also schedule follow-up appointments and handle patient billing

Dental assistants are permitted to perform certain dental procedures in some states. These include coronal polishing, as well as sealant, fluoride, and topical anesthetic application. As a beginner, you may be required to undergo a certain period of dental assistant training before you begin your full-time duties.

Smiling female doctor and her assistant showing teeth x-ray to male patient in dental hospital. Handsome male patient sitting in chair smilling with straight white teeth and looking at dental x-ray.

Education Requirements 

In order to work in the role of dental assistant, you must carry an appropriate certificate or diploma. However, the exact requirements for a dental assistant differ from one state to the next. Each state offers its own career pathways.

In some parts of the United States, you may not need a formal education to work as a dental assistant. However, this is usually on condition that you have enough practical, on-the-job training.

In some states, you may be required to hold a one-two year vocational qualification. This must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). In other states, you are required to hold a certificate through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

Licensing Requirements

Once again, the licensing requirements for dental assistants vary, state-by-state. Generally, you must hold a certification through the DANB in order to work in a practice/clinic in this role. At the moment, a current CPR certification is mandatory.

The Role of a Dental Hygienist

The job of a dental hygienist is a little more complex, which means you carry a fair bit of additional responsibility. Naturally, this means a higher level of education and certification may be required. Here’s what the role of a dental hygienist covers:

  • They are responsible for teeth cleaning
  • They examine patients for oral disease, clean teeth, and educate them on preventative oral care practices
  • Dental hygienists are qualified to operate tools, including hand, power, and ultrasonic tools
  • A dental hygienist performs x-rays to examine teeth and jaw alignment
  • They are also responsible for removing stains, plaque, and tartar build-up from patient teeth
  • They apply treatments, sealant, and fluoride where necessary
  • They take molds of patient teeth for study
  • A dental hygienist is responsible for administering all local anesthetics
  • They also remove patient sutures and dressings

A dental hygienist also covers a certain amount of administration. For example, they perform oral health assessments and take notes, which your dentist refers to during your treatment. They also draw up appropriate dental care treatment plans and brief patients on good oral hygiene practices.

Education Requirements 

A higher degree of responsibility means a higher degree of education. You are usually required to hold either an Associate’s Degree or Bachelor’s Degree in dental hygiene. The program that you complete must be accredited through the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

An Associate’s Degree tends to be the most popular route as it takes approximately two years to complete. This degree covers important topics such:

  • Patient management
  • Anatomy
  • Nutrition
  • Pathology
  • Medical ethics
  • Physiology, and more.

If you aim to focus your career on research, teaching, or want to open your own clinical practice, a Bachelor’s Degree is recommended. Most lab and clinical courses offer the right amount of hands-on experience to equip you for working in a practice/clinic environment.

Licensing Requirements

The licensing requirement for a dental hygienist also differs from one state to the next. Bear in mind that each state across the U.S. has its own set of stipulated requirements. These are determined by the state’s board of dental examiners. At present, you must hold an up-to-date CPR certification in order to work in a clinic/practice environment.

Both dental assistants and dental hygienists can find fulfilling work in private dental clinics, physician clinics, and public health clinics.

Get Your Daily Dose of Knowledge Here

Deciding whether to choose between the careers of a dental assistant vs. dental hygienist may seem overwhelming. But when it comes to this type of a decision, don’t rush your choice. Weigh up the pros and cons and decide what is best suited to your personality and ultimate career goals.

Looking to stay informed on all topics, including career choices, furthering your education, work-life balance, fitness, health, and more? Get the dose of knowledge you’re looking for by exploring the rest of this site!

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About the Author: Jacob Wyatt