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What’s the Difference between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist?

Find out if dental assistant school is a good choice for you

Close-up of a patient sitting in dental chair while a dental hygienist gets ready to clean her teeth.Are you looking at dental assistant schools? If so, you may be wondering about the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist. What are their different job responsibilities? How much does a dental assistant make versus a dental hygienist? What are the facts about dental assistants and dental hygienists? What career path makes more sense for you?

This article looks at the two roles and gives you an idea of the kind of career path that might work for you. To begin, what is the difference between the two jobs? The chief difference is that:

  • dental assistants work directly for the dentist—sitting chairside and helping with procedures
  • dental hygienists work directly with patients—providing professional teeth cleanings to help remove plaque and stains.

Because dental hygienists work directly on the patients’ mouths, they require more training than a dental assistant. A dental hygienist needs at least an associate’s degree, whereas a dental assistant can get the necessary training through a one-year non-degree program.

What does a dental assistant do?

Dental assistants are trained professionals who play an important part in the day-to-day functioning of dental offices. Here are some of the tasks that dental assistants do on a regular basis:

  • Prepare instruments for upcoming procedures
  • Greet patients and show them to the exam room
  • Assist the dentist with procedures by handing them needed instruments (chairside assisting)
  • Handle lab procedures such as cleaning dentures, taking impressions, and processing orders
  • Provide patients with home care instructions
  • Update dental records and other administrative tasks

The exact duties of a dental assistant will vary depending on the job. Some dental assistants spend more time in the lab, while others may have administrative duties such as scheduling appointments and organizing paperwork.

With dental assisting, no two days are ever the same! Many dental assistants like the variety of tasks they get to handle. While a hygienist spends the majority of the day providing teeth cleanings, a dental assistant tends to have a wider variety of tasks throughout the day. For more dental assistant information, view the Occupational Outlook Handbook’s profile of Dental Assistants as a Career.

What does a dental hygienist do?

Dental hygienists spend much of their day providing professional teeth cleanings to patients. With specialized instruments and techniques, they remove stains, plaque, and tartar from the patient’s teeth. They also examine the patient’s mouth for any signs of oral diseases, and they help educate patients on good dental hygiene. Here are some of the things they do on the job:

  • Remove plaque and tartar from teeth
  • Administer sealants and fluoride treatments
  • Take x-rays
  • Update patients’ records and treatment plans
  • Discuss home care with patients

Hygienists play a critical role in improving the dental health of their patients. With regular cleanings by the hygienist, patients can keep their teeth healthier, and decrease their chances of decay and gum disease. For more info, read the Dental Hygienist profile in the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Difference between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist
Dental AssistantDental Hygienist
ResponsibilitiesWorks directly with dentistWorks directly with patients
Typical tasksAssisting the dentist with procedures (chairside assisting), taking impressions, lab tasks, temporary crowns, administrative tasksProfessional teeth cleanings, patient education, x-rays
Requirements for enrolling/applying to schoolHigh school diploma (or GED) is required to enroll in trainingHigh school diploma and prerequisite science and math courses are required to apply
Length of training1-year diploma program2- to 3-year associate’s degree program
Job outlook for futurePositivePositive

How do you become a dental assistant?

Becoming a dental assistant is easier and faster than becoming a dental hygienist. Most dental assistant training programs take just about one year to complete. To get into a dental assistant training program, you will need a high school diploma or equivalent (such as a GED). Once enrolled, you will study topics such as: dental anatomy, procedures, chairside assisting, radiology, and office procedures. You can find dental assistant schools in community colleges, private career schools, and other technical schools.

How do you become a dental hygienist?

Hygienist programs are longer and more challenging than dental assistant programs, and the application process can be competitive. Typically, it helps if you have taken courses in biology, chemistry, and math in high school. If you haven’t taken these courses, you may need to take additional prerequisite courses before starting the dental hygienist program. Once accepted into the program, it usually takes 2 to 3 years to earn your associate’s degree. The program will include topics like physiology, radiography, pathology, anatomy, periodontics, and nutrition, as well as lab courses where you will learn clinical skills. Community colleges, technical schools, and universities offer dental hygienist training programs.

How much does a dental assistant make compared with a dental hygienist?

Because dental hygienists undergo more training and have more responsibility, they usually make a higher salary than dental assistants. To get an estimate of the type of wages/salary you can expect to make in these roles, refer to the “pay” section of the Occupational Outlook Handbook:

Benefits of being a dental assistant

If you’re still not sure which career path you should choose, consider some of the benefits of becoming a dental assistant:

  • Short-term, quick-start training program, lasting about one year
  • No prerequisite courses required
  • Opportunities to get to know patients
  • Variety of job tasks, from assisting the dentist, to making temporary crowns, to relining dentures
  • Knowledge that you are helping patients achieve better dental health
  • Professional, courteous work environment with regular hours
  • Positive job outlook, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook

Benefits of being a dental hygienist

Becoming a dental hygienist has many of the same benefits as becoming a dental assistant. Here are some of the reasons why people choose this career path:

  • A professional dental position that doesn’t require a full four-year degree
  • Opportunities to get to know your patients
  • Autonomy on the job
  • Knowledge that your work is directly improving the dental health of your patients
  • Professional, courteous work environment with regular hours
  • Positive job outlook, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook

What are some of the skills and qualities you need to succeed?

To determine whether you’re a good fit for a dental profession, take a moment to reflect on your personality, strengths, and challenges. Here are some of the traits that are useful for people who want to enter the dental field.

  • Good “people” skills – for interacting with patients
  • Good manual dexterity – for handling dental instruments
  • Organized – for managing a wide range of patient needs
  • Detail oriented – for carrying out dental procedures according to exact protocols
  • Listening skills – for understanding what the dentist needs you to do

If you have these skills, and are interested in the field of dentistry, then becoming an assistant or a hygienist might be a good career move for you. Take some time to consider the pros and cons of both career paths before deciding which is best for you. Good luck with your decision!

More dental assistant facts

For more interesting facts about becoming a dental assistant, try these articles:

  • 5 Things to Know About Becoming a Dental Assistant

Dental assistant schools in the Philadelphia/South Jersey Region

For residents of the greater Philadelphia region, southern New Jersey, and Delaware, there is a dental assistant training program in your back yard. The Harris School of Business offers dental assistant training at its campuses in Upper Darby (near Philadelphia), Voorhees, NJ, and Wilmington, DE. For more information about the Harris School, fill out our online form or simply pick up the phone and give us a call at 800-510-7920. We hope your future career path begins with us!