How To Advance from Dental Assistant To Dental Hygienist

From choosing the right dental hygiene program to applying for your first job, find out how long it will take to become a dental hygienist, and follow the steps that lead to “RDH” at the end of your name.

If you want to become a dental hygienist, there are different paths you can take. Some people who have experience in dental assisting already may enroll in a bridge program that allows them to build on their prior education and experience to start a new career. On the other hand, those who have no experience in the health care field can begin their dental hygiene training from the ground up and learn all of the principles and techniques of the field. Continue reading to find information on the steps involved in becoming a dental hygienist.

How to move from dental assistant to dental hygienist
  1. Get accepted into a dental hygiene program. …
  2. Refine your skills during practical lessons. …
  3. Pass clinical training and exams. …
  4. Earn your license. …
  5. Consider asking to intern or practice with your current employer. …
  6. Apply for dental hygienist roles.

Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assisting

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist sees patients without the oversight of a dentist, and theyre responsible for:

What is a dental assistant?

A dental assistant works alongside dentists and dental hygienists to help them operate on patients more efficiently. Theyre often responsible for:

Differences between dental assistants and dental hygienists

While these two professionals collaborate and may share some of the same duties, there are many differences between the two roles, including:


To become a dental assistant, some states require them to graduate from a professional certification or diploma program, which may take nine months to one year to complete. Another option may be to complete an associate degree in dental assisting. Both programs provide coursework and hands-on practice in human biology, dental science and dental procedures. The program ends with a practicum where they work under the supervision of practicing assistants, hygienists and dentists.

Dental hygienists must complete an accredited dental hygiene program at a community or technical college, vocational school or university. The most common of these programs is a two-year associate degree, though aspiring hygienists can also complete a four-year bachelors degree, a two-year masters degree or an expedited certificate program.

In any dental hygiene program, students complete coursework in biology, chemistry and dental science. In addition, they gain hands-on experience in the classroom to practice dental cleanings, exams, X-rays and other job-related tasks. Finally, they must complete clinicals where they perform cleanings and other tasks under the supervision of practicing hygienists and dentists.


Both assistants and hygienists gain practical training while completing their degree or certificate programs. They also gain additional training in their general duties while completing clinicals and serving in entry-level roles.

For example, a dental assistant in their first role may receive training on the office software, the dentists and hygienists preferences and the unique needs of the patients with whom they work. Dental hygienists also receive software training, plus instruction on advanced equipment and with complex cleaning procedures for dental cases they havent worked with yet. Some dental hygienists may also start their dental careers as dental assistants and gain in-office experience in that role, too.

Certification and licensure

Dental assistants may pursue national certification by taking the Certified Dental Assistant exam. Sitting for this exam requires aspiring assistants to have completed an accredited certification program or have at least two years of experience as a professional dental assistant.

In contrast, dental hygienists must earn a license in the state in which they want to practice. Theyre required to complete an accredited education program, pass clinical exams and pass the state-proctored exam in addition to the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE). After earning a license, they must also take continuing education courses to renew their qualification.



Both dental assistants and hygienists need the following skills:

In addition, dental hygienists also need experience with these abilities:

How to move from dental assistant to dental hygienist

If youre looking to advance in your dental career, here are the steps you should take to go from dental assistant to dental hygienist:

1. Get accepted into a dental hygiene program

Depending on the school and type of program, admission may be competitive. Ready your resume with your dental assistant experience to showcase your familiarity with the professional setting, terminology, tools, patient relationships and workflows. In addition, take any prerequisite courses, such as biology, chemistry or general education courses in writing, humanities or social sciences.

Note that most programs are based on full-time schooling, so you may need to consult with your current employer about balancing work and class hours.

2. Refine your skills during practical lessons

During your hygiene program, you must complete hands-on lessons that involve using dental cleaning tools as well as practicing cleaning techniques on dental manikins and fellow classmates.

Be sure to use effective communication, such as speaking clearly when instructing your test patient during a procedure and actively listening to any signs of discomfort or pain. Observe nonverbal cues, such as stiffness or flinching, and follow-up with your test patient to address any techniques you can improve. Also, provide honest feedback to your classmates to help you both learn what does and doesnt work during a procedure.

3. Pass clinical training and exams

Your school may assign you to an office to complete your clinicals, or you may be able to complete them at your current dental office. When doing your clinicals, be sure to ask questions or for help when you need it, and pay close attention to patients comfort during procedures. Apply the same communication, observation and customer service skills you use in your current role and that you used during your classroom training.

Near the end of or after your training program is complete, complete your clinical exams, which assess your ability to identify dental or oral anomalies, take accurate measurements, assess radiography as well as diagnose dental disease and conditions.

4. Earn your license

In order to earn your license, you must then sit for and pass the NBDHE and your states dental hygiene licensing exam. The NBDHE assesses your ability to recall and apply dental hygiene science knowledge, patient care techniques, radiography testing and review practices. The state licensing exam tests your knowledge of best practices, patient care, provider responsibility and ethics.

5. Consider asking to intern or practice with your current employer

After completing your degree and passing the board exam, ask your current employer if they are interested in promoting you to a hygienist role or even as an intern hygienist, which can provide you additional training.

6. Apply for dental hygienist roles

If your current office isnt hiring a hygienist, find other practices that are looking for your new skills. Create a resume that lists your dental assistant education, training and experience in addition to your dental hygienist education and training.


Do Dental Hygienists love their job?

Overall, dental hygienists are “satisfied” with their career decision. According to a January 2015 RDH eVillage survey, 84% indicated they made the right choice about entering the profession. A slight dip in this high percentage occurs with more recent graduates: Graduated in the 1970s, 88%

Is it worth it being a dental hygienist?

Dental hygienists are in demand and integral to every dentist office, and often earn a decent wage. According to the BLS, the national median annual wage for this career in May 2020 was $77,090 or $37.06 per hour. This varies depending upon location, experience, and whether you are a full-time or part-time employee.

What are the requirements for dental hygienist?

According to Dimensions of Dental Hygiene, pain frequently experienced in the back may stem from tight muscles in other parts of the body. The repetitive motions associated with performing dental procedures can create tension in the hips, hands, shoulders and other hardworking body parts.

Is being a dental hygienist hard on your back?

According to Dimensions of Dental Hygiene, pain frequently experienced in the back may stem from tight muscles in other parts of the body. The repetitive motions associated with performing dental procedures can create tension in the hips, hands, shoulders and other hardworking body parts.

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