young female dental assistant smiling with her arms crossed

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: What Are The Differences

Dental assistants and dental hygienists might sound similar, and sure, both positions require one to work closely with a lead dentist. However, there are major differences amongst both positions, such as education requirements, employment outlook, job duties, and salary projections. 

Both positions are promising options for anyone who’s passionate about the dentistry field. However, we wanted to breakdown the major differences between a dental hygienist vs dental assistant, so that you can make an informed decision based on your individual needs and skills. 

What’s The Difference Between A Dental Hygienist And A Dental Assistant?

There are many distinctions between these two positions. You’ll find that the core differences between dental assistants and dental hygienists pertain to expected tasks and the level of interaction that they’re allowed to have with patients.

Dental assistant duties vary depending on the dental practice. However, in most dental practices, it’s common to see dental assistants working directly with a licensed dentist, and providing direct aid. On the contrary, dental hygienists don’t require as much supervision and are free to work one-on-one with patients.  

Generally, a dental assistant job description involves the following responsibilities:

  • Clerical tasks, such as maintaining patient intake and organizing billing and insurance paperwork
  • Preparing treatment rooms and patients before the dentist enters the room
  • Sterilizing equipment before and after procedures
  • Taking patient x-rays and completing any lab tasks instructed by the dentist
  • Taking impressions of patients’ teeth for moldings
  • Offering supervised assistance during treatment procedures 
  • Educating patients on appropriate oral hygiene tips 

On the other hand, a dental hygienist job description differs, as they have the authority to work freely with patients. Their daily duties often consist of: 

  • Collecting a patient’s oral and medical health history
  • Screening patients
  • Charting a patient’s dental conditions in preparation for the dentist
  • Administering local anesthetics
  • Removing dental plaque off of a patient’s teeth, as well as polishing teeth during dental checkups
  • Taking patient x-rays and developing the x-ray film for the dentist’s analysis
  • Teaching patients appropriate brushing and flossing strategies 

Differences in Education Requirements

Since dental hygienists are expected to perform more advanced tasks that require direct patient care, most states require people pursuing dental hygiene to at least obtain an Associate’s degree in dental hygiene; most dental hygiene programs vary in length but generally require a three-year commitment.

According to the American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA), every state requires individuals to complete the following in order to legally practice dental hygiene:

  • Graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program
  • Pass the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Pass the regional or state clinical board examination

However, the license requirements differ state to state, so please do you due diligence and research the certification requirements for dental hygienists in your state.

Likewise, most states also expect dental assistants to become certified before they can begin working. Since state board exams are meant to be challenging, many students may benefit from receiving training from an accredited dental assistant program. However, dental assistant programs are much shorter, and typically only require a commitment of nine months to two years, depending on the program and certification. Many programs may also offer accelerated programs that can be completed within a matter of weeks, such as The Professional Dental Assistant School, an 8-week program that offers students career training and a Dental Assistant Certificate. 

Salary and Career Projections

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the average annual salary for a dental hygienist was roughly $75,500 in 2018. A dental hygienist salary in CT amounts to an average of $83,630 per year. That same year, the median annual dental assistant salary was $38,660; meanwhile, a dental assistant salary in CT was $44,520, for full-time dental assistants.Both career choices are expected to have a positive job growth. The BLS predicts that the number of dental assistant jobs is expected to increase by 11% for dental hygienists between 2018-2028. Likewise, the dental assistant job growth will also increase by that same 11% rate throughout 2018 and 2028.  

Employment Opportunities for Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists

Pursuing a career in dentistry is a wonderful choice, regardless of what career path you choose to take. Feelings of job security will reassure you that you have made the right career choice, and it will also encourage you to continue growing. Many experienced dental assistants eventually go on to pursue a degree in dental hygiene; meanwhile many dental hygienists choose to go back to school to earn a Bachelor’s degree, which then allows them to pursue research, education, or even opportunities to practice in public or school health programs.

Which career choice sounds more appealing to you?