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

What's the Difference Between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist?

Dental assistants and dental hygienists both assist dentists on a daily basis, but many people aren’t aware of the differences between the two professions. Here’s an overview of how they differ, and you can decide for yourself which one you’d like to become.

Duties

Dental assistants perform basic support functions, both clinical and clerical. This includes sterilizing instruments, stocking dental supplies, assisting in procedures by keeping patients’ mouths dry and handing instruments to dentists, assisting with x-rays and lab work and communicating with patients to answer questions and provide instructions on how to act during the procedure and on how to take care of their teeth in general. Office duties include billing, scheduling follow-up appointments and maintaining patient records.

Dental hygienists, on the other hand, handle more complex clinical tasks, such as taking x-rays, removing tartar, stains and plaque and applying sealants, anesthetics and fluorides. They also give patients advice on proper oral hygiene. Hygienists typically don’t have clerical duties. Depending on whether state laws allow it, some dental assistants might also perform some of the same clinical tasks as hygienists — particularly applying sealants, anesthetics and fluoride, plus tooth polishing.

Education

Becoming a dental assistant typically requires a high school diploma and completion in a one-year dental assisting program. Two-year associate’s degree programs are less common. On the other end of the spectrum, some states don’t require any formal education in order to become a dental assistant.

Dental hygienists typically need a two-year associate’s degree in order to find a job. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are less common and are used more for teaching and researching positions.

Salary

As of 2010, the median annual wage of dental assistants was $33,470, while the median for dental hygienists was $68,250.

Demand

Dental assistant and dental hygienist jobs are both growing very fast, but the number of DA positions is more than 35% higher than that of hygienists.

(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)