How to Become a Dental Hygienist

By Tess Campbell Modified on September 01, 2023
Tags : Academics | Careers | Health and Wellness

Discover what a typical day as a dental hygienist looks like and how you can make it your career.

 How to Become a Dental Hygienist

If you’ve ever visited a dentist’s office and thought it was a cool environment, then you should consider a career as a dental hygienist. But to know if this career is right for you, check out what a dental hygienist does, what it takes to become a dental hygienist, and what salary you could earn as a dental hygienist.

What is a dental hygienist?

Have you ever gone to the dentist for a checkup? You likely sat back in the chair, put on those cool sunglasses, and had someone clean your teeth. Did you know that person wasn’t your dentist? The person you’ll have the most contact with at a dentist’s office is actually a dental hygienist. Dental hygienists are supervised by dentists to maintain your oral health. Dental hygienists will typically work at dentists’ offices, hospitals, clinics, educational institutions, or are self-employed.

How often do dental hygienists work? Many dental hygienists will work full-time in a dental office, while others may work part-time at more than one dental office to get full-time hours. Dental offices can be open evenings and weekends to accommodate patients’ schedules.

What does a dental hygienist do?

Dental hygienists focus on preventative oral health care. This means that they’ll clean a patient’s teeth, examine gums for periodontal disease, and discuss with patients how they can improve their oral hygiene. In addition to these responsibilities, dental hygienists will also:

  • Review and update a patient’s medical history and records
  • Note signs of oral disease symptoms for the dentists to analyze
  • Perform x-rays on patients
  • Inspect patients’ lymph nodes for swelling and signs of oral cancer
  • Sterilize and organize dental equipment
  • Take dental impressions
  • Apply sealants and fluoride treatments to protect patients’ teeth

If you’re still curious about what this career could look like, check out this video showing a day in the life of a dental hygienist:

How to become a dental hygienist in three steps:

Discover what it takes to become a dental hygienist:

Step one: Education

Your road to becoming a dental hygienist begins in high school. You’ll need to earn the required prerequisites for degrees and diplomas in dental hygiene while in high school. The prerequisites and grades you’ll need will depend on the school you choose, but common requirements for dental hygiene programs are:

  • Grade 12 English
  • Grade 11 or 12 Mathematics
  • Grade 11 or 12 Biology
  • Grade 11 or 12 Chemistry

Other schools may have more requirements in addition to or instead of these courses, so make sure you do your research!

Once you’ve graduated high school, you’ll want to apply for a dental hygiene program. These are typically two or three-year diplomas and four-year degrees at colleges and universities. You’ll learn more about anatomy, microbiology, health promotion, and more, while also gaining essential skills that you’ll need in your career, such as communication, collaboration, and attention to detail. Make sure that the program you apply to is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of Canada, as you’ll need this for the next step in becoming a dental hygienist.

If you’ve graduated from a dental hygiene program that was non-accredited in North America, or you’re internationally educated, then you’ll need to apply for an equivalency assessment from the Federation of Dental Hygiene Regulators of Canada to ensure your education matches that of accredited programs. Once you’ve been granted equivalency, then you’ll be eligible for the next step.

Step two: Pass an exam

Once you’ve completed your dental hygiene program, you’ll be ready to write the National Dental Hygiene Certification exam (NDHCE). This exam is required by most of the regulatory authorities in Canada. The NDHCE tests you on your knowledge, judgment, and skills as a dental hygienist to see if you meet the current national dental hygiene practice and educational standards.

The exam is 200 multiple choice questions divided into two back-to-back sessions. Questions can be single questions with four possible answers, or questions may appear as cases where you’ll be shown an introduction followed by four to six questions. The Federation of Dental Hygiene Regulators of Canada has four different preparatory tests that you can purchase to practice for the exam.

Step three: Register with your province’s regulatory authority

Before you can become a practicing dental hygienist in Canada, you’ll need to register with your province’s regulatory authority to be licensed. Each province and territory will have their own requirements for registering, but some common requirements in addition to your education and NDHCE are:

  • Professional liability insurance
  • CPR certification
  • Criminal record check
  • Jurisprudence exams or modules to provide information and assess understanding of the laws, regulations, bylaws and practice standards of dental hygiene professionals

These are only some of the requirements you may need, so make sure you check with the regulatory authority for your province to find out exactly what you need to become a licensed dental hygienist.

What’s the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist?

While the titles may sound similar, dental hygienists and dental assistants are two different roles. Check out the two main differences between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist:

Dental assistant Dental hygienist
Education While each province and territory have its own requirements, typically dental assistants are required to complete an accredited training program that typically lasts eight months to one year. Then they must pass the National Dental Assisting Examining Board exam, which is mandatory in all provinces except Quebec. Just like for dental assistants, each province and territory have its own requirements for dental hygienists as well. Dental hygienists must complete a diploma in dental hygiene, which takes two to three years to complete, or a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, which can take four years to complete. They must also pass the National Dental Hygiene Certification exam to practice in most provinces and territories.
Job responsibilities Dental assistants tend to complete more administrative duties than a dental hygienist. This includes scheduling appointments, checking in patients, billing patients, and processing payments. They can also assist with procedures such as fillings. Dental hygienists work more closely with patients. They’re the ones who perform the initial dental examinations, provide cleanings to remove plaque and tartar from a patient’s teeth, offer teeth whitening treatments, and educate patients about how they can take care of their teeth at home.

Career prospects

How much does a dental hygienist make? As an entry level dental hygienist — someone with one to three years of experience — you could make $65,000. Your salary will vary depending on the province or territory that you work in. Check out the low, average, and high salary expectations for a dental hygienist. So, if you want to start your career as a dental hygienist, explore the Canadian Government’s Job Bank for openings for dental hygienists.

Can you advance from a dental assistant to a dental hygienist? How about from a dental hygienist to a dentist? Yes, but you’ll need further education and training! If you start as a dental assistant and you want to become a dental hygienist, you’ll need to complete a dental hygiene program, pass the NDHCE, and register with your province’s regulatory authority. If you start as a dental hygienist and you want to become a dentist, you’ll need to enroll in an accredited dental school, pass the National Dental Examining Board of Canada exam, and register with your province’s regulatory authority.

If you’re interested in working with your hands, promoting healthy habits, and working closely with others, then a career as a dental hygienist might be great for you!

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