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Dental Hygienist Education Requirements

Dental hygienists are similar to dentists in that they perform the majority of maintenance on patients’ teeth. Their job duties include removing plaque, tartar and buildup to administering fluoride or filling cavities. However, dental hygienist education requirements  are different from dentists’. Whereas dentists go to school for eight years or more, most dental hygienists attend one- to two-year education programs, and sometimes four-year programs.

Most dental hygienists hold an associate’s degree or a certificate, with four-year bachelor’s degree or six-year master’s degree programs being slightly less common. This page will offer a brief overview of the education required to become a dental hygienist.

High School and Background Education

Though high school education is not as relevant to a dental hygienist’s career path as college-level education, having a strong background in the right high-school courses can be helpful to aspiring dental hygienists.

High school courses that are important in the field of dental hygiene include:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Health
  • Mathematics

Being well-versed in these subjects can ensure dental hygienist students have a strong foundation on which to build their postsecondary education.

Associate’s Degree-Level Education

An associate’s degree is the most common level of education attained by dental hygienists. Associate’s degree programs in dental hygiene take around two years to complete, and combine career-focused courses on dental hygiene with basic general-education classes in subjects such as science, math, and communications.

Some of the subjects that might be studied in an associate’s-level dental hygienist education program are:

  • Medical Terminology
  • English
  • Chemistry
  • Communications
  • Psychology
  • Preclinical Dental Hygiene
  • Dental Hygiene Practice & Theory
  • Oral Radiology
  • Anatomy of the Head and Neck
  • Dental Pharmacology

These programs are designed for students with a high-school-level education, and provide a complete education in basic dental hygiene practice and theory, as well as underlying foundation courses. Generally, an associate’s degree is all a dental hygienist needs to pursue licensing for general practice.

Certificate-Level Education

Dental hygienists may also be employed with a certificate in dental hygiene. Certificate programs typically last nine months to a year and are designed to supplement an existing degree, such as a completed associate’s degree in another healthcare field. Since these programs supplement an existing degree, they include only core courses in dental hygiene.

Certificate-level subjects studied by dental hygiene students may include:

  • Dental Pharmacology
  • Histology
  • Periodontology
  • General and Oral Pathology
  • Oral Microbiology
  • Dental Hygiene Practice & Theory

Certificate programs in dental hygiene can prepare graduates to pursue licensing and practice in private dental offices.

Advanced Education

Dental hygienists who wish to advance beyond private dental practice, into fields such as dental hygiene research or government employment, typically need an advanced education such as a bachelor’s degree or higher. Dental hygienists in advanced roles are expected to represent the highest levels of training in dental hygiene, and thus study more advanced subjects than basic practice calls for, or study the same subjects to a greater depth.

Bachelor’s degree programs in dental hygiene usually last four years. A master’s degree-level education usually takes an additional two years beyond the bachelor’s degree.

Some of the topics covered in these programs may include:

  • Dental Hygiene Practicum
  • Dental Hygiene Radiology
  • Clinical Periodontics
  • Anesthesia
  • Public Health Dentistry

In general, the higher the level of education achieved by a dental hygienist, the more job responsibilities they can take on and the higher the salary they can expect.

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