Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant: What's the DIfference?

Updated on 03/13/2024


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  1. While Dental Hygienists may earn higher salaries, Dental Assistants benefit from shorter training durations.

  2. Approximately 358,600 dental assistant jobs were reported in 2021, with a projected 7% job growth from 2022 to 2032. 

  3. Around 214,000 dental hygienist jobs were reported in 2021, with a similar 7% job growth projection. 

  4. Dental Assistants must do on-the-job training or accredited programs, while dental hygienists require an associate degree.

Ever wondered about the key differences between dental assistant vs dental hygienist? As you sit in the dentist's chair, observing the professionals at work, questions might arise about their roles, salaries, and educational paths. Are they interchangeable positions, or does each play a unique role in maintaining oral health?

So, in this guide, we’ll discuss the roles, educational requirements, skills, salaries, and more details about these professions so you can easily decide the right career path.

What is the Difference Between Dental Hygienist and Dental Assistant?

The main difference between a dental hygienist and dental assistant is that a dental hygienist is a licensed oral health professional who focuses on preventive dental care, conducting cleanings, and educating patients on oral hygiene practices. 

On the other hand, a dental assistant supports dentists by performing various tasks, such as sterilizing instruments, assisting during procedures, etc. Let’s discuss this difference in detail:

What's a Dental Assistant?


Dental Assistants (DAs) play a crucial part in maintaining dental health. They handle various tasks, such as disinfecting tools, capturing dental X-rays, and supporting dentists during examinations. Every day, Dental Assistants manage multiple responsibilities to ensure the smooth operation of dental offices. 

In this profession, DAs possess keen attention to detail, impressive manual skills, and assist dentists during patient check-ups.

What about a Dental Hygienist?

While both roles contribute to the dental team, a Dental Hygienist has specific duties unique to their role. They inspect patients for signs of oral diseases, offer preventive care, and educate patients on oral health and hygiene. Both positions suit people who enjoy hands-on work while caring for patients.

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Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist: Duties

Both roles have different duties. Dental assistants help dentists by handling tasks like patient care, instrument sterilization, and appointment management. On the other hand, dental hygienists concentrate on preventive oral care, conducting cleanings, educating patients on oral hygiene, and occasionally taking X-rays. The roles of both professions are defined below:

What's a Dental Assistant's Role?

Dental Assistants team up with dentists and Dental Hygienists, making it a great fit for those who love hands-on patient care. They play a crucial role in dental offices, serving as an extra pair of hands for the dentist. Here's a quick overview of their day-to-day tasks:

  • Ensuring patients feel comfortable in the dental chair

  • Preparing patients and the workspace for treatments

  • Assisting during oral surgeries

  • Sterilizing dental tools

  • Handing instruments to the dentist

  • Managing oral evacuations and keeping mouths dry

  • Creating dental impressions

  • Teaching proper oral hygiene to patients

  • Taking and processing dental X-rays

  • Handling lab tasks directed by the dentist

  • Installing fixed prosthodontics

  • Keeping track of dental inventory

  • Scheduling patient appointments

  • Assisting with patient billing and payments

In some states, Dental Assistants can also perform additional procedures like:

  • Coronal polishing (removing soft deposits for cleaner teeth)

  • Sealant application (sealing teeth against food and bacteria)

  • Fluoride application (applying fluoride for cavity prevention)

  • Topical anesthetic application (temporarily numbing an area for procedures).

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What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

While both roles support the dental team, Dental Hygienists have unique responsibilities. They focus on:

  • Removing tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth

  • Applying sealants and fluorides for teeth protection

  • Taking and developing dental X-rays

  • Assessing patients' oral health and reporting to dentists

  • Documenting patient care and treatment plans

  • Educating patients on proper oral hygiene practices, including brushing and flossing correctly.

Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist: Education 

The education requirement for dental assistants is a diploma or certificate program, which takes about 9-11 months. In contrast, dental hygienists need an associate degree, typically taking around 3 years, and you must also pass licensing exams for both professions.

Continue reading to learn more about these professions' educational requirements:

Dental Assistant

The educational path to becoming a Dental Assistant varies depending on your state. Some places don't demand formal education, allowing on-the-job training, while others require graduation from an accredited program and passing an exam.

Often lasting 9-11 months, these programs are commonly found in community colleges or vocational schools, leading to a certificate or diploma. Students learn through a mix of traditional classroom teaching and hands-on exercises. Many find real-world simulations the most exciting part of their program.

(Tip: High school students pursuing a dental assisting career should consider anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses. In some states, DAs may need additional certifications for expanded duties like coronal polishing.)

Dental Hygienist

To become a Dental Hygienist, you'll likely need an associate degree in dental hygiene, which typically takes around 3 years to complete. Licensing is necessary for all DHs, with some opting for further education like a bachelor's or master's degree, especially for research or teaching roles.

Community colleges, vocational schools, and universities offer these programs, with over 300 accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Subjects covered include anatomy, medical ethics, and periodontics (the study of gum disease).

(Tip: High school students aspiring to be dental hygienists should consider taking courses in anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and math. Remember that many DH programs require prerequisites, often involving college-level courses.)

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Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist: Work Environment and Job Outlook

Dental assistants commonly work in dental offices, handling administrative and patient care tasks. While dental hygienists usually work in dental offices as well, focusing on preventive care. Both professions have positive job outlooks (7% increase from 2022 - 2032) with a growing demand for oral healthcare services.

Below are some more details regarding job openings and the work environment:

Dental Assistant

As of 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that Dental Assistants held approximately 358,600 jobs

The number of dental assistant jobs is expected to increase by 7 percent from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average growth for all jobs.

Around 55,100 job openings for dental assistants are predicted annually over the next ten years. Most of these openings will occur because current workers are switching to other jobs or leaving the workforce, often due to retirement. They mainly worked in three main areas:

  • Offices of Dentists

  • Government

  • Offices of Physicians

Dental Assistants operate under the guidance of dentists, often assisting Dental Hygienists in their daily tasks. You might spot them wearing safety glasses, surgical masks, protective gear, and gloves. While many work full-time, some may have evening or weekend shifts.

Dental Hygienists

According to the BLS, Dental Hygienists held around 214,000 jobs, with dentists' offices being the primary employer (94%).

The number of jobs for dental hygienists is expected to increase by 7 percent from 2022 to 2032, which is faster than the average for all jobs.

Each year, an estimated 16,400 job openings for dental hygienists are anticipated on average over the next ten years. These openings are likely to occur because some workers are moving to different jobs or leaving the workforce, often due to retirement.

Similar to Dental Assistants, Dental Hygienists adhere to safety protocols, donning safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves. However, many Dental Hygienists work part-time, as some dentists only require their services for a few days each week. Consequently, dental hygienists might find themselves working for multiple dentists.

Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist Salary

Now let’s move on to dental assistant vs dental hygienist pay. According to the BLS, dental assistants can make about $45,000 per year or around $22 per hour. However, this can vary based on where you work and your experience level.

On the other hand, the BLS states that the average salary for a Dental Hygienist is around $85,000 per year or approximately $41 per hour.

Why Should You Prefer Choosing a Dental Assistant Program?

You might encounter some misconceptions when considering careers as Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists. These professions are valuable but differ in various ways. While Dental Hygienists may earn higher salaries, Dental Assistants enjoy several benefits. 

Their programs require less time in school, offering opportunities for experience, potential office management, additional licenses, credentials, specialties, and more.

Here are some benefits of becoming a Dental Assistant:

Shorter Duration and Affordability

Compared to Dental Hygienist programs, Dental Assistant training is quicker and more cost-effective. For example, Unitek College's DA program can be finished in 10 months, while Dental Hygienist programs usually take three years.

High Demand and Job Opportunities

Aspiring Dental Assistants can anticipate a job growth rate nearly double the average for all occupations. Additionally, DAs have over three times as many job openings as Dental Hygienists. The demand is high, and opportunities are expected to increase, especially with the aging population.

Career Growth and Advancement

Dental Assisting offers room for career advancement. Some states permit DAs to take on expanded duties, like coronal polishing, requiring additional licenses or certifications. Unitek College graduates receive certificates in various areas, adding value to their careers. While not initially required, these certificates can align with a student's career goals, making them eligible for professional certification exams.

Versatility and Collaboration

Like Medical Assistants in healthcare, Dental Assistants fulfill clinical and administrative roles. Their tasks range from aiding dentists during exams to scheduling appointments and welcoming patients. Dental Assistants experience versatility and collaboration, ensuring there's never a dull moment in their job.

Job Satisfaction and Patient Interaction

Dental Assistants spend much time interacting with patients, providing preparation, assistance, and comfort. This patient interaction brings significant job satisfaction. Unlike Dental Hygienists, who often perform similar daily tasks, Dental Assistants can expect a variety of responsibilities in their daily routines.

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The roles of dental assistants vs dental hygienists are integral to maintaining oral health within dental offices. While both professions require specific skill sets and responsibilities, they offer unique pathways for those interested in dentistry. Moreover, the educational requirements, job outlook, and salary prospects vary between the two professions, providing you with options to pursue based on your career goals. Ultimately, both Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists contribute significantly to the overall well-being of patients and the dental community.


Is A Dental Hygienist The Same As A Dental Assistant?

No, they’re not the same. A dental hygienist primarily focuses on preventive oral care and cleanings. In contrast, a dental assistant supports dentists in various tasks, including chairside assistance and administrative duties.

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Aneeb Ahmad

Update at 03/13/2024

Aneeb is a full-stack SEO & Content Marketer. He drives our inbound marketing efforts on all touchpoints & writes just about everything under the sun! He loves talking about football when he’s not wordsmithing. Email: aneebahmad1@gmail.com

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