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

dental assistant smiling at camera with x-ray image on computer

If you’re interested in a career that involves health, science, and caring for people, dentistry may be the perfect fit. And there are many possible paths your dental career can take. Dentists are usually the face of a practice, but they can’t do it alone. Dental assistants and hygienists also provide patient care, and offices couldn’t operate without their valuable contributions. These two roles may sound similar and can sometimes get confused for each other, but they’re very different!

Whether you’re just starting your dental journey or looking for your next career move, let’s break down the differences between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist so you can choose the right path for you.

Dental assistant

What does a dental assistant do?

A dental assistant performs a variety of essential duties with patients and around the office. Their responsibilities may include:

  • Greeting and checking in patients
  • Preparing and sterilizing exam rooms and instruments
  • Taking dental x-rays
  • Assisting the dentist with procedures
  • Giving patients post-treatment care instructions

Duties may vary depending on your credentials and the state you work in.

Most assistants work in a general dental office, but they’re also needed in specialty practices — such as orthodontic and oral surgery — where they often perform more complex tasks. They can work on a part-time or full-time basis, and some travel to different practices as temporary or traveling dental assistants.

How do you become a dental assistant?

Many practices hire dental assistants with minimal experience and provide training while they begin to work. Other practices prefer to hire dental assistants who have formal education and training.

You can complete some dental assisting programs in a few weeks. Other dental assisting programs take about 6 to 9 months. By completing a longer dental assisting program, you can gain more knowledge and applicable experience that can prepare you for the job and make you more marketable to practices. DANB provides resources to help you select a dental assisting school and search for accredited programs.

State requirements are another factor to consider. To perform specific duties in some states, you may be required to graduate from a dental assisting program, pass exams, or complete continuing education courses.

After you’ve completed your education and gained some experience, earning dental assisting certification may be your next move. DANB certification is nationally recognized and comes with many benefits, including pride, confidence, advanced knowledge, more job satisfaction, and higher pay. Some states may also require DANB certification to perform certain duties. Check the dental assisting requirements in your state for more details.

Learn more: On-the-job training vs. dental assisting school

Dental hygienist

What does a dental hygienist do?

A dental hygienist typically works with patients one-on-one and is responsible for preventive care such as examining and removing plaque. More specifically, a hygienist’s duties can include:

  • Reviewing patients’ health and dental history
  • Removing plaque, tartar, and stains
  • Applying sealants and fluoride treatments
  • Screening for oral conditions such as tooth decay, gingivitis, periodontitis, and cancer
  • Taking and interpreting dental x-rays
  • Educating patients on dental health, proper hygiene, and nutrition

Dentists perform more advanced procedures than hygienists, such as making official diagnoses on oral health issues, formulating treatment plans, filling cavities, and repairing damaged teeth.

How do you become a dental hygienist?

Unlike in dental assisting, formal education is required to be a hygienist. Most practices require at least an associate degree from a CODA-accredited dental hygiene program, and some prefer you to have a bachelor’s degree. Hygiene programs are offered by many community colleges, universities, technical schools, and dental schools.

Programs typically take two to four years to complete, depending on the degree you pursue. Students must then pass written and clinical exams to obtain their dental hygiene license. Specific licensing requirements vary by state.

Choosing your dental career path

Both dental assisting and dental hygiene are fulfilling, important careers. If you’re ready to jump into your career as soon as possible, dental assisting may be right for you. Many dental professionals begin their careers as assistants and transition to hygiene. In fact, former dental assistants can make fantastic hygienists because they already have in-depth dental knowledge, know how an office operates on a daily basis, and are highly skilled at working with patients.

Read more: 3 reasons dental assistants love their jobs