Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Exploring the Differences and Similarities

What’s the difference between a dental hygienist and a dental assistant? Broadly speaking, a dental assistant provides aid directly to dentists during routine procedures and may be authorized take x-rays or perform small procedures under supervision. In contrast, a dental hygienist works directly with patients performing teeth cleanings and oral examinations with minimal or no supervision.

In this article, we’ll take a much closer look at the key differences and similarities between these two professions and help you determine what might be the right career path for you.

Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant Comparison Chart

  Dental Assistant Dental Hygienist
Common Duties Assisting dentists, preparing patients for procedures Cleaning teeth, oral examinations, patient hygiene education
Entry Level Education Certificate or diploma College or advanced degree
Projected Job Growth 7% through 2032 7% through 2032
Certification Required Varies by state Varies by state
Where they work Dental offices and clinics (90%) Dental offices and clinics (93%)

Typical Job Duties of Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists

While dental assistants and dental hygienists both play important support roles, the scope of their duties varies significantly.

Dental assistants work closely with the dentist to aid in routine procedures. They may be asked to take dental impressions, prep patients for procedures and help with suctioning and rinsing during dental procedures. Dental assistants may also take patient x-rays and escort them from the waiting area to the dentist’s chair. The scope of what dental assistants do on a daily basis is wide ranging and requires great multitasking and organizational skills. Job duties will vary based on the dental practice and state regulations.

Dental hygienists, on the other hand, work independently with patients to perform routine cleanings, examine patients for oral cancer, perform gum treatments and instruct patients on how to properly care for their teeth. Hygienists may also refer patients out to periodontal specialists for advanced gum surgery or other procedures.

  • Work with dentists
  • Prepare patients for procedures
  • Interact with patients

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Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist Salary Comparison

The national median annual salary for dental assistants is $44,820 per year as of 2022. Dental hygienists earn a median annual salary of $81,400 as of 2022. While hygienists have a higher salary, the job requires more schooling at a higher cost. Salaries for both dental hygienist and dental assistants will vary based on location, dental office, level of experience and state. 

Where do They Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 91 percent of dental assistants work in a dental office. Types of dental offices include:

  • Dental Clinics
  • Oral Surgery Centers
  • Pediatric Dentistry
  • Reconstructive Dentistry
  • Cosmetic Dentistry

For dental hygienists, 95 percent work in a dental office of some kind, including:

  • Family dentistry
  • General Dentistry
  • Cosmetic Dentistry

A smaller percentage of both dental assistants and dental hygienists work in government or in the offices of physicians.

How to Become a Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist

While on-the-job training is sometimes offered, most dental assistants have received postsecondary education at a vocational training school or community college. For those who want to become a dental assistant, a dental assistant program from a vocational school is a great way to learn about key processes and prepare to take state-required licensing exams. These vocational schools offer diploma and certificate programs to people who have earned a high school diploma or GED. Learn more about how to become a dental assistant.

Delta Technical College offers a 9-month dental assisting program that provides students entry-level theory and hands-on training in both basic and routine clinical and office tasks. This program equips the dental assistant student to:

  • assist in laboratory procedures, x-ray procedures, CPR and patient assessments
  • perform sterilization and infection control techniques, clinical procedures and equipment maintenance
  • effectively handle administrative office procedures, including electronic record keeping, keyboarding, billing, coding, insurance claims and scheduling

The training required to become a dental hygienist is different. Many dental hygienists have earned either a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited college or university. Applying for and getting accepted into a dental hygienist program can be more difficult and time consuming.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist?

College Total Time Semester Credits Award
Delta Tech 9 Months 26 Diploma

Becoming a dental hygienist on the other hand, requires a minimum of two years of dental hygienist training for an associate’s degree. Some dental hygienists may decide to obtain additional schooling, for example, four years for a bachelor’s and another one-to-two years on average for a master’s degree.

Degree Total Time Credits
Associate 2 years 84
Bachelor 4 years 120
Masters 1-2 years varies

You can see why training for a career in dental assisting is appealing to those looking for a faster path to a new career that doesn’t involve years of schooling or potentially taking on higher student debt.

Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist, Which is Right for You?

Choosing your career path is a big decision. If you like the thought of working closely with dentists and patients and assisting with important procedures that help people, becoming a dental assistant might be a great option for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy the prospect of working independently and have the time and resources to attend a two to four year college program, dental hygiene could be a worthwhile career choice. Think dental assisting is the right career path for you? Get in touch with Delta Tech by requesting more information to learn more about our dental assistant training program or to schedule your first campus visit!