If you’re not familiar with the dental world, it’s easy to mix up the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist.

However, within the dental industry, the titles and roles are not interchangeable by any means.

Dental assistants usually go through an accredited program that includes a combination of classwork and lab work. Programs generally take less time and result in a dental assistant certificate. Dental hygienists, on the other hand, typically need a 2-year degree and a license to practice.

Both are invaluable roles in the dental field with promising job growth outlooks.

So how do you choose which role to pursue?

Here we’ll share the difference between the two positions and what you can expect.

Who’s Who at the Dentist’s Office?

When you get into that dentist’s chair, you probably don't notice the difference between a hygienist or assistant unless they tell you, but both have important duties in dental settings.

Additionally, both careers are on the rise according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics with dental assistants seeing a 19% growth and a 20% growth for hygienists. Both work under the supervision of a dentist to complete duties related to patient dental care. These dental care team professionals also interact with patients to some extent, but hygienists do more so.

Dental Assistant

Dental assistant roles typically take on a mix of patient care and administrative duties. From taking x-rays to recordkeeping and scheduling appointments, duties vary by state and by dental office. If you love being on the move all day and socializing with patients and coworkers, this role is likely a good fit for you.

What the role looks like:

  • Helps with office tasks like scheduling and billing
  • Works with patients on insurance and billing issues
  • Helps patients into chairs and ensures they’re comfortable
  • Advises patients on proper oral habits
  • Sterilizes and lays out dental equipment for exams and procedures
  • Prepares patient for exam
  • Assists the dentist or hygienist with exams – handing tools over
  • May perform some lab duties and x-ray processing with supervision

In some states, assistants are allowed to perform the following duties, but in others, these are restricted to a hygienist: polishing, sealing, applying fluoride or topical anesthetic.

Education requirements: Some states require a license or dental assistant certification. It’s less costly to get a certification compared to the degree required for hygienists.

Salary: $38,660

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists get to offer more in the way of patient education than assistants. If you love helping people and staying updated on dental trends to help patients create healthy oral habits, this role is for you.

Cleaning patients’ teeth is a big one, but there’s even more to it. Hygienists examine patients for signs of oral diseases like gingivitis and offer insights and education to patients on preventive dental care.

What the role looks like:

  • Less supervised role than assistant
  • Works more directly with patients than assistant
  • Cleans tarter, stains, and plaque buildup from the patient’s teeth
  • Take and process x-rays
  • Assess the patient’s oral health and shares details with dentist
  • Records patient treatments
  • Documents care plans
  • Applies sealants and fluoride treatments
  • Educates patients on proper brushing and flossing techniques
  • Advises on food, drinks, types of toothbrushes, water pics, etc.

Tasks vary by state – in some states, hygienists can diagnose some diseases.

Education requirements: Hygienists typically have an associate’s degree in dental hygiene. Requirements vary by state, but all hygienists must be licensed.

Salary: $74,820

Choosing Between the Two Depends on Your Career Goals

Both roles are important and keep the dentist’s office running smoothly.

A dental assistant certificate can boost your resume when looking for jobs, and it’s also a more affordable route than diving straight into hygienist school. Dental hygienists often get to work solo and in tandem with dentists more often than an assistant may. Their schooling is longer because of their responsibility for taking part in patient oral education.

Becoming a dental assistant first may help you get in the door of a dental practice sooner. It also provides the base training for furthering your education to become a dental hygienist if you decide you want to be in the dental field for life.


To learn more about dental assisting in particular, visit our dental assistant certification information page.

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Writter by MedCerts Team
Published on May 31, 2019

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