Dental Assistant vs. Hygienist: Side-by-Side Comparison

When it comes time to visit a dental clinic, most patients expect to have their teeth examined by a dentist. However, the majority of the time spent at a dentists’ office is in the care of dental assistants and hygienists. While both assistants and hygienists care for the needs of dental patients, these two careers have distinct roles and duties, as well as different educational and licensure pathways.

Dental assistants perform a wide range of dental and administrative patient care duties. They handle the logistics of a dental patient’s visit—leading patients to examination chairs, ensuring patient comfort, preparing and sterilizing dental instruments, processing x-rays and laboratory tasks, educating patients on healthy oral hygiene practices, scheduling follow-up appointments, and handling billing and payment requests. In some states, dental assistants are allowed to perform limited dental procedures such as coronal polishing and the application of sealants, fluoride, and topical anesthetic.

By comparison, dental hygienists are largely responsible for cleaning teeth, examining patients for oral diseases, and educating patients on preventative dental care practices. They use many types of specialized dental tools to perform their job including hand, power, and ultrasonic tools. Dental hygienists take x-rays of patients’ mouths to check for problems with teeth or jaw alignment. They remove tartar, stains, and plaque from patients’ teeth, apply sealant and fluoride treatments, complete oral health assessments and report their findings to dentists, take notes about patient care and treatment plans, and educate patients on how to properly brush and floss teeth for optimum dental health.

Education and certification requirements differ for dental assistants and dental hygienists; individual states also have unique career pathways. Dental assistant requirements vary the most; some states require no formal education in lieu of on-the-job training, while other states require students to graduate from a one- or two-year dental assistant vocational program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), an organization associated with the American Dental Association (ADA). Some states require dental assistants to earn nationally-recognized certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

Dental hygienists are typically required to earn an associate’s degree in dental hygiene and more than 300 dental hygiene programs are accredited through CODA. Associate’s degree programs in dental hygiene typically take two years to complete and include courses such as anatomy and physiology, nutrition, radiography, pathology, medical ethics, and patient management. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees are less common and only required for dental hygienists focusing on research, teaching, or clinical practice in public dental health programs. Laboratory and clinical courses give dental hygiene students hands-on experience in addition to classroom instruction. Every state requires dental hygienists to be licensed and requirements for each state are set forth by each individual state’s board of dental examiners.

While dental assistants and hygienists both care for the needs of dental patients, these two careers have distinct duties as well as educational and licensure pathways. In order to effectively care for the needs of dental patients, both assistants and hygienists must possess specialized dental knowledge and demonstrate certain skills including hand dexterity, attention to detail, clear communication, and strong interpersonal skills.

Most dental clinics also require dental assistants and hygienists to maintain current cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification. Notably, both careers are experiencing a much faster than average rate of national growth; data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a national rate of 19 percent growth for dental assistants and a 20 percent rate of growth for dental hygienists between 2016 and 2026, meaning 64,600 and 40,900 new jobs will be created in each respective field.

Read on to explore the unique professional, educational, and licensure differences between dental assistants and dental hygienists.

Side-by-Side Comparison of Dental Assistant & Dental Hygienist Careers

Dental Assistant Dental Hygienist
Definition Dental assistants perform a range of tasks related to patient care and administrative clinical work. Dental hygienists clean and polish patients’ teeth, perform dental health examinations to check for oral diseases, and educate patients on best dental practices.
Typical Responsibilities
  • Lead patients to dental chairs and ensure their comfort
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Prepare clinical work areas for dental treatment procedures
  • Give instruments to dentists during dental procedures
  • Dry patients’ mouths using suction hoses
  • Process x-rays
  • Complete laboratory tasks
  • Update patient records
  • Schedule appointments with patients
  • Assist patients with billing and payment questions
  • Remove plaque, tartar, and stains from patients’ teeth
  • Apply sealants and fluoride treatments to protect teeth from decay
  • Take and develop dental x-rays
  • Assess the oral health of patients and give health reports to dentists
  • Document patient records and prescribed treatment plans
  • Inform patients how to select oral hygiene tools (e.g., toothbrushes and floss)
  • Educate patients on proper brushing and flossing methods
Education On-the-job training in place of formal education is accepted in some states. Other states require students to complete a one or two-year dental assistant vocational program accredited by CODA. An associate’s degree in dental hygiene is typically required and takes approximately two years to complete. More than 300 dental hygiene programs are accredited through CODA.
Work Environments
  • Private dental clinics
  • Public health clinics
  • Physician clinics
  • Private dental clinics
  • Public health clinics
  • Physician clinics
Median Salary $38,660 per year or $18.59 per hour (BLS, 2018) $74,820 per year or $35.97 per hour (BLS, 2018)
Licensing & Certification Licensing requirements for dental assistants vary by state; some states require dental assistants to earn nationally-recognized certifications through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Current CPR certification is required for employment by most clinics. Licensure is required by all states for dental hygienists. Each state has unique requirements for dental hygienists as determined by the states’ board of dental examiners. Current CPR certification is required for employment by most clinics.
The Bottom Line Dental assistants provide dental and administrative care for patients and assist dental professionals with clinical procedures. They have contact with patients from the moment they walk into the door, ensuring patient comfort, setting up the room for dental procedures, sterilizing equipment, and handing tools to dentists or dental hygienists during a patient procedure. Some states allow dental assistants to perform basic dental procedures and dental assistants handle administrative tasks such as appointment scheduling and billing and payment questions. Dental hygienists’ responsibilities are largely centered on patient care. They clean and polish teeth, perform examinations to identify and prevent oral diseases such as gingivitis, and do basic oral cancer screenings. They are responsible for assessing patients’ overall oral health and delivering oral summaries to a dentist prior to examination. Dental hygienists advise patients on what types of oral health tools (e.g., toothbrushes and floss) are best for their individual needs, and educate patients on proper brushing and flossing homecare techniques to promote good oral health practices.