Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist Differences

The dental field is a secure, stable job industry that offers excellent pay and benefits as well as good working conditions. Many people don’t realize that a dental assistant and dental hygienist are two different professions, but they are. While both offer excellent opportunities, they have their differences, so it’s a good idea to have a better understanding of each so that you can make a more informed decision.

It’s important that aspiring students are informed about the many opportunities in the medical and dental field that do not require extensive schooling and degrees. While it takes many years to become a dentist, you can reach your goals of employment in the dental field in a much shorter time. Dental assisting and dental hygiene are two growing opportunities in the field of dentistry that are realistic for people of all ages and education levels, from students just leaving high school to people well past their 30’s who are looking for a new career.

What Is A Dental Assistant?

A dental assistant has a long list of varied duties and responsibilities. This job requires a great deal of patient interaction and common duties include: prepping patients for dental procedures, assisting the dentist during procedures, taking x-rays, making impressions of teeth, ensuring patients are comfortable during procedures and treatments, prepping the work area, ensuring safety and sanitation, communicating with patients, helping the dentist with workflow and patient relations and a variety of other tasks. Dental assistants may or may not also perform administrative tasks relevant to the job.

What Is A Dental Hygienist?

While the dental assistant spends much of his or her time working directly with dentists, assisting them during procedures and providing a bridge between the dentist and patient, the dental hygienist tends to work more independently with the patient. Dental hygienists duties include but are not limited to cleaning teeth, removing plaque and tartar build-up, applying cleaning and protecting agents to teeth, taking x-rays, counseling patients on oral care and hygiene, performing oral cancer screenings, taking patient information and providing follow-up care.

When you go to your dentist for routine cleanings with no additional procedures, you are likely only meeting with a dental hygienist rather than a dentist.

While the dental hygienist tends to work more independently, they are still under the supervision of the dentist. The dental hygienist may also have additional administrative duties, such as updating charts, patient intake and maintaining patient data.

The primary difference lies in the fact that the dental assistant spends less time working independently of the dentist, and more time assisting the dentist. Both positions offer plenty of patient interaction and care, but the dental hygienist does spend more time working directly with the patient, and does not normally sit in on procedures such as fillings and root canals, whereas the dental assistant will be present and assisting those types of procedures.

Are There Differences In Education?

The requirements for both professions will vary from state to state, however both do require proper licensing and certifications. Many colleges and vocational schools offer programs for both fields. Dental hygienists typically must complete an Associates Degree in dental hygiene, with total schooling lasting approximately 3 years. For dental assistants, there are vocational courses that result in a certificate. You can expect to spend at least one year getting the appropriate coursework for certification as a dental assistant.

Are There Differences In Pay?

Both dental assisting and dental hygiene offer competitive pay and benefits, however there is a difference. Dental assistants typically earn an average of $36,000 per year. Salaries will vary from practice to practice, and depending on where you live, experience, etc. You may make more than this as a dental assistant, or in some areas, you may make less.

The dental hygienist earns more than the dental assistant, with a median income of around $73,000 per year. This is a fairly significant jump from the dental assistant position. For those thinking long-term, the difference in pay does seem to more than make up for the extra year or two of schooling.

It is worth noting that the dental hygienist not only requires more schooling, but is also a position that requires more intensive responsibility and patient care, however, both positions are equally fast-paced and in demand. You’ll have to look carefully at each job and take into consideration your own needs for job satisfaction, schooling and pay to determine which is right for you.

Which Career Is Right For You?

As with anything, only you can decide. The dental hygienist job tends to attract people who wish to work more independently and develop a different kind of relationship with their patients. Dental Assistants tend to enjoy the sense of teamwork they get working closely with a dentist.

Both positions offer good schedules. While dentists do work weekends and evenings, shifts are still reasonable, and you’ll likely work a five day workweek. You may have the opportunity to work part time if you choose, and will have some flexibility. You’ll enjoy medical benefits and paid holidays and vacations, and you’ll be able to find work in any state in the country, as well as opportunities outside of the country. Naturally, you’ll want to check requirements for licensing and certification anywhere you go, as these can vary from state to state.

If you are considering a career as a dental assistant or a dental hygienist, or if you can’t decide, the best thing you can do is investigate your options further. Talk to a career counselor, or inquire about programs that offer coursework for each profession. Both jobs can have you working in the field in less time than it takes to get a bachelor’s degree. This is often important to those who want and need to get into the workforce sooner rather than later.

Avatar photo
Written by Robert Sanchez
Robert Sanchez is's Chief Editorialist. Robert Sanchez has over 10 years experience in the Healthcare field and more recently has become an avid writer advising on career and job topics in this exciting field.

More posts from Robert Sanchez