Dental Hygienist or Dental Assistant?

HealthcareSeptember 04, 2020

If you are considering a career in dentistry, you may have thought about becoming a dental hygienist or a dental assistant. While they sound similar, these jobs differ in their responsibilities as well as the level of training required for each position. By understanding the differences, you can make an informed decision about which path to take.


Dental hygienists are licensed healthcare professionals and respected members of the dental team, providing advanced preventative, educational, and therapeutic services. Their responsibilities include cleaning and polishing patients’ teeth, using tools to remove tartar and plaque, and taking and developing x-rays. Hygienists also apply fluoride treatments and sealants and may remove sutures and dressings following oral surgeries. In addition to these responsibilities, they will assess and chart the oral health of patients' teeth, gums, and mouth, performing important work that ultimately helps the dentist complete a dental exam.

Dental assistants are also respected members of the dental team and support dentists in a variety of ways. First, they prepare the room as well as disinfect and lay out equipment prior to dental procedures, such as filling cavities or performing root canals. During the procedure, they will sit chair-side to help the dentist by passing equipment or operating suction tubing. Dental assistants may conduct small, supervised tasks with patients, such as taking impressions, applying sealants, and obtaining x-rays. They also provide patients with general and post-operative oral healthcare instructions and may follow up with patients after a procedure. Dental assistants also perform office tasks, such as filing, billing patients, processing payments, and ordering dental supplies.


To become a dental hygienist, you will need to earn an occupational associate degree. Additionally, graduates will be required to successfully pass credentialing exams and receive licensing from their state, which can vary by location.  

In contrast, training to become a dental assistant is less extensive. Students need to complete a certified program that takes about a year of instruction and prepares you to take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam which is administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

Job Outlook

Technology advances in dentistry have increased the number of procedures that are routinely performed in a dentist’s office. As a result, job prospects continue to be strong for both dental hygienists and dental assistants. Dentists are expected to hire more dental assistants, and dental hygienists rank among the fastest-growing occupations nationally with favorable job prospects in most areas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whether you choose to pursue the role of dental hygienist or dental assistant, Fortis can help you prepare for an entry-level position. To schedule a tour at one of our campuses, visit the Dental page on the Fortis website, or call (855) 436-7847 for more information.