Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant: What's the Difference?

HealthcareNovember 02, 2023

Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant: What’s the Difference?

Dental care is an essential part of both overall and daily health and hygiene. Research shows that proper oral health practices are often a key indicator of good overall health.  Dentists look to dental assistants and dental hygienists to help them provide high-quality and comprehensive oral healthcare to their patients. While the roles may sound similar, they have different responsibilities and different education requirements, making it important that prospective students understand the difference between a dental assistant vs. dental hygienist before pursuing their education.

For those interested in a healthcare career but who aren’t inclined to dedicate the many years of training to becoming a dentist, both assistants and hygienists have the opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of patients. By earning an education, such as through a dental assistant training program or an associate degree in dental hygiene program, graduates can enter the workforce with confidence and take the next step toward their professional goals. 

What’s a Dental Assistant? 

Dental assistants play a key role in ensuring the smooth and effective operation of dental practices. Tasked with providing assistance for varying dental procedures, the scheduling process, disinfecting and organizing tools, and basic administrative duties, dental assistants provide dentists with the support they need to work efficiently. 

When choosing between becoming a dental assistant vs. dental hygienist, prospective students may want to consider if they’re inclined to balance both administrative and patient care or prefer patient-facing duties. 

Dental Assistant Duties and Responsibilities              

Dental assistants work closely with patients before, during, and after procedures. As their name implies, they assist the dentist during exams, root canals, crowns, fillings, and other tasks. Dental assistants also take and develop X-rays as well as impressions of patients’ teeth for making models. 

Dental assistants will also prepare and sterilize instruments and equipment before procedures and provide the patient with oral care instructions afterward. In some offices, dental assistants will take care of administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments and making reminder calls. 

Dental Assistant Skills             

Balancing both administrative and patient-facing tasks, dental assistants must build a combination of hard and soft skills to succeed. These skills include the following:

  • Communication and Teamwork. Dental assistants work with both patients and other dental professionals; therefore, they must have strong listening and communication skills.
  • Time Management. Dental assistants are often tasked with ensuring that patient visits run on time and handling an office’s scheduling.
  • Organization and Attention to Detail. From sterilizing tools to assisting in procedures, dental assistants must prioritize cleanliness and organization to ensure that dentists and their patients have the tools they need to succeed.
  • Empathy and Compassion. Oral care can be intimidating for many patients; by approaching patient concerns with understanding, dental assistants can help to both ease appointment anxiety and encourage patients to be more comfortable seeking dental care. 

What’s a Dental Hygienist?

Dental hygienists are in demand across the country. As skilled medical professionals, licensed dental hygienists are trained to provide preventive oral care to patients and assist dentists with comprehensive or advanced care services. In deciding between becoming a dental assistant vs. dental hygienist, consider that dental hygienists require more extensive training, allowing them to take on more challenging tasks and fulfill a more hands-on role in patient care. 

To become a dental hygienist, students need to complete a focused academic program and earn an associate degree in dental hygiene.  

Dental Hygienist Duties and Responsibilities

Dental hygienists are licensed oral healthcare professionals. While they may perform some of the same duties as dental assistants, their role has a different level of responsibility. 

For example, dental hygienists work closely with patients, collecting information about their oral and medical health history. They use tools to remove calculus, stains, and plaque deposits from the teeth, and they perform preventive steps, such as fluoride treatments. Dental hygienists make molds of patients’ teeth that are used for evaluating treatment, and they chart patients’ dental conditions for the dentist.

Dental Hygienist Skills

Working alongside dentists, dental hygienists must build upon the skills of a dental assistant with the addition of advanced skills including the following:

  • Technical Skills. More complex procedures require dental hygienists to cultivate a thorough understanding of dental equipment, human anatomy, and healthcare technology.
  • Problem-Solving. Dental hygienists often perform basic care procedures independently, making the ability to think clearly and make an informed decision essential to quality patient care.
  • Patience and Physical Stamina. Not all healthcare procedures go according to plan. Whether dental hygienists are assisting a dentist or performing a procedure themselves, the oral healthcare they provide can require a great deal of patience and stamina.

Differences Between a Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

Dental assistants and dental hygienists have the opportunity to explore a challenging and fulfilling career as oral health professionals. While they’re similar in many ways, choosing between becoming a dental assistant or a dental hygienist can depend on whether graduates are more interested in the procedural or organizational side of dentistry. For example, dental assistants are more likely to handle the preparatory or administrative side of a dental practice, while dental hygienists are qualified to provide more complex procedures.

One major difference is the education required to pursue each role. Becoming a dental hygienist requires more extensive training, with many states allowing dental assistants to seek their training on the job or through a diploma program that often only requires a year to complete. In contrast, dental hygienists must complete, at minimum, an associate degree, with many going on to complete a bachelor’s- or master’s-level degree training throughout their career, earning an advanced training that allows them additional responsibilities and workplace autonomy. 

Depending on their level of education and experience, dental hygienists can increase their earning potential or pursue more senior roles than dental assistants, using an advanced education to further their career. For those wondering whether becoming a dental assistant vs. dental hygienist is right for them, much of the decision may rely on future professional goals, understanding that by beginning with a more intensive education, they can more easily pursue additional certifications and advancement.

Challenge Yourself with a Fulfilling Career as a Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist

Careers in healthcare can be both incredibly challenging and fulfilling. By pursuing a role as either a dental assistant or a dental hygienist, future oral care professionals have the opportunity to make a meaningful impact in the lives of others while exploring the medical field and choosing a career trajectory that’s right for them.

Through the Fortis dental assisting training program or the dental hygienist associate degree program,  students can build the foundational knowledge and skills they need to begin pursuing a career as an oral health professional. Discover how an education from Fortis can help you enter the workforce and reach your goals. 

Recommended Readings
5 Tips to Handle Workplace Stress in a Busy Medical or Dental Office
Beyond the Dentist’s Chair: Career Opportunities for Dental Assistants
Role of Dental Hygienists and Assistants in Pediatric Dental Care

Houston Chronicle, “Should I Become a Dental Hygienist or a Dental Assistant?”
Indeed, Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant: How They Differ
Indeed, What Does a Dental Assistant Do? (Plus Salary and Job Outlook)
Indeed, What Does a Dental Hygienist Do? (With FAQs and Tips)
Indeed, What Is a Dental Hygienist?
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dental Assistants
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dental Hygienists