Dental Hygienists: The Evolution of the Profession

HealthcareMarch 03, 2021

March is International Women’s Month, and it’s a good time to recognize the important role women play in the field of dentistry. Ninety-eight percent of registered dental hygienists in the United States are female, and 94 percent of dental assistants are women. And while fewer dentists are female—just 34.5 percent, according to the American Dental Association—the number has grown by more than 10 percent since 2010. Dental hygienists work under the supervision of a dentist and provide a range of care to patients. 

Women have played a critical role in oral hygiene since the 1800s. An article in RDH magazine, a publication for dental hygienists, looked at the evolution of the job over the years. 

How the Job Started

The official role of a dental hygienist started in 1906 when Bridgeport, Conn. dentist Alfred C. Fones trained his assistant, Irene Newman, to scale and polish teeth. Fones changed Newman’s title from dental nurse to dental hygienist. Fones would eventually train nearly 100 dental hygiene students who were licensed and allowed to practice, and he’s considered to be the founder of the dental hygiene profession.
Connecticut became the first state to allow dental cleaning procedures by a trained dental hygienist, and in 1914, state dental hygiene associations began to form. In 1923, the national hygiene organization American Dental Hygienists’ Association was officially launched. 

Later Years

The 1960s saw some “firsts” in dental hygiene. During this decade, fluoride and sealants became widely used to prevent tooth decay. And the first national board exam for hygienists was given in April 1962. 

The 1970s became a decade of change for hygienists. For example, the National Board changed its exam to become function oriented. Hygienists’ uniforms also changed from dresses to pants in order to facilitate easier sitting. The first dental hygienist was appointed to a state board of dentistry in Maryland in 1974. And in 1974, the average hourly wage for a dental hygienist was $6.00. 

When HIV/AIDS was identified in the 1980s, the need for personal protective equipment (now known as PPE) was identified and hygienists started wearing gloves, eyewear, and a mask while providing treatment.

During the 1990s, hygienists’ treatment responsibilities expanded. Although specific responsibilities depend upon the state regulations, many hygienists were allowed to perform additional dental functions due to a greater demand for access to care. Ultrasonic treatments became more routine, and more patients sought out teeth whitening and esthetical procedures. In 1995, the average hourly wage for a dental hygienist had increased to $18. 

Today’s Industry

Working under the supervision of a dentist, hygienists are able to offer patients more treatment options than ever before. For example, many provide periodontal therapy not previously available. Some hygienists also irrigate periodontal pockets and use soft-tissue laser treatments for periodontal care. And some states allow registered dental hygienists to administer nitrous oxide under direct supervision. 

The role has changed dramatically since Irene Newman first stepped into it more than 100 years ago. Many hygienists say they love their role because it allows them a chance to improve patients’ health, educate the public on oral health, and give back through a variety of volunteer opportunities.

The Future

As new advancements and technology are introduced, dental hygienists will remain indispensable members of the healthcare team. If you’re considering becoming a dental hygienist or a dental assistant, Fortis can help you get started. 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.