Dental Hygienist

A dental hygienist removes plaque and tartar from your teeth, reducing your risk for cavities and gum disease. They also offer preventive treatments like sealants and fluoride. Dental hygienists work together with dentists to help you achieve and maintain optimal oral health.

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist is an oral healthcare provider who offers teeth cleanings, preventive dental care and oral hygiene instruction. Dental hygienists work with your dentist to keep your teeth and gums healthy.

Another name for a dental hygienist is an oral hygienist.


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What does a dental hygienist do?

Oral hygienists perform a wide range of treatments. Dental hygienist duties often include:

  • Dental cleanings. During a routine dental cleaning, a dental hygienist uses special instruments to remove plaque and tartar from the surfaces of your teeth. They’ll also polish your teeth using paste and a rubber cup. Regular dental cleanings help prevent cavities and gum disease.
  • Tooth scaling and root planing. This treatment involves removing plaque and tartar beneath the surface of your gums, where your toothbrush can’t reach. Once the hygienist cleans your teeth, they’ll smooth out the root surfaces to prevent more plaque and tartar from reattaching.
  • Dental X-rays. Hygienists can also take dental X-rays to help your dentist get a clearer view of your teeth roots, supporting bone, sinuses, nerves and surrounding structures.
  • Administering local anesthesia. In many U.S. states, dental hygienists can give injections of local anesthesia (which numbs your mouth) to keep you comfortable during your procedure. If you live in a state where hygienists can’t give local anesthesia, your dentist can administer it before your procedure begins.
  • Oral health screenings. Dental hygienists also perform routine oral health screenings. During these exams, they check for things like cavities, gum inflammation and signs of oral cancer — and they report their findings to your dentist. These routine screenings help identify issues early on before they get worse.
  • Dental history review. A dental hygienist talks with you about your dental and overall health history. This helps them better understand your past dental experiences and your goals for the future. It’s also important for them to know about any medications or supplements you’re taking.
  • Dental sealants. This common preventive treatment involves applying a protective coating to your back teeth. Your back teeth often have deep grooves and pits where plaque, food particles and bacteria can hide. Sealants shield these areas, prevent food and plaque from collecting there and reduce your risk of cavities.
  • Fluoride treatments. Topical fluoride treatments reduce your risk of cavities by strengthening your enamel.
  • Oral hygiene instructions. Dental cleanings are essential for optimal oral health. But professional cleanings will only get you so far. Hygienists can demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques, tailored to your needs. For example, if you have a dental bridge, they can show you how to clean underneath it. If you have dental implants, they can recommend certain brushes and products that can clean them more effectively. Whatever your oral health challenges, they’ll help you navigate them.

How to become a dental hygienist

People considering dental hygiene as a career path can pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Training involves general education credits, dental hygiene courses and hands-on clinical work. Exact requirements vary by state, but you must obtain a license no matter where you live.

How long does it take to become a dental hygienist?

Depending on where you live and the program you choose, it takes between two and four years to become a dental hygienist.


Dental hygienist vs. dentist: what’s the difference?

Dentists and dental hygienists are both licensed dental providers. Dentists treat a broad range of conditions and offer restorative dentistry treatments like dental fillings, crowns, bridges, root canal therapy and extractions. They can also do cosmetic dentistry treatments like dental bonding or porcelain veneers. Dental hygienists specialize in teeth cleanings. They focus more on preventive dentistry treatments to help you maintain healthy teeth and gums.

Dental hygienist vs. dental assistant: what’s the difference?

Dental hygienists and dental assistants both support dentists in caring for your oral health. While hygienists specialize in cleaning your teeth, dental assistants help dentists do treatments like fillings, crowns, veneers and other restorative and cosmetic dentistry procedures. Dental assistants provide an extra pair of hands to help your dentist complete treatment more quickly and efficiently. In fact, providers refer to this type of care as “four-handed dentistry.”

Dental assistant requirements vary by state. Some states require full certification and licensure — others don’t. In some states, dental assistants can even receive additional training to place fillings.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Dental hygienists play a key role in helping you maintain healthy teeth and gums. Proper oral hygiene at home is essential. But there are some areas where your toothbrush and floss can’t reach. It’s a good idea to visit your dental hygienist for cleanings at least twice a year. They can remove stuck-on plaque and tartar and show you how to clean your teeth more effectively at home.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/14/2023.

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