Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

What's the Difference?

Dental assistants and dental hygienists are both crucial members of the dental healthcare team, but they have distinct roles and responsibilities. Dental assistants primarily work alongside dentists, providing chairside assistance during procedures, sterilizing instruments, taking patient X-rays, and managing patient records. On the other hand, dental hygienists focus more on preventive oral care, performing teeth cleanings, examining patients for signs of oral diseases, and educating them on proper oral hygiene practices. While dental assistants require a shorter training period, dental hygienists typically need a degree and a license to practice. Ultimately, both professions contribute to maintaining optimal oral health for patients, but their specific duties and educational requirements differ.


AttributeDental AssistantDental Hygienist
EducationHigh school diploma or equivalentAssociate's degree in dental hygiene
LicensingVaries by stateLicensed
Job DutiesAssisting dentists during procedures, taking X-rays, sterilizing instrumentsCleaning teeth, examining patients, providing oral health education
SupervisionWork under the supervision of dentistsCan work independently or under the supervision of dentists
SalaryMedian annual wage of $40,080 (May 2020)Median annual wage of $77,090 (May 2020)
Job OutlookExpected to grow 7% from 2019 to 2029Expected to grow 6% from 2019 to 2029

Further Detail


When it comes to oral healthcare, dental assistants and dental hygienists play crucial roles in supporting dentists and ensuring patients receive the best possible care. While both professions work in dental offices and share some similarities, they have distinct differences in terms of their responsibilities, education, and scope of practice. In this article, we will explore the attributes of dental assistants and dental hygienists, highlighting their unique contributions to the dental field.

Dental Assistant

Dental assistants are vital members of the dental team, providing chairside assistance to dentists during various procedures. They perform both administrative and clinical tasks, making their role diverse and multifaceted. Some of the key attributes of dental assistants include:

  • Assisting Dentists: Dental assistants work closely with dentists, providing support during procedures by passing instruments, preparing materials, and ensuring patient comfort.
  • Preparing Treatment Rooms: They are responsible for setting up and sterilizing equipment, ensuring a clean and organized treatment environment.
  • Taking Patient History: Dental assistants often take patients' medical history, record vital signs, and update dental records, ensuring accurate and up-to-date information.
  • Performing Radiographic Procedures: They may take dental x-rays, following proper safety protocols, to assist in diagnosis and treatment planning.
  • Providing Patient Education: Dental assistants educate patients on oral hygiene practices, post-operative care, and answer any questions or concerns they may have.

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists focus primarily on preventive oral care and work closely with patients to maintain optimal oral health. They perform various tasks related to cleaning teeth, examining patients, and providing education on oral hygiene practices. Some of the key attributes of dental hygienists include:

  • Performing Dental Cleanings: Dental hygienists are responsible for removing plaque, tartar, and stains from patients' teeth using specialized tools and techniques.
  • Conducting Oral Examinations: They examine patients' teeth and gums, looking for signs of decay, gum disease, or other oral health issues, and report their findings to the dentist.
  • Administering Local Anesthesia: In some states, dental hygienists are allowed to administer local anesthesia to patients for pain management during certain procedures.
  • Applying Dental Sealants and Fluoride: They may apply dental sealants to protect teeth from decay and fluoride treatments to strengthen enamel.
  • Educating Patients: Dental hygienists play a crucial role in educating patients about proper oral hygiene practices, including brushing, flossing, and maintaining a healthy diet.

Education and Training

While both dental assistants and dental hygienists work in dental offices, their educational requirements differ significantly.

Dental assistants typically complete a dental assisting program, which can range from several months to a year in duration. These programs provide comprehensive training in dental procedures, radiography, infection control, and office management. Some dental assistants may also choose to pursue certification or registration, which can enhance their job prospects and earning potential.

On the other hand, dental hygienists undergo more extensive education and training. They must complete an accredited dental hygiene program, which typically takes two to three years to complete. These programs cover subjects such as anatomy, physiology, radiography, periodontology, and clinical dental hygiene. Additionally, dental hygienists must pass national and state licensing exams to practice legally.

Scope of Practice

The scope of practice for dental assistants and dental hygienists varies significantly due to their different roles and levels of training.

Dental assistants work under the direct supervision of dentists and perform tasks delegated to them by the dentist. Their responsibilities are primarily focused on assisting during procedures, maintaining equipment and supplies, and ensuring patient comfort. Dental assistants are not typically involved in diagnosing or treating oral health conditions independently.

On the other hand, dental hygienists have a broader scope of practice. They work more independently and often provide direct patient care. Dental hygienists can perform dental cleanings, take dental x-rays, conduct oral examinations, and provide preventive treatments such as fluoride application and dental sealants. They also play a crucial role in educating patients about oral health and may provide recommendations for further treatment to the dentist based on their findings.


Both dental assistants and dental hygienists are essential members of the dental team, contributing to the overall oral health and well-being of patients. While dental assistants primarily provide chairside assistance and perform administrative tasks, dental hygienists focus on preventive care, dental cleanings, and patient education. Their educational requirements and scope of practice differ significantly, with dental hygienists undergoing more extensive training and having a broader range of responsibilities. Understanding the attributes of dental assistants and dental hygienists helps highlight the unique contributions each profession makes to the field of dentistry.

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