Difference between dental hygienist and dental assistant

If you’re interested in a career that could help people smile their brightest, then you could find your calling inside a dental practice. Providing patients with oral care and sparkling new confidence is no small feat. You just need to make one decision before diving in: are you becoming a dental assistant or dental hygienist?

Both careers are vital to a dentist’s office and beyond, but the work itself varies. Ultimately, dental assistant education requirements are distinctive from those of a hygienist.

Don’t fret about picking the wrong one! Let’s break down the difference between dental hygienist and dental assistant from training to career.


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Dental Assistant Responsibilities

Becoming a dental assistant is more than working with patients and dentists. It involves both administrative and clinical tasks. Dental assistants perform routine office procedures and could be seen as the backbone of a dental practice.

Dental assistant responsibilities consist of the following:

  • Ensure that patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Prepare patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Hand instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Dry patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Process x rays and complete lab tasks, under the direction of a dentist
  • Keep records of dental treatments
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Work with patients on billing and payment1

Can’t decide whether you’d rather be in the lab, interacting with patients, or handling office work? Dental assistant training school could lead to all of the above!

Dental Hygienist Responsibilities

Now that you have a grasp on dental assistant responsibilities, let’s look at the world of the dental hygienist. One difference between dental hygienist and dental assistant tasks is that dental hygienists mostly work chairside with patients. On the other hand, dental assistant responsibilities are both clinical and administrative.

Dental hygienists may:

  • Remove tartar, stains, and plaque from teeth
  • Apply sealants and fluorides to help protect teeth
  • Take and develop dental x rays
  • Assess patients’ oral health and report findings to dentists
  • Document patient care and treatment plans
  • Educate patients about oral hygiene techniques, such as how to brush and floss correctly2

You may recognize the hygienist as the person who handles the majority of biannual cleanings.

Dental Assistant Training School Length vs. Dental Hygienist Training School Length

Becoming a dental assistant or a dental hygienist requires formal education, and the length of each program may impact your decision. Let’s explore the differences between dental hygienist school length and dental assistant school length.

To start your career as soon as possible, you may consider becoming a dental assistant. Many dental assisting programs take about one year to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma.

Once you’ve completed dental assistant training school, you could be eligible for entry-level employment in dental office facilities and beyond! Dental supply manufacturers, hospital dental departments, dental laboratories, and dental insurance companies may also hire dental assistants. A slew of possibilities awaits!

Dental hygienist training can be more of a commitment. Most hygienist hopefuls will need an associate’s degree. Programs typically take three years to complete3.

The difference between dental hygienist and dental assistant education requirements could affect your decision. Not to mention it could decide the rest of your career. So it is important to note these obligations. But what actually happens during training?

The Difference Between Dental Hygienist and Dental Assistant Training

Thinking of becoming a dental assistant? Dental assistant education requirements could include work in the classroom and laboratory. Students learn about teeth, gums, jaws, and other areas that dentists work on and the instruments that dentists use4.

Enrolling in a dental assistant training program could also provide you with the opportunity to receive supervised practical experience. Graduates could leave with job training and work experience toward employment as entry level dental assistants!

If you’re considering becoming a dental hygienist, your education could include laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction. Areas of study include anatomy, medical ethics, and periodontics, which is the study of gum disease3.

Just as you would research the pros and cons of a new toothbrush, consider dental hygienist and dental assistant education requirements. This is essential when mapping out your career.

The Skills You May Need for Becoming a Dental Assistant or Hygienist
Don’t let a list of required or preferred skills scare you away! Whether you enroll in a dental hygienist or dental assistant college, you’ll need to know what to work on. Evaluating your current skills and what skills you’ll need to learn is one of the first steps to potential success. The skills necessary for each path may also be deciding factors in your journey.

Important skills for becoming a dental assistant include:

  • Detail-oriented
  • Dexterity
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Listening Skills
  • Organizational Skills4

While the skills required for each profession overlap, one career may align better with your current skills and goals.

Important skills for becoming a dental hygienist include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Detail-oriented
  • Dexterity
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Problem-solving skills3

Enrolling in Dental Assistant Training School at National Career College

Now that you know the difference between dental hygienists and dental assistants, take the first step on your career path. If dental assistant responsibilities are calling to you, consider National Career College’s Dental Assistant training school.

NCC’s Dental Assistant college offers morning and evening classes. Our flexible 40-week program could allow you to complete your dental assistant education requirements in under a year. If dental assistant school length is your concern, you could begin a career as a dental assistant quickly following graduation!

NCC also offers an externship opportunity and hands-on classes in a “real world” dental office. Contact NCC to learn more about our dental assistant training school curriculum today!


Learn more about Dental Assistant training at National Career College!



    1. BLS: What Dental Assistants Do
    2. BLS: What Dental Hygienists Do
    3. BLS: How to Become a Dental Hygienist
    4. BLS: How to Become a Dental Assistant