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

A dentist will evaluate your teeth, fill cavities, do extractions, and perform various dental procedures. Other routine tasks, including cleaning your teeth, taking x-rays, and suctioning your mouth dry during the dental treatments, are done by other dental professionals – dental assistants and dental hygienists.

Patients may not know the difference, but dental hygienists and dental assistants are very different jobs. When comparing a dental assistant vs. a dental hygienist, they each perform a distinct, but important role and have different levels of training and experience.

What’s The Difference Between A Dental Hygienist & A Dental Assistant?

Dental Assistants

Dental assistants help the dentist care for the patients, and they may also perform administrative and office tasks. Some common responsibilities that dental assistants may have include:

  • Scheduling dental appointments for patients
  • Updating patient records and their billing insurance information
  • Ordering dental supplies for the offices
  • Escorting patients to the exam room and preparing them for the dentist
  • Setting up for the dental exam with a bib and cup of water for the patient
  • Sterilizing and putting out the dental tools for the dentist
  • Assisting the dentist during the exam by handing them the instruments and suctioning the patient’s mouth
  • Cleaning up the tools and patient’s chair after the exam
  • Taking impressions of patient’s teeth
  • Developing x-rays of the patient’s mouth
  • Applying fluoride and sealants on patients’ teeth, in some cases

Dental assistants interact a lot with the patients. In addition to being familiar with the dental treatments to help the dentist, they should have good interpersonal skills to make the patients feel comfortable. While it is true for anyone who deals with people, it is especially important in a dental office when some people can be anxious.


The education and training for a dental assistant vary from state to state. In some locations, a dental assistant doesn’t need any formal training and can learn on the job. Other state laws may require a dental assistant to complete a certification program from the Dental Assisting National Board. Many dental offices and clinics require the assistants to know CPR.


The average salary for a dental assistant is about $41,000 a year, or a little under $20 an hour.

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists are formally educated and trained to perform specialized dental tasks. While a dental assistant cares for a patient under the dentist’s supervision, a dental hygienist can treat a patient on their own. For an annual cleaning and dental checkup, you may see just the dental hygienist. They will refer you to the dentist if they think you need treatment, such as for a cavity.

Dental hygienists usually take care of the following in dental offices:

  • Clean the patient’s teeth and remove plaque using specialized instruments
  • Check the patient’s mouth, gums, and teeth for visible signs of decay and evaluate their general oral health
  • Treat conditions like gingivitis
  • Take x-rays of the patient’s teeth
  • Transcribe patient oral health to their records
  • Consult with the dentist on the patient’s treatment
  • Administer anesthetics to patients before dental procedures
  • Remove patient’s stitches after oral surgery
  • Show patients how to better take care of their oral hygiene and proper brushing and flossing techniques.

Dental hygienists need to be fluent in oral care and be able to educate the patients on how to care for their teeth. As with other medical providers, they should stay up-to-date on the latest practices and technology in their fields.

Working as a hygienist can also be physically demanding. They may need to stand on their feet for hours and lean over into patients’ mouths for one appointment after another. At the same time, it can be a rewarding job to help improve a patient’s oral health.


Dental hygienists, as opposed to some dental assistants, do need to attend school. Most DHs receive an Associate’s degree through a two-year program that is certified by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).


The average salary for a dental hygienist is about $77,000 a year, or approximately $37 an hour.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

While dental assistants and dental hygienists may, at glance, seem to perform similar tasks, their roles are quite different.

When comparing a dental assistant vs. a dental hygienist, dental assistants help the patient and dentist throughout the appointment and may handle some administrative tasks as well. They might not have a formal accreditation or certificate.

Dental hygienists, on the other hand, are professionals and are licensed to treat patients by cleaning and examining their teeth. As appropriate to their expertise, dental hygienists usually earn more than dental assistants.