Dental hygienists work under the supervision of licensed dentists. They are not qualified to make the same kind of diagnostic decisions or perform the same procedures as dentists. Instead, they perform basic dental care tasks, mostly focused on keeping patients’ teeth and gums clean. Unlike dental assistants, who work directly with dentists, hygienists often see patients on their own and direct their own tasks. They work in close physical proximity to their patients and spend a lot of work time around other people, including patients and other office staff.
Most hygienists’ daily duties include removing plaque from and polishing a patient’s teeth during a routine checkup, screening patients, reviewing a patient’s oral health history and teaching appropriate brushing and flossing techniques. They also use X-ray machines to take pictures of the teeth and develop the film for the dentist’s analysis.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists might be able to perform additional tasks depending on the rules and regulations governing the profession in their state. The additional tasks named by the BLS include administering anesthesia, removing stitches, sculpting materials to fill cavities and working with metal tooth components.
To legally work as a dental hygienist in the United States, a person must obtain a license from the state where he or she will work. According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, licensure in most states depends on graduating from an accredited degree program, passing a national exam for licensure and passing a state or region-specific exam.