While many people might use the two titles interchangeably, there are distinct differences between dental assistants and dental hygienists.

Although dental assistants and dental hygienists perform fairly similar things on a day-to-day basis, they are not different names for the same job.

The primary difference between a dental assistant and dental hygienist is their level of interaction with the patients. While a dental assistant provides direct aid to dentists, conducting office tasks, and small, supervised jobs on patients’ teeth, a hygienist often works one-on-one with a patient and does not require constant supervision.

Dental Assistants: An Overview

The duties of a dental assistant can vary from office to office. However, generally speaking, dental assistants work directly with dentists, or support front-office operations.

Some of the typical duties performed by dental assistants are given below:

  • Laying the equipment and sterilizing instruments 
  • Obtaining patients’ dental records
  • Preparing patients for the dentist’s exam
  • Offering assistance like handing instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Preparing impression materials, anaesthetics, and cement
  • Taking impressions of patient’s teeth (moulds)
  • Taking and processing X-rays
  • Instructing patients on proper dental hygiene
  • Removing sutures
  • Billing patients and handling payments
  • Ordering dental supplies
  • Performing general office work

Some states require that dental assistants be licensed. Some states have regulations that require aspiring dental assistants to complete a one-year certificate or diploma programs. 

Dental Hygienists: An Overview

The dental hygienist’s sphere of duties covers various areas including pre-procedure preparation and care, in-office treatment, and post-procedure care. 

A dental hygienist performs more advanced tasks that involve direct patient care. His duties include:

  • Gathering health information and history from the patient
  • Polishing patients’ teeth
  • Removing hard and soft deposits from teeth
  • Cleaning teeth including removal of tartar, plaque, and stains 
  • Examining gums of patients for any irregularities
  • Taking and processing x-rays
  • Applying fluoride treatments
  • Taking impressions of patient teeth (moulds)
  • Prepare a patient’s dental health chart
  • Administering anaesthesia
  • Tending to sutures and dressings
  • Preparing clinical and laboratory diagnostic tests
  • Advising patients on proper brushing and flossing habits

Dental hygienists must hold an associate’s degree (two years) to practice and a state license in the field. Other less common options include certificates, bachelor’s degree (four years) and master’s degrees (two years full time).

The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) has projected a growth of 19% in the dental hygiene field until 2024, which is considerably faster when compared to other career fields.