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Dental Hygienist vs. Dental Assistant

If you’re interested in the dental industry, you’ve likely heard of both dental hygienists and dental assistants. While these two terms sound similar, they are very different roles in the dental field. Knowing what defines these positions and their distinct responsibilities is vital for anyone looking to join this industry.

When patients make an appointment at a dental office, they may assume that they’ll be seeing the dentist, or that the dentist will be performing that day’s cleaning and checkup. While this might be true in some cases, more often than not you’ll be seen by an assistant and a hygienist. The dentist, however, is the primary doctor presiding over the office, so they’re focused on surgeries or specialized tasks, as well as inspecting the work of the hygienists and dental assistants.

If you’re considering a career in dental hygiene, here are some things to know about the differences between an assistant and a hygienist.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

An assistant is still a dental professional, but they work to assist both the dentist and hygienist. This position is viewed as an important supporting role in every dental practice, and those who work in this position may be responsible for both clerical work and hands-on assistance.

Typically, a dental assistant will have contact with a patient throughout their office visit. They’re usually responsible for a variety of tasks, including:

  • Sterilizing equipment needed for procedures
  • Preparing patients for procedures
  • Processing x-rays
  • Keeping dental records updated and organized
  • Appointment scheduling
  • Completing billing and payments with patients

Expanded Function Dental Assistants have had additional training that also allows them to help patients by:

  • Applying sealants
  • Polishing teeth
  • Taking x-rays
  • Placing composite restorative materials
  • Finishing composite restorative materials

If you’re wondering, “What do dental assistants do that dental hygienists don’t?” an assistant will typically perform more clerical and administrative duties, unlike dental hygienists. The bottom line is that dental assistants work both in administrative and clinical roles to keep an office running smoothly.

What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

It’s important to understand that both of these positions are considered supporting roles to the dentist. However, there are certain tasks that dental hygienists perform that most dental assistants cannot. These are typically specialized tasks that require more training and experience to carry out safely and securely. Hygienists are the ones who see a patient and determine whether they’ll need to see the dentist or seek additional care. Some tasks that dental hygienists perform include:

  • Completing cleaning procedures, including removing plaque, stains, and tartar
  • Taking x-rays
  • Evaluating a patient’s oral health and reporting concerns to the dentist
  • Recording patient care and plans for treatment
  • Educating patients on how to properly care for their teeth, including flossing and brushing


The education for both these careers can differ greatly and will mostly depend on the state you wish to be licensed. A dental hygienist will likely require an associate degree in dental hygiene, which can take up to three years to complete. Some of the courses for this degree can include anatomy and physiology, medical ethics, nutrition, patient management, pathology, and radiography. This is a much more intensive program than that of an assistant, and the training and education reflect that.

A dental assistant may receive on-the-job training instead of classroom education in some states, but many states require a vocational training program. Typically, this can take one or two years to complete. This role sees more variance in requirements than the hygienist position. Some states may also require special licensing for dental assistants with the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Most clinics will require valid CPR certification and training for employment.

Considering a Career as a Dental Assistant?

At Berks Technical Institute, we’ll give you the training and tools to begin your dental assistant journey. We focus on hands-on learning in both patient care and technical skills so that you can learn to be successful in your future career. At Berks Technical Institute, you’ll be taught a variety of techniques and knowledge with our 18-month Dental Assisting Associate of Specialized Technology program. With just 3 more courses, you could further your Dental Assisting career by becoming an Expanded Function Dental Assistant with our Expanded Function Dental Assistant Preparation program.

With a complete staff of skilled professionals, you’ll be provided with the resources to be successful in the future. BTI offers smaller class sizes, hands-on training, and more to set you on the right path. Get your education started at Berks Technical Institute!