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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

What’s the Difference Between a Dental Hygienist and Dental Assistant?

September 20, 2017

Dental hygienist vs dental assistant

Editor’s Note: This article was edited on July 26, 2021 to include updated data.

If you’re a fan of beautiful smiles, you might be interested in becoming a dental hygienist or dental assistant. It doesn’t hurt that these jobs are in-demand and can command a decent salary, either. But which dental career path is right for you? This article explores the difference between dental hygienists and dental assistants so you can decide which career is right for you.

Dental Hygienist vs Dental Assistant: Education and Licensing

Sure, hygienists and assistants both support healthy teeth, but they have separate responsibilities. In a nutshell, a hygienist works independently with patients to offer preventive services. They clean and check teeth for signs of dental disease and educate patients on how to keep their teeth healthy. To enter the field, dental hygienists must usually earn an associate’s degree and pass their state’s licensing exam.

Dental assistants provide chair-side support to dentists, update patient records, and schedule appointments. They require a “non-degree award” or certificate of completion to be eligible for a dental assistant position, and some states require licensing or registration. Dental assistants can also decide to earn a credential by passing the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam.

Dental hygienists and assistants commonly work in family dental offices, health networks, and community health offices.

Is There Dental Hygienist Demand in California?

Yes, the dental field is growing in California and throughout the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 6 percent increase in dental hygienist jobs from 2019 to 2029 in the U.S., faster than the average for all occupations.

Aspiring dental hygienists in California can look forward to 2,400 new hygienist jobs from 2018 to 2028, which represents a 15.3 percent growth, according to the California Employment Development Department.

How Much do Dental Hygienists Make in California?

If you want to earn a good salary early in a career that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree, dental hygienist is near the top of the list. According to, dental hygienists earn a median salary of $66,200 early in their career and $74,900 mid-career.

But these are national estimates. Dental hygienists in California are reported to earn even more. According to the California Employment Development Department, the median wage for dental hygienists in California is $145,600.

Are Dental Assistants in Demand in California?

Like most healthcare professions, dental assistant positions will continue to be in demand and grow through 2029. The BLS projects 7 percent more dental assistant jobs in the U.S. over that time. There will be 9,100 more dental assistant jobs in California, which represents a 15.3 percent increase between 2018 and 2028.

How Much do Dental Assistants Make in California?

The national median pay for dental assistants in 2020 was $41,180. California dental assistants made a mean wage of $44,940. The salary range for dental assistants in California is $36,432 to $54,374, according to the California Employment Development Department.

How do I Transfer my Dental Hygiene License to or from California?

If you are a dental hygienist moving to California, a form must be completed for each state that you have been licensed to practice in. To save yourself time, contact your state’s licensing board and have the Out of State Licensure Certification completed before you arrive in California.

Once the application is completed, submitted, and processed, you’ll receive information about whether you’ll be required to take an online written RDH law and ethics exam.

Requirements for licensing dental hygienists may differ between states. If you plan on moving to another state after becoming a dental hygienist in California, contact the state board regulating dental hygienists in your new home for the steps you need to take to practice in your new state.

How do I Practice as a Dental Assistant in California?

If you’re moving to California and would like to continue working as a dental assistant, you must pass state exams to become a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA). The Dental Board of California requires you to:

  1. Pass a hands-on practical examination performed on a typodont.
  2. Pass a State computerized written general knowledge exam.
  3. Pass a State computerized law and ethics written exam.

Visit the Dental Board of California’s website to ensure you meet the qualifications to take the exams.

Dental Hygienist or Dental Assistant: Next Steps

If you’re interested in starting a solid healthcare career path with good potential for growth in California, becoming a dental hygienist or dental assistant offers good pay without having to earn a four-year degree. To learn more about either of these dental careers, contact San Joaquin Valley College at 866-544-7898.

SJVC’s Dental Assistant and Dental Hygiene guides can prepare you to work in your chosen field. Request more information to get started!

Learn More About A Career In Dental Assisting

Are you interested in dentistry and passionate about helping people? Then a dental assistant career could be for you. Dental assistants work in dental offices under the supervision of dentists. They have excellent interpersonal, organizational and listening skills.

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