A career as a dental hygienist will suit you if you have excellent communication and interpersonal skills, a high level of manual dexterity and want to work in a clinical and health promotional role

As a dental hygienist, you'll play an important role within the dental healthcare team. Working closely with patients, you'll educate them in the care of teeth, provide treatments to prevent oral problems and offer oral hygiene and dietary advice.

You can work in a variety of settings, such as general dental practices, hospitals, within the community or independently. Patients can range from young children to the elderly with a variety of dental care needs.

Responsibilities

The role of a dental hygienist covers both clinical and health promotion responsibilities. As a dental hygienist, you'll need to:

  • provide dental advice on dental hygiene care and oral health education to patients of all ages
  • work closely with the dental team to treat and help patients in preventing gum disease
  • use a range of dental instruments to clean, polish and scale teeth
  • remove plaque and apply treatments to reduce decay
  • ensure that dental instruments and tools are sterilised appropriately
  • take impressions and radiographs of teeth
  • give local anaesthetic under the supervision of a dentist
  • apply temporary coatings and sealants to protect teeth
  • encourage and demonstrate tooth brushing and flossing
  • show care and compassion for patients and put them at the centre of care
  • collect medical and dental histories and maintain patients' health records
  • work to a professional code of ethics and keep up to date with new developments within the profession.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for dental hygienists working in the NHS are typically between £23,023 and £29,608, which is Band 5 of the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) pay rates.
  • Specialist dental hygienists can earn between £28,050 and £36,644 (band 6). Experienced hygienists with training responsibilities may be able to earn up to £43,041 (band 7).
  • Hourly rates can range from around £16.50 to £31.00 per hour.

Salaries vary depending on a range of factors, including your experience, location, type of employer (i.e. private or NHS) and whether you're employed or self-employed.

Salaries in private practice can be much higher than in the NHS, and even higher if you're contracted to a private practice.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll usually work 37.5 hours per week, 8.30am to 5.00pm. Depending on the employing organisation, you may sometimes need to work in the evenings and at weekends.

If you're working in a hospital, you may have to be on call during weekends, or work shifts.

If you're working for a community dental service, flexibility is required.

Part-time work is possible, for example when working in private practice.

What to expect

  • You'll work as part of a dental healthcare team, including dentists, dental nurses and dental therapists.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK in cities, towns and rural areas.
  • You're required to wear safety glasses, a face mask and gloves to protect yourself and patients from infectious diseases.
  • Eye strain and neck and back fatigue can be an issue, due to the repetitive nature of some of the work.
  • You won't normally have to travel during the day or stay away from home overnight. However, if you're working for a community dental service, you'll usually travel between patients and health centres. There are some opportunities for experienced dental hygienists to work overseas.

Qualifications

To work as a dental hygienist, you'll need to be registered with the General Dental Council (GDC). In order to do this, you must complete one of the following qualifications approved by the GDC:

  • three-year undergraduate degree in oral health science, dental hygiene or dental hygiene and therapy (four years)
  • two-year undergraduate diploma in dental hygiene (or two and a half years, if the course covers dental hygiene and therapy)
  • two-year foundation degree in oral health science.

If you've completed an integrated degree or diploma in both dental hygiene and therapy, upon registration you can work as both a dental hygienist and dental therapist.

All courses are available full time. See the GDC website for a list of GDC-approved courses.

To be eligible for a place on a degree/diploma course, you'll typically need three A-levels, one of which should be in biology or human biology, as well as GCSEs in maths and English. Applicants who have completed a nationally recognised dental nursing qualification and have two A-levels, one of these being in biology, may also be accepted. Some institutions welcome graduates with a minimum 2:2 or above in a science or healthcare subject. Entry criteria vary, so check with individual institutions for exact requirements.

You'll need to complete a successful Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check before admission to a training programme in England and Wales (or equivalent check for Scotland and Northern Ireland). For some courses you'll also have to undergo a health check carried out by the university's occupational health service. When applying for GDC registration, you must declare any issues that may affect your fitness to practise.

Funding in the form of bursaries, grants or loans may be available. Check with course providers for possible opportunities. You may also be eligible for an NHS student bursary - see NHS Bursary Students for details. Scottish and EU students should check the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) website.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • excellent communication and interpersonal skills, to explain treatments to patients in a calm and reassuring manner and advise them on how to keep their teeth and gums healthy
  • effective listening and motivational skills, to educate patients to maintain healthy oral hygiene and diet
  • the ability to work well in a team, as well as independently
  • a caring quality and an interest in helping people
  • compassion while interacting with patients of all ages
  • excellent manual dexterity and confidence in handling dental equipment
  • good eyesight and steady hands for carrying out precise dental work
  • the ability to maintain concentration for long periods of time
  • good written communication skills to complete and keep safe records of patients
  • a friendly, confident and professional manner, that will help you interact with patients and colleagues effectively.

Work experience

To get a place on a course, you'll usually need to be familiar with the role of a dental hygienist and show an awareness of the profession. Try contacting your local dental surgery to see if you can work shadow a dental hygienist to get a feel for the work. Work as a dental nurse may also be useful.

Courses include a mix of academic study and clinical work, so you'll build up practical work experience for when you graduate and start looking for a job.

Employers

Typical employers of dental hygienists include:

  • general dental practices - the majority of qualified dental hygienists work full or part time in dental practices providing NHS or private treatment to patients
  • community dental services - ensuring that everyone has access to dental care. You could be working in hospitals, specialist health centres and mobile clinics, as well as making home visits or visits to nursing and care homes
  • dental hospitals - helping orthodontists during complex treatments and surgery
  • private companies in industry - providing dental care to employees
  • defence dental services - at locations in the UK or overseas with the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.

With experience, it's also possible to work as a self-employed dental hygienist contracted by a dental practice. 

Look for vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as DentalElite and Zest Dental Recruitment also advertise full and part-time vacancies.

Professional development

Once qualified, you'll need to continue developing your skills and keeping your knowledge up to date. Undertaking continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of maintaining your registration with the GDC and you'll have to spend at least 75 hours over a five-year period engaged in CPD activities relevant to your practice.

Typical activities can include:

  • involvement in lectures and courses
  • attending hands-on clinical training or workshops
  • attending or presenting at conferences
  • participation in clinical audit or peer review.

The BSDHT provides a range of CPD events and conferences. Membership also provides access to networking opportunities via regional networks, resources and advice.

It's possible to do further study at Masters level in a subject related to dental hygiene, such as dental public health or dental technology. Search postgraduate courses in dental.

Career prospects

Once qualified, you'll work as a dental hygienist, gaining experience in the role. However, if you completed an integrated degree, combining both dental hygiene and therapy, you can choose to work as a dental therapist. As a dental therapist, you could earn around 3% to 3.5% more than a dental hygienist (BSDHT).

Job prospects are generally good. With an ageing population, for example, oral health and related health problems are a growing issue, meaning that dental health professionals are in demand.

With experience, there are some opportunities to move into a dental practice management role. In this role, you'll support the dentist and have responsibility for the running of the office.

It may be possible with further qualifications and training to move away from direct patient care into teaching the next generation of dental hygiene or dental hygiene and therapy students. Alternatively, you could combine both roles by working for a university dental hospital. Roles in research are also available.

You could also move into a related area like orthodontic therapy, public health or work as a health promotion specialist.