A little bit of proper hygiene goes a long way when it comes to keeping dental health in top shape, and while regular brushing is the best start, it's not always enough to keep plague and tartar at bay. Dental hygienists are professionals who specialize in keeping the human mouth clean and healthy. If you're interested in becoming a dental hygienist, you can expect to use a variety of tools to remove plaque buildup and tartar from patients' teeth, leaving them with smiles they love showing off.
Hand-held mouth mirrors assist hygienists in peering into hard-to-see nooks and crannies of a patient's mouth to look for tartar deposits or signs of decay. For small, soft deposits of tartar, dental hygienists use various hand tools, including metal scalers and curettes. Hand scalers are hook-shaped instruments that feature pointed tips that scrape away plaque and tartar from the surface of the teeth. Curettes are similar to scalers, but have rounded ends and are used to clear away tartar deposits underneath the gums.
Similar to hand scalers, ultrasonic scalers are used to pull away plaque and tartar from the surface of teeth. However, these technologically advanced tools are powered by pneumatic turbines and vibrate to break down plaque and tartar. This saves the hygienist the energy of having to manually scrape away at the teeth, and often results in a deeper clean than hand scalers provide. For patients who tend to steer clear of the dentist because they're afraid of pain, ultrasonic scalers tend to be gentler than hand scalers, providing a more comfortable experience overall.
Once a hygienist has successfully removed any plaque and tartar lurking in a patient's mouth, she can get to work polishing the teeth so they look bright and shiny. Polishers are slow-speed rotary tools that buff away uneven areas on teeth and leave the entire surface smooth and even. Polished teeth are easier for healthy gums to attach to -- and harder for plaque and tartar to grow on.
Decay is prone to lurk deep within teeth, and can go unnoticed by the naked eye until it's too late to reverse and repair without sacrificing the entire tooth. To check for cavities and other signs of damage and decay, dental hygienists often take X-rays of patients' mouths to get a clear picture of their dental health.
For patients with low-tolerance for pain, dental hygienists may need to administer a local anesthetic using a syringe so they can complete their work. For excessive tartar buildup or advanced cases of periodontal disease, a more thorough cleaning than usual is needed, which can cause pain and bleeding in patients, so a local anesthetic is commonly used in these procedures.
2016 Salary Information for Dental Hygienists
Dental hygienists earned a median annual salary of $72,910 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, dental hygienists earned a 25th percentile salary of $60,500, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $86,390, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 207,900 people were employed in the U.S. as dental hygienists.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: What Dental Hygienists Do
- Chattanooga State Community College: Dimensions of Dental Excellence: All About Hand Instruments
- Dental Hygienists Headquarters: Dental Hygienist’s Tools of the Trade
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dental Hygienists
- Career Trend: Dental Hygienists
- Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images