How long is a dental hygienist programme? (with FAQ)

Updated 18 September 2023

The length of time it takes to qualify as a dental hygienist depends on the programme you choose. Different education institutions stipulate different entry requirements and offer different courses. It generally takes between two to four years to become a dental hygienist. In this article, we answer the question 'how long is a dental hygienist programme?' and discuss the entry requirements, the various programmes available, the primary responsibilities of a dental hygienist and the kind of salary they can earn.

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How long is a dental hygienist programme?

The time it takes to complete a dental hygienist programme varies. It depends on the course and the institution offering it. Make sure you choose a course that's approved by the General Dental Council (GDC).

  • A bachelor's degree in dental hygiene is a four-year programme. Many universities and dental schools offer bachelor's degree courses or an appropriate degree completion course for those already in possession of a postgraduate degree.

  • The BSc in dental therapy and hygiene programme is a three-year course during which students learn how to be effective beginner technicians.

  • A degree in oral health science is offered as a three- or four-year course, depending on the university.

  • A foundation degree in oral health science takes two years.

  • A degree in dental hygiene or a combined degree in dental hygiene and therapy can be completed in three years.

  • A certificate of higher education in dental hygiene takes two years.

  • A certificate of higher education in dental hygiene and therapy takes 27 months.

Related: A guide to dental technician apprenticeships (With skills)

What are the entry requirements?

There are different entry requirements for the different courses on offer. Not all universities require the same education levels for entry into their programmes. Generally, they ask for two A levels or equivalent for a diploma course and three A levels, including at least one science subject, for a degree programme.

Most dental hygienist programmes require candidates to have five GCSE subjects, including maths and English at 4-7 or A*-C. Some may also require two or three A levels, including one in either biology or human biology. In some cases, they allow candidates to replace one of their A levels with a nationally recognised dental nurse qualification.

How do I start on this career path?

There are many steps you can take to achieve your goal of becoming a dental hygienist. While you can work in some dental hygienist roles with a foundation degree, other roles require a bachelor's or master's degree. Some programmes require students to complete a period of hands-on training near the end of their programme, under the direct supervision of a licensed hygienist.

  • A foundation degree in dental hygiene enables you to perform the duties of a general dental hygienist in most private dental practices.

  • A bachelor's degree in dental hygiene enables you to work with dental specialisations, such as a community health clinic or a school. It may also make you a preferred candidate when competing with less qualified candidates applying for dental hygienist positions.

  • A master's degree in dental hygiene enables you to teach and train other students who want to work in the dental industry. You may also choose to become involved in research studies.

Upon completion of your degree, you want to register with the GDC before you can accept employment as a dental hygienist.

How do I register with the GDC?

You can request the application pack via the GDC website and complete the application. It can take up to ten working days for the GDC to assess the information you provide and send you the application pack. The application pack contains the following forms for completion:

  • Learning Outcomes form: A detailed form that requires your full university syllabus or curriculum.

  • Dental Care Practitioner (DCP) Assessment form: The application form itself, comprising 20 pages of personal details.

  • Certificate of Good Standing form: The form that your registered Dental Council or Medical Council completes.

  • Professional Reference form: The form that a previous or current employer relating to your work in dentistry completes.

Required information and documents

An application for GDC registration requires the following information:

  • a completed Application form (including the Character Reference form)

  • a completed Learning Outcomes form

  • a certified copy of your dental qualification certificate

  • a certified copy of the syllabus or curriculum from your university or college

  • a certified copy of your academic transcript

  • certificates or proof of relevant training courses and Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

  • evidence that your English language competency meets the standard required

  • references from employers regarding your experience and knowledge as a dental care professional

  • proof of any relevant postgraduate qualifications (if applicable)

  • a certified copy of your valid passport, clearly showing its expiry date, your photograph and personal details

  • a passport-size photograph of yourself, endorsed on the back by your character referee

  • a certificate of current professional standing (Certificate of Good Standing)

  • a certified copy of your change of name document (if you're married)

  • translations of any documents not issued in English

  • one photocopy of your entire application

Related: Different kinds of jobs in dentistry (guide and salaries)

Once the GDC receives your application pack, confirms that all the forms have been completed correctly and they have all the documents they require, they then forward your application to an assessment panel. From the date they receive your application, the GDC has a maximum of four months to inform you whether or not your registration is approved.

What exactly does a dental hygienist do?

A dental hygienist cleans, descales and polishes teeth. They examine a patient's mouth to detect any signs of dental disorders. They also take x-rays and provide oral hygiene instructions to patients. They report to the dentist if a patient has any pain or dental concerns. They also update each patient's dental records. While the majority of dental hygienists work in private or community dental practices, others may work in a hospital, health clinic, community centre or school.

Related: How much does a dental nurse make? (Ways to increase salary)

The primary responsibilities of a dental hygienist include:

  • working closely with a dental team to treat and help patients in preventing tooth and gum disease

  • using a range of dental instruments to clean, descale and polish teeth

  • applying treatments to minimise tooth decay

  • taking impressions and x-rays of teeth

  • administering a local anaesthetic

  • applying fissure sealants to protect teeth

  • applying temporary dressings to protect a broken tooth or replace a lost filling

  • encouraging and demonstrating good brushing and flossing habits

  • sterilising dental equipment

  • collecting medical and dental histories and maintaining patients' health records

  • working to a professional code of ethics and keeping up to date with new treatments and procedures

As a dental hygienist, you may choose to pursue a specific specialisation within the dental sector. This could be a dental hygienist researcher, who conducts research and analyses the results to develop a better understanding of common dental conditions and diseases. You could also specialise in paediatric dentistry, working primarily with young children and teenagers, performing all dental hygiene duties and educating parents and teenagers on effective oral health care.

Related: How To Become a Dental Technician

What are the usual working hours?

Dental hygienists usually work between 37 and 40 hours per week. While most work Monday to Friday, they sometimes work outside of regular office hours, such as in the evening or on a weekend. Dental hygienists working in a hospital may be on-call after hours.

Related: Dental technician vs dental hygienist (with roles and pay)

Do I need any specific skills?

The following skills can help you perform your duties efficiently, work well with your colleagues and put patients at ease:

  • excellent written and verbal communication skills

  • the ability to work well both independently and as part of a team

  • empathy whilst interacting with patients of all ages

  • the ability to maintain focus for long periods

Related: 8 essential dentist skills

What's the difference between a dental hygienist and a dental therapist?

A dental hygienist provides preventative dental health while a dental therapist can also perform certain dental procedures. A dental hygienist is licensed and registered to practise dental hygiene, as per the responsibilities listed above. A dental therapist performs these same tasks, but can also do fillings, extract milk teeth and fill or restore teeth provided the tooth's nerve doesn't need treatment or removal.

Related: How to become a dental hygienist (with FAQ)

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What kind of salary can I expect?

Pay varies depending on the candidate's level of training, practical experience and certifications. The national average salary for a dental hygienist is £50,393 per year. The geographic location of the job also affects salary. For instance, the average salaries for a dental hygienist in the following towns and cities are:

  • Cambridge: £55.855 per year

  • Guildford: £73,811 per year

  • London: £56,408 per year

  • Salisbury: £113,070 per year

  • Southampton: £53,970 per year

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at the time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and the candidate's experience, academic background and location. Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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