Everything You Need to Know About Dental Hygienists and Therapists

Dental hygienists and therapists are responsible for providing oral care and prevention strategies in an effort to help patients maintain healthy gingiva, teeth and mouths.  

The terms ‘hygienist’ and ‘therapist’ are used interchangeably, but they are actually two different roles. Discussed below is the distinction between these 2 dental roles.

Dental Hygienists: Roles and Responsibilities 

Dental hygienists play a key role in patients’ oral health and well-being. Notably, they play a role in supporting the dentist and performing key duties, such as those outlined below.

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Reviewing Dental and Medical Health History 

A vital part of dental care provision is a thorough medical history. This helps to better understand the background of the patient and identify key risk factors that may alter their treatment moving forward. Listed below is the key framework that Dental Hygienists use in conducting a medical history. 

  • Review of previous dental work and any relevant medical history
  • Understanding any recent changes to overall health, including changes in medication or new diagnoses
  • Identifying oral health risk factors, like smoking and drinking.  

Understanding the patient’s background helps health care professionals create a patient-centred care plan, which can be personalised towards them, therefore this will help mould their treatment moving forward.

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    Screening Patients 

    During oral examinations, screening must be carried out on all patients for tooth decay and oral diseases. This is vital as these inspections can allow for preventative care if detected early. Screening involves thorough checks of the head, neck, local glands and oral cavity. Ultimately, this aims to identify problems before they spread and cause major damage.

    Dental Cleaning  

    Being a Dental Hygienist also entails cleaning or scaling teeth. Hygienists use a variety of tools and techniques to remove hardened plaque, also known as tartar or calcified plaque, stains, and soft plaque from the teeth. This helps improve patients’ oral health by preventing decay and tooth loss due to gingival disease. 

    Taking Dental X-rays 

    Dental X-rays play a vital role in preventative care. X-ray imaging is taken to help the Hygienist identify  any active or early signs of decay or disease efficiently, ultimately allowing them to treat their patients as required due to their diagnosis. 

    • Dental decay  
    • Gingival disease  
    • Oral infections and even tumours  

    Preventative care 

    Preventative care is one of the most important roles as a Dental Hygienist as it is important to educate the public, of all age groups, about oral care. Oral care and hygiene is important at any age, however educating children young with how to clean their teeth well will lead to better prevention of high risk patients as they get older.

    Preventative care overall is important to improve health and allow individuals to have a happy and healthy life. Prevention is more effective than cure. Through prevention programmes, individuals are able to live healthier lives. As dental health care professionals, it is important to detect issues early and respond appropriately to avoid any further development of that issue. 

    A core component of dental hygienists’ work is communicating with patients across a range of age demographics. Education in the following, is a vital component of care provision for all age groups. Here are some of the  education advice Dental Hygiene can give:

    • Toothbrushing techniques  
    • Healthy diet  
    • Interdental techniques  
    • Types of interdental cleaning 
    • Tongue cleaning  
    • Mouthwashes  
    • Smoking and alcohol cessation 
    • Importance of fluoride  
    • Healthcare attendance  
    • Use of dental hygiene products  

    Additionally, there are an abundance of treatments that Hygienists can perform to aid preventative care, including Fluoride Varnish or Fissure Sealant applications.  

    These play a key role in ensuring that problems in oral health are dismissed. Fissure Sealants are particularly helpful for children as they control tooth decay in certain areas of the mouth, such as molar teeth. Fluoride treatments are also essential for children as it strengthens their teeth, protecting against erosion and reversing early decay.

    Dental Therapists: Roles and Responsibilities

    Dental Therapists are responsible for providing preventive and restorative care, meaning that they can carry out all the duties of a Dental Hygienist in addition to offering restorations (i.e.; fillings), temporary crown placements and teeth extractions, amongst other procedures. 

    Dental Therapists may also treat patients with severe dental problems. As noticeable from the following list, Dental Therapists are certified to carry out a much wider range of procedures and treatments than their colleagues. 

    • Scale (manually or using a machine) and polish  
    • Application of fluoride varnish and fissure sealants  
    • Imaging
    • Impressions of teeth  
    • Restoration of primary and secondary teeth 
    • Placing crowns  
    • Extracting primary teeth 

    Furthermore, they can also train to further add to their skill-set. Consequently, Dental Therapists have more hands-on, procedural roles than Dental Hygienists. 

    Dental Therapists may also help address problems such as bleeding gingiva or bad breath, by promoting ways in which to improve one’s oral health.

    Carrying out restorations  

    A Dental Therapist, will carry out direct restorations on primary teeth and secondary teeth, using a variety of equipment to remove the cavity and re-build the tooth back to its original shape whilst simultaneously preventing further damage to the tooth.

    Pulpotomies and extractions on primary teeth 

    Pulpotomies are root canal treatments on primary teeth where only the topmost layer of pulp is removed, preserving most of the natural pulp. Therapists also play a key role in primary teeth extractions, so good manual dexterity is important.  Young children are a major part of the patient population, therefore dental therapists are key in making sure to provide essential care and education for them. Working with children requires a unique set of communication skills, patience and empathy. 

    As expressed, dental hygiene and therapists share interchangeable roles, which involve key skills, such as, good communication, manual dexterity, empathy and consideration. Both careers involve a lot of one-on-one interaction with people, old and young and consistent learning of new skills. Therefore, someone confident, optimistic and dedicated would be suitable for this career. 

    Useful websites

    GDC 9 Principles 

    GDC Scope of Practice

    Revise Dental 
    This is a great website to have a look into topics around dentistry

    Why Dental Hygiene and Therapy 


    GDC (2019). General Dental Council – Focus On Standards. [online] Gdc-uk.org. Available at: https://standards.gdc-uk.org/ [Accessed 14 Mar. 2022].

    GDC (2019). General Dental Council – Focus On Standards. [online] Gdc-uk.org. Available at: https://standards.gdc-uk.org/ [Accessed 14 Mar. 2022].

    FLUORIDE-FREE WATER. (2012). Fluoride Exposure: A Major Risk Factor in Periodontal Disease which contributes to Progression of Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease and Risk of Premature Birth. [online] Available at: http://ffwireland.blogspot.com/2012/11/fluoride-exposure-major-risk-factor-in.html [Accessed 15 Mar. 2022].

    Frequently Asked Question

    →What is a dental hygienist?

    A dental hygienist is a licensed oral health professional who works with dentists to help patients maintain good oral health. They provide preventative care, such as cleaning teeth, taking X-rays, and applying fluoride treatments. They may also provide patient education on proper oral hygiene techniques and make recommendations for products that can help maintain good oral health.

    →What is a dental therapist?

    A dental therapist is also a licensed oral health professional who works with dentists to provide preventive and restorative dental care. They are trained to perform a range of procedures, such as fillings, extractions, and root canal therapy. They may also provide patient education and make recommendations for oral health products.

    →What is the difference between a dental hygienist and a dental therapist?

    The main difference between a dental hygienist and a dental therapist is the scope of practice. While both professions focus on preventive care, a dental therapist is trained to provide some restorative dental procedures, such as fillings and extractions, while a dental hygienist typically does not perform these procedures.

    →What education and training are required to become a dental hygienist or therapist?

    To become a dental hygienist or therapist, one must typically complete an accredited dental hygiene or therapy program, which can range from two to four years depending on the program. Additionally, a license is required in most states or countries to practice as a dental hygienist or therapist.

    →What is the job outlook for dental hygienists and therapists?

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of dental hygienists and therapists is projected to grow much faster than average for all occupations in the coming years. This is due in part to an aging population that will require more oral healthcare services, as well as an increased focus on preventative care.

    →Can dental hygienists and therapists work independently?

    In some states and countries, dental hygienists and therapists are authorized to work independently, while in others they must work under the supervision of a dentist. The regulations governing the practice of dental hygienists and therapists vary widely depending on location.

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