What Is a Dental Assistant?

NurseJournal Staff
Updated September 26, 2023
Interested in becoming a dental assistant? Explore what dental assistants do, where they work, and how much you can expect to earn.
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11% growth from 2020-2030

A dental assistant manages a variety of tasks, including assisting with dental X-rays and impressions, aiding the dentist in various procedures, and supporting the patient before and after dental treatments. The dental assistant often ensures patients understand aftercare instructions and teaches patients about dental hygiene practices.

Dental assistant certificate programs take 6-15 months to complete, while earning an associate degree may require two years of study.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental assistants earn a mean annual wage of $42,510, or $20.44 per hour. The BLS also projects an above average job growth rate of 11% for dental assistants between 2020 and 2030.

Keep reading for more about what a dental assistant does, work settings, and how to become a dental assistant.

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What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Certification Optional

The job duties of dental assistants are broad and vary by setting. Dental assistants work in many specialties and may be trained in various procedures, such as taking X-rays or assisting during surgery.

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Key Responsibilities

Key responsibilities dental assistants perform include:

  • Providing chairside assistance to the dentist during a wide range of dental treatments
  • Scheduling patient followup visits
  • Taking a complete patient history, including vital signs
  • Taking teeth impressions dental crowns, bridges, and other prosthodontics
  • Performing patient teaching, such as after surgery instructions, good oral hygiene, and denture care

Career Traits

A successful dental assistant should display certain professional characteristics, such as:

  • Good communication, listening, and observation skills
  • Ability to work well under stress
  • Ability to multitask and work in a fast-paced environment
  • Dexterity, or skill working with hands
  • Ability to connect with patients and provide emotional support

Where Do Dental Assistants Work?

According to the BLS, 90% of dental assistants work in dental clinics. This includes solo dental practices, group practices, and specialty practices, such as oral surgeons, orthodontic practices, prosthodontics, and pediatric dentistry.

Other less common work environments for dental assistants may include:

  • Public health dentistry
  • Hospital dental clinics
  • School dental clinics, such as university dental programs
  • Insurance claims
  • Government positions, such as military dental clinics

How to Become a Dental Assistant

The path to becoming a dental assistant can take 6-15 months, depending on the program. Keep in mind that certification requirements vary by state, and some states mandate the completion of an accredited dental assistant program and a passing score on an examination. In other states, becoming a dental assistant may involve on-the-job training, with no formal education or certification required.

Most training programs are offered at local community colleges or vocational/technical institutions. Dental assistant programs could involve an associate degree, which takes two years to complete. Accredited programs approved by the Commission of Dental Accreditation (CODA) involve coursework and some practicum hours in the lab. Students learn about the anatomy of the teeth and mouth, dental instruments and their use, and best dental practices.

The certified dental assistant testing is conducted by the Dental Assistant National Board. Exam, requirements include:

  • A high school diploma
  • CPR certification
  • Successful completion of an accredited dental assistant program
  • Passing a written examination, which includes three segments: general chairside assisting, radiation health and safety, and infection control.

How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?

According to the BLS, the average hourly salary for dental assistants is $20.44 per hour. In May 2021, the lowest 10% of earners reported making $29,580 annually, while the top 90% of earners made $59,540. 

Pay varies by education, work setting, and employer. Dental assistants in the federal executive branch tend to earn the most, at a mean annual $45,970. Those working in physician offices reported the lowest mean wage at $40,250.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dental Assistants

question-mark-circleIs a degree required to become a dental assistant?

A degree or certification may be required to work as a dental assistant, depending on where you live. Each state holds different requirements. In some geographic locations, dental assistant employment only requires on-the-job training.

question-mark-circleWhat’s the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist?

A dental assistant aids the dentist with dental procedures and is not allowed to perform dental treatments. A dental hygienist provides preventative care and can diagnose disorders related to dental hygiene, such as periodontal disease and gingivitis.

question-mark-circleAre dental assistants in demand?

Yes. According to BLS, employment growth for dental assistants is expected to increase by 11% between 2020 and 2030.

question-mark-circleWhat career advancement opportunities are available for dental assistants?

Dental assistants often train to become dental hygienists, which enables them to significantly increase their average salary earnings. The BLS reports the mean annual salary for dental hygienists at $81,360, or $39.12 per hour.

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