innerbody

How to Become a Dental Assistant

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

dental assistant with young patient

Almost no one looks forward to sitting in the dentist’s chair. But when we find ourselves there, a pleasant and skillful dental assistant can make all the difference between a positive and negative visit to the dentist, and subsequently between good and bad dental health. Dental assistants work under the direction of dentists and dental hygienists to provide routine care. They generally have a good deal of “face time” with patients and play an important role in keeping them relaxed and comfortable. And the quality care they deliver makes a huge difference in patients’ overall health and wellbeing.

The duties of dental assistants vary widely across the country, largely because some states allow for a wider scope of practice than others. Common duties include:

  • Setting up the work area by laying out the dentist’s tools and materials
  • Conducting patient intakes, including medical and dental history, vital signs and blood pressure testing
  • Assisting the dentist and hygienist during procedures by handling tools and suctioning excess fluids from the patient’s mouth
  • Educating patients on brushing, flossing, dental hygiene and post-procedure home care
  • Preventing infection through proper equipment sterilization and handling
  • Conducting and processing diagnostic tests like X-rays and lab tests
  • Taking impressions of patients’ teeth
  • Managing the practice’s inventory
  • Handling clerical tasks like scheduling, payment and claims processing

Some states also allow qualified dental assistants to:

  • Clean and polish patients’ teeth
  • Administer anti-cavity treatments like sealant and fluoride application
  • Apply topical anesthetics before procedures

Dental assistants are part of a growing and important industry. Thanks to high profile research studies, consumers have begun to understand the benefits of good oral care. What’s more, demand for dental care is growing thanks to federal laws that expanded access to health insurance in 2014.

Opportunities within the field are also growing. As patient numbers swell, dentists are turning more and more tasks over to their assistants. Scope of practice for dental assistants is therefore likely to expand in coming years.

Experienced dental assistants say they love having a versatile job that gives them a chance to work in many aspects of patient care. They also report a high level of satisfaction that comes from helping others look and feel their best. And when patients are anxious or in pain, the compassion and connection assistants provide truly makes a difference.

Workplace Details

Most dental assistants work in dentists’ offices. These practices may employ one dentist or several. Some offices are dedicated to specialties like oral surgery, orthodontics (braces) or pediatric dentistry. In addition, some hospitals employ dental assistants to care for bedridden patients. Dental assistants also work in the public sector caring for school children and the medically underserved in our communities.

Dental assistants generally work regular business hours. Some evening and weekend shifts may be required to accommodate patients’ schedules. About two-thirds of dental assistants work full time. Many assistants say that flexible scheduling is a major perk of the job.

Working conditions for dental assistants are usually quite pleasant. Dentists’ offices are clean, well lit and welcoming. Working in a dental setting involves some exposure to environmental hazards, notably radiation (from X-rays) and infectious diseases. These risks are minimized through proper use of protective clothing (apron, gloves, mask) and by following established safety procedures.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$39150
Texas
$35770
New York
$36500
Florida
$37420
Illinois
$37860

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

Created with Raphaël 2.1.0 AL AK AZ AR CA CO CT DE DC FL GA HI ID IL IN IA KS KY LA ME MD MA MI MN MS MO MT NE NV NH NJ NM NY NC ND OH OK OR PA RI SC SD TN TX UT VT VA WA WV WI WY

ALABAMA

Median Salary: 
$30,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $42,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$25,440$32,970$42,810
Huntsville$20,780$29,510$45,100

ALASKA

Median Salary: 
$44,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$33,190$45,660$58,870
Fairbanks$31,100$38,530$57,280

ARIZONA

Median Salary: 
$35,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 260

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$27,000$36,630$49,760
Tuscon$23,720$33,960$47,150

ARKANSAS

Median Salary: 
$32,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $43,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$26,120$34,800$45,100
Fort Smith$24,110$32,220$39,020

CALIFORNIA

Median Salary: 
$37,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,970

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$23,500$35,320$52,890
San Francisco Bay$31,670$41,540$60,780
San Diego$28,170$39,070$54,020
Sacramento$26,550$40,030$57,410

COLORADO

Median Salary: 
$37,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $55,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 29%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 300

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$28,510$39,310$60,630
Colorado Springs$25,370$35,220$47,590

CONNECTICUT

Median Salary: 
$41,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $55,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$27,940$42,870$54,730
Bridgeport$30,420$42,090$57,490
New Haven$30,120$38,570$54,790

DELAWARE

Median Salary: 
$37,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$27,580$39,110$50,090
Dover$21,940$34,710$45,270

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Median Salary: 
$40,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$28,110$39,560$58,850

FLORIDA

Median Salary: 
$35,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $48,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 810

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$23,510$33,460$51,050
Orlando$28,060$35,690$49,230
Tampa$25,530$34,970$48,530
Jacksonville$20,050$34,710$47,410

GEORGIA

Median Salary: 
$35,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $48,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 430

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$26,330$37,610$49,720
Augusta$21,400$30,420$43,910

HAWAII

Median Salary: 
$34,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $46,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$23,180$34,070$45,270

IDAHO

Median Salary: 
$33,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $43,400

Job Growth Data Not Available

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$27,340$35,370$47,130
Idaho Falls$25,630$32,930$38,620

ILLINOIS

Median Salary: 
$36,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $48,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 470

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$25,500$37,650$49,000
Rockford$27,740$35,300$45,490

INDIANA

Median Salary: 
$35,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $48,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 220

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$28,550$36,930$48,550
South Bend$27,470$38,030$62,780
Fort Wayne$23,340$35,640$51,380

IOWA

Median Salary: 
$37,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$24,480$40,520$53,190
Cedar Rapids$33,580$43,420$58,700

KANSAS

Median Salary: 
$33,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $19,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $53,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$25,940$33,620$49,180
Kansas City$19,220$34,330$58,520

KENTUCKY

Median Salary: 
$33,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $46,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 200

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$26,080$38,610$49,350
Lexington$24,950$32,980$45,640

LOUISIANA

Median Salary: 
$28,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $38,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$22,310$28,770$37,760
Baton Rouge$21,980$31,370$44,410
Lafayette$20,580$27,970$37,660

MAINE

Median Salary: 
$36,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $53,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$24,470$40,200$59,190
Lewiston$28,490$36,510$48,910

MARYLAND

Median Salary: 
$38,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $54,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$26,190$40,640$53,470
Frederick$26,540$42,040$59,000

MASSACHUSETTS

Median Salary: 
$42,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 240

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$31,660$42,340$56,640
Worcester$31,670$44,000$57,750
Springfield$31,950$42,400$56,520

MICHIGAN

Median Salary: 
$34,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $47,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 270

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$22,650$32,370$45,300
Grand Rapids$32,380$41,770$49,530

MINNESOTA

Median Salary: 
$44,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $57,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 200

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$34,170$44,660$58,190
Rochester$35,210$45,750$57,680

MISSISSIPPI

Median Salary: 
$29,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $43,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$24,710$30,870$46,090
Gulfport$26,120$32,530$41,900

MISSOURI

Median Salary: 
$33,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $48,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$24,800$33,460$48,390
Kansas City$19,220$34,330$58,520

MONTANA

Median Salary: 
$34,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $46,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$27,210$37,850$48,410
Missoula$21,510$31,460$44,270

NEBRASKA

Median Salary: 
$33,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $45,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$25,570$33,360$42,460
Lincoln$27,930$36,050$57,420

NEVADA

Median Salary: 
$34,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $47,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$23,770$33,960$45,410
Reno$25,030$36,600$55,740

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Median Salary: 
$44,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$40,190$45,790$69,620
Nashua$32,580$45,370$59,500

NEW JERSEY

Median Salary: 
$39,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 340

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$24,360$41,510$57,710
Trenton$21,190$31,120$52,740

NEW MEXICO

Median Salary: 
$32,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $44,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$23,040$31,930$39,400
Las Cruces$17,760$29,560$90,530

NEW YORK

Median Salary: 
$35,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $50,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 870

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$22,140$35,060$52,470
Buffalo$26,790$36,620$47,030
Rochester$26,820$34,950$49,410
Albany$26,050$36,050$47,810

NORTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$37,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $50,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 450

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$27,930$38,420$49,850
Raleigh$32,490$41,520$55,770
Greensboro$29,220$36,360$46,820
Winston - Salem$26,440$36,780$50,710

NORTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$39,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$31,250$37,880$59,970
Bismarck$34,190$43,960$55,670

OHIO

Median Salary: 
$35,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 410

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$29,300$36,120$47,300
Columbus$26,010$36,010$55,730
Cincinnati$27,020$35,890$48,700
Dayton$25,660$36,130$55,700

OKLAHOMA

Median Salary: 
$32,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $46,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 150

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$22,310$32,850$42,820
Tulsa$23,440$33,740$49,680

OREGON

Median Salary: 
$41,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $54,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$32,150$42,460$56,480
Salem$27,360$36,690$48,140

PENNSYLVANIA

Median Salary: 
$34,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $50,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 410

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$23,100$36,440$55,030
Pittsburgh$24,670$34,280$46,080
Harrisburg$25,910$34,690$46,500
Allentown$24,830$33,180$49,510

RHODE ISLAND

Median Salary: 
$38,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $48,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 2%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$30,320$39,750$48,950

SOUTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$34,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $46,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$27,890$35,560$51,430
Columbia$25,470$34,540$45,860
Charleston$29,260$36,280$52,750

SOUTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$33,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $46,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Sioux Falls$27,050$37,780$52,650
Rapid City$24,920$32,200$40,360

TENNESSEE

Median Salary: 
$35,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $47,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 210

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$25,250$35,410$46,750
Memphis$22,340$34,490$45,820
Knoxville$28,060$37,540$48,000
Chattanooga$26,010$32,990$49,170

TEXAS

Median Salary: 
$34,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $48,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,310

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$23,240$36,740$49,620
Houston$24,440$35,400$47,560
San Antonio$22,480$30,560$47,940
Austin$28,130$39,770$51,900

UTAH

Median Salary: 
$28,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $37,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 30%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 260

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$25,000$29,720$37,980
Ogden$20,340$28,080$36,260

VERMONT

Median Salary: 
$38,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 0%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Burlington$31,730$38,540$53,880

VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$36,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $54,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 420

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$22,610$31,240$42,530
Richmond$30,420$38,570$52,230

WASHINGTON

Median Salary: 
$40,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $53,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 500

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$31,320$41,370$55,070
Spokane$30,140$38,570$47,580

WEST VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$27,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $19,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $38,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$20,320$30,700$39,140
Charleston$22,000$30,160$38,100

WISCONSIN

Median Salary: 
$36,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $47,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$26,750$37,000$47,410
Madison$26,230$36,190$47,820

WYOMING

Median Salary: 
$32,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $44,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$23,980$34,150$42,910
Casper$27,230$38,210$50,700

Salaries vary with education level, experience, responsibilities and geographic location. The median salary for all dental assistants is $36,940, or $17.76 per hour, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest-paid 10 percent earn a median of $25,460, and the highest-paid 10 percent earn a median of $52,000.

Salaries are generally greatest for certified and licensed dental assistants; those with some college education; those with several years of experience; and those who are qualified to perform advanced patient care tasks (X-rays, cleanings and fluoride treatments).

Because more people are seeking dental care today than ever before, the job outlook for dental assistants should be excellent in the near future. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment is expected to grow by 18 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than the average for all professions.

Increased public awareness is one reason for this growing demand. More and more people are making the connection between good oral health and overall health. This leads consumers to seek regular preventative dental care and to continue that care throughout their lives.

The growing elderly population is also a factor. Thanks to advances in dental care, older people are keeping their natural teeth longer - often for their entire lives. Demand for dental services is expected to swell as members of the Baby Boomer generation enter their sixties, seventies and beyond.

Finally, in 2014, the Affordable Care Act extended healthcare coverage, including dental coverage, to millions of Americans who were uninsured or underinsured. This will allow more people to obtain dental care in the future.

In addition to excellent job prospects, dental assistants are enjoying an increasing scope of practice in many states. Where permitted by law, busy dentists are handing over more routine patient care tasks to their assistants. For this reason, assistants with the highest levels of licensing, certification and experience will generally be most employable going forward.

Dentist office websites, local newspapers, community employment offices and online career sites are good sources of job listings for dental assistants.

Compare Salaries by City

New York City NY Median Pay

$35060 Per Year

$16.85 Per Hour

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$35320 Per Year

$16.98 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Dental Assistant

1

Get a high school diploma or GED.

Educational requirements for dental assistants vary from state to state. In some states, a candidate must complete a postsecondary program in order to become a dental assistant. In other cases, however, only on-the-job training is required. However, a high school diploma and GED are always recommended for several reasons:

  • They’re generally necessary for certification, especially for assistants who train on the job
  • They’re often required to enter an accredited training program (which is a licensing requirement in some states)
  • They may be required in order to perform certain regulated tasks like coronal polishing (cleaning)
  • Education will make you a more competitive job candidate and may allow you to negotiate higher pay

To learn more about education requirements in your state, contact your state board of dentistry.

High school students can prepare for a career as a dental assistant by studying biology, chemistry and anatomy. Experience with computers is also helpful.

2

Choose an accredited program.

Students who opt for a postsecondary program have several options, including one-year certificate programs and two-year associate degree programs. These programs are available through community colleges, vocational and technical schools, dental schools and private career colleges. It’s important to choose a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), as this often simplifies the certification and licensure processes.

Show Me Schools »

During the program, dental assisting students learn about the anatomy of the mouth, teeth, jaws and gums. They also gain practical experience with dental instruments and materials. Instruction includes a mixture of lecture, lab work and supervised clinical experience.

3

Complete on-the-job training.

On-the-job training is an option for candidates living in states that do not regulate the practice of dental assistants. Instruction is provided by dentists, dental hygienists and senior dentals assistants.

Dental assistants who train on the job and who hold a high school diploma or equivalent are eligible for national certification after the completion of 3,500 work hours (or about two years of full-time experience).

4

Determine your state's license requirements.

Again, state regulations vary when it comes to the licensure of dental assistants:

  • Some states require national certification and/or state licensure of all assistants. State licensure generally involves graduation from a CODA-accredited training program and passage of a licensing exam. Some states mandate continuing education for practicing dental assistants.
  • Other states regulate certain job functions like coronal polishing (cleaning) or X-rays
  • A few states have no licensing requirements for dental assistants. However, training and certification still tend to lead to better job prospects and higher pay.

The Dental Auxiliary Learning and Education (DALE) Foundation maintains a useful state-by-state listing of licensing requirements for dental assistants.

5

Acquire a CDA credential.

The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential is administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). In many states, holding a CDA can streamline the licensing process. Often, it also allows for a wider scope of practice.

To earn CDA designation, candidates must:

  • Graduate from a CODA-accredited training program or complete 3,500 hours of documented, supervised work experience
  • Hold current CPR certification
  • Pass a national board exam consisting of three components: radiation health and safety (RHS), infection control (ICE) and general chair-side exam skills (GC)

DANB also offers several advanced credentials for dental assistants who pass additional component exams. These include:

  • Certified Orthodontics Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventative Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)

6

Consider advancement opportunities.

Working as a dental assistant is a great way to learn about other health professions before committing to a more rigorous educational program. Some assistants go on to become dental hygienists, dentists, physicians and nurses. Others choose to remain dental assistants but to focus on a clinical area like orthodontics, hospital practice or geriatric or pediatric dentistry.

Advancement is also possible beyond the clinical realm. Insurance companies sometimes hire assistants to process dental claims. Some dental assistants go on to lucrative careers as sales representatives for dental products companies.

Experienced dental assistants are in a great position to train entry-level professionals. Depending on state regulations, this might take place in a formal training program or on-the-job in a dentist’s office.

Exploring Degree Paths

You may not need to graduate from high school in order to work as a dental assistant. However, as a diploma holder, you’ll be:

  • Eligible for national certification
  • Qualified to perform more complicated procedures (for example, tooth cleaning and polishing)
  • Prepared to enroll in a dental assisting certificate or associate degree program

Where permitted by state law, dental assistants can train entirely on the job. After about two years of full-time experience, these assistants can sit for the national certification exam (see the advanced credentials section for more information).

DENTAL ASSISTING CERTIFICATE PROGRAM

1 year

This level of education is the minimum requirement for licensure in some states. Even where not required, holding a dental assisting certificate can make it easier to get a job (especially in more competitive job markets).

Community colleges, technical schools, dental schools, and even some high schools offer dental assisting certificate programs. Before enrolling in a program, contact your state dental board to verify that it’s approved for licensure purposes. Some states only license dental assistants who graduate from programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

Show Me Schools »

Dental assistant training blends classroom learning, labs, simulations, and supervised fieldwork. Students can expect to study:

Dental science

Learn about anatomy, cellular structure, development, and diseases of the mouth and jaw.

Dental materials

Explore the physical and chemical properties, application, and manipulation of substances used in oral care.

Dental radiography

Study how x-rays and other imaging techniques can be safely used to inform and improve care.

Infection control

Understand how disease spreads in dental settings plus techniques for preventing transmission.

Most programs also include an internship or fieldwork component. During this phase, students practice assisting dentists in the care of real-life patients. The experience is typically structured to cover a variety of dental specialties, practice settings, and populations.

ASSOCIATE DEGREE

2 years

Earning an associate degree in dental assisting allows you study advanced topics in the field. You’ll also round out your education with general education courses. An associate degree is also a good idea if you eventually plan to pursue an associate degree in dental hygiene, a bachelor’s degree, or graduate school.

Associate degree programs are most commonly found at 2-year colleges and vocational schools. Before enrolling, verify that your chosen program meets your state’s licensure requirements (most commonly, state dental board approval and/or CODA accreditation).

Associate degree programs in dental assisting cover all the same classes as certificate programs. However, they allow you to go above and beyond by studying advanced topics in the field. You’ll also round out your education with courses in communications, technology, and the humanities.

Some examples of dental assisting courses at the associate degree level:

Prevention and nutrition

Learn best practices to help patients promote oral health and prevent cavities.

Advanced dental radiography

Practice safely imaging a wider range of patients and conditions.

Office management

Explore the administrative functions of dental practices and office technologies that support them.

Medical emergencies

Gain the skills to prevent and manage airway obstruction, allergic reactions, and other common problems that can arise during dental care.

Like certificate students, dental assistant AAS students complete extensive practical training under supervision.

Keys to Success as a Dental Assistant

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Teamwork skills

Good camaraderie is essential in a dental office so staff can focus on providing excellent customer service. Dental assistants must be team players, working closely with dentists and dental hygienists, who provide direct supervision.

Communication skills

Dental assistants must be good communicators. Assistants also need to understand and follow directions from the dentist or hygienist.

Empathy and people skills

Dental assistants spend a great deal of time interacting with patients. They must be comfortable working with people of all backgrounds, including many who are anxious or in pain. A pleasant, calming personality will help them to establish rapport with patients.

Technology skills

In addition to working with people, dental assistants should be comfortable with technology, including the use of machines, materials, chemicals, tools and sterilizing equipment.

Notices details

As in other health care fields, dental assistants need to be alert and detail oriented. Patients’ safety depends on the ability to follow specific rules and protocols closely.

Organization skills

Assistants need to have all tools and materials laid out for the dentist or hygienist when a procedure begins. This may involve sterilizing tools and preparing certain materials beforehand.

Additional Credentials

The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers a variety of voluntary credentials for dental assistants. Many employers prefer to hire certified candidates.

To earn a DANB credential, you’ll need to be up to date on your CPR certification and pass several component exams (for example, infection control). To finalize your certification, you’ll also need to meet DANB’s education and experience requirements.

DANB offers two primary certifications for dental assistants:

  • National Entry-Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) - for candidates working toward CDA eligibility
  • Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) - candidates must graduate from an accredited training program OR document 3,500 hours (about 2 years) of work experience

In order to earn the following DANB specialty certifications, candidates must meet additional education and experience requirements and pass the relevant component exams:

  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventative Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)

In addition, some states have credentialing programs for dental assistants (for example, Expanded Duties Dental Assistant in Colorado). Check with your state dental board for more details.

x