How to Become a Dental Assistant
A career in the dental industry offers plenty to smile about. High employment demand, potential for career growth, exciting medical advancements, and the rewards of working directly with patients to help improve their health and self-confidence are all perks. Dental assistant jobs offer all this with one other important benefit: There’s no need to spend years attending an expensive dental school program.
In this guide, you’ll discover how to become a dental assistant, what a dental assistant’s typical workday is like, and what you might expect in terms of salary and career growth.
What Do Dental Assistants Do?
Dental assistants handle a wide range of tasks, from administrative to lab work or patient care. Whereas dental hygienists’ duties primarily involve cleaning patients’ teeth and educating patients about dental care, dental assistants perform a wider variety of functions and certain office tasks that help to keep a dental practice running smoothly.
Types of Dental Assistants
There are several types of dental assistants. However, their titles and duties may vary depending on the practice setting, level of training, whether they have earned certification from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), state requirements, and even the individual dentists’ needs.
It’s possible to get a dental assistant position with no formal training or licensure, depending on your state’s requirements. However, DANB certifications and competency exams are recognized or required by 39 states and Washington D.C. Completing an accredited dental assistant programs is needed to become certified.
With formal training, dental assistants may also take on one of the following job titles:
- Certified Dental Assistants (CDAs) earn higher salaries, on average, and are qualified to perform more patient care duties than unlicensed dental assistants. A CDA is trained in general chairside assisting, radiation health and safety, and infection control.
- In some states, dental assistants can earn the Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) These positions require CDA certification, formally registering with the state board of dental examiners, and mandatory training in specific subjects such as radiography, coronal polishing, or infection control.
- In some states, an RDA is referred to as an Expanded Functions Dental Assistant. These professionals have training to perform specialized duties, including applying sealants, taking dental impressions, performing coronal polishing, or applying anesthetics or fluoride.
Some states identify even greater specializations. For example, California recognizes permits for orthodontic assistants or dental sedation assistants. Alaska also has a restorative functions permit. Check your individual state’s dental assistant job titles and requirements with DANB.
One of the benefits of being a dental assistant is that no two days are exactly the same. Dental assistants perform a wide range of tasks — some days you’ll be focused on patient care while other days you’ll be immersed in office work. Though most dental assistants work full time, one-third work part time, and some may be asked to work weekends or evenings.
Your typical day may include:
- Answering phones and scheduling appointments
- Sterilizing dental instruments
- Working alongside a dentist during procedures to suction patients’ mouths or hand over needed instruments
- Processing X rays
- Helping patients feel comfortable before, during, and after treatments
- Communicating with insurance companies, dental suppliers, or other health professionals
In some states, dental assistants may be allowed, with proper training, to perform certain additional procedures, such as:
- Coronal polishing, which involves removing soft plaque deposits from teeth
- Applying topical fluoride or anesthetic to patients’ teeth and gums
- Applying sealants to help prevent cavities
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that the vast majority (91%) of dental assistants work in dentists’ offices. However, some may work in physicians’ offices, Veterans Administration’s medical facilities, dental product suppliers, or even insurance companies.
What Skills and Traits Are Needed?
Because dental assistants are an important part of the dental care team and their work involves both treating patients and keeping careful records, there are certain skills or qualities they should have to be successful:
- Good manual dexterity: Being good with your hands is important in using small dental tools and working in patients’ mouths
- Teamwork and interpersonal skills: You’ll need to be a team player to take direction from and support dentists and hygienists. You’ll also need to communicate well with both coworkers and patients.
- Organizational skills: Dental assistants are expected to keep careful records, use and maintain files and schedules, and schedule patients
- Attention to detail: Listening carefully to dentist instructions or patients’ needs and following procedures to the letter are essential
How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?
The BLS says that in May 2018, the median annual salary for dental assistants was $38,660. A DANB salary survey found that full-time CDA certificate holders earned a median salary of $20.46 per hour, which comes to about $2 more per hour than dental assistants who are not certified.
Of course, a dental assistant salary depends on various factors, such as practice and location. The following were the top five highest-paying states for dental assistants in 2018, according to the BLS.
|State||Annual Mean Wage|
|District of Columbia||$49,220|
Thanks to tremendous advancements in oral treatments and cosmetic dentistry, people are taking better care of their teeth. Plus, it’s more affordable than ever. All this combined with the aging of the large baby boomer population — who need increased amounts of oral care — add up to a strong demand for dental industry employees.
Dental assistant jobs are expected to grow 19% between 2016 and 2026, according to the BLS, which is must faster than the average for all occupations.
Dental Assistant Programs and Training
It’s possible to become a dental assistant right out of high school and learn on the job. However, most states have some sort of training and certification requirement, so formal education is encouraged by the American Dental Association (ADA). Dental assistant school generally takes one year or less to complete.
On the Job Training
Those who prefer to enter dental assisting immediately, without formal training, may find it harder to find employment. Job opportunities and pay tend to increase with education.
However, some practices may be willing to train dental assistants on the job. The ADA says that those training on the job or whose programs weren’t accredited are eligible to take the certification exam after two years of full-time work as dental assistant apprentices.
Certificate and Diploma Programs
Typically, a certificate or diploma program is focused on training for a dental assistant career and the tasks you’ll be asked to perform on the job. In other words, this training probably won’t be applicable to other fields or positions in dentistry. A certificate or diploma program may take only nine months to a year, so you can enter a dental assistant job quickly.
In your dental assistant certificate or diploma program, you may expect to learn basic dental assisting techniques, such as how to:
- identify, sterilize, and use dental instruments;
- maintain patient charts; or
- dispose of biological waste.
You can also expect to learn:
- Oral anatomy and terminology
- Basic oral care practices
- The basics of dental radiology (x-rays)
- Dental office management or recordkeeping
You should expect some hands-on training under the supervision of a dentist. And, of course, your program should prepare you to successfully pass the CDA exam.
Associate Degree Programs
An associate degree offers students a broader foundation of study than a certificate or diploma. For example, students generally will need to take general studies courses such as English or certain sciences. An associate degree usually doesn’t lead to higher pay than a certificate program, and it usually takes about twice as long to complete (about two years).
However, whereas certificate/diploma programs are best for students who want to begin working as dental assistants as quickly as possible, associate programs may be best if you think you might be interested in pursuing a career as a dental hygienist, an instructor in a dental assisting program, a supervisory role, or some other advanced position that requires a degree.
The associate degree — usually an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) or Associate of Science in dental assisting — will provide you with the training needed to embark on a dental assistant career and pass the certification exam. But the skills it provides may serve as a healthy foundation for other career paths as well. 21% of dental assistants have associate degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.
An associate degree program is likely to provide more specialized training as well, such as expanded functions and basic dental science (nutrition, biology, oral pathology). Most students are required to complete a certain amount of clinical experience in a dental office or lab. Students usually must complete their CDA exams in order to earn their degrees.
Dental Assistant School Online
For some students who aren’t able to physically come to campus to attend classes — whether for scheduling or geographic reasons — an online program may be the best way to earn dental assistant training. Online programs may offer the benefit of accelerated training, the option to complete courses at your own pace or on your own schedule, and access to a larger number of programs.
Schools may offer certificate or associate degrees for dental assistants online. Some programs provide all coursework 100% online, while others may have certain on-campus requirements, such as exams, clinical experience, or seminars.
However, since dental assistant training usually involves a hands-on component, even programs with all online coursework usually require students to complete externships in order to graduate. In an externship, students work under the supervision of dentists in dental offices.
The Importance of Accreditation
The first thing to consider before enrolling in any dental assisting program is whether the program is accredited by the CODA. Accreditation means that the institution has undergone a rigorous evaluation process that ensures quality. It tells employers that your education is relevant to the workplace. It’s also required by certifying and licensing agencies, as well as by the federal government for financial aid.
For dental assistants in the majority of states that require certification, students aren’t eligible unless they’ve completed an accredited dental assisting program. If you’re not sure whether the program you’re considering is accredited, consult the CODA search tool found on its website.
Dental Assistant Licensure and Certification
Where you live may determine how much training dental assistants need, what certifications or licensures you must earn, and what titles or specializations you can pursue. It’s important that you consult the DANB’s state requirements search tool to learn the requirements for working as a dental assistant in your state.
State Licensure and Certification
Right now, many states in the U.S. require dental assistants to have national CDA certifications. In fact, 39 states either recognize this certification (with increased responsibilities or pay) or require it.
Additionally, states may have other requirements like certain amounts of education, successful completion of state-level licensure or certification exams, or completion of specialized training in certain skills. Once you’ve identified dental assisting as your career of choice, it’s a good idea to research your state’s requirements and training programs that align with them.
For example, Oregon doesn’t have education or training requirement for dental assistants. However, if they want to earn the Expanded Function Dental Assistant (EFDA) designation, dental assistants must earn an Oregon EFDA certificate, which can be earned through a variety of pathways.
Additionally, dental assistants in Oregon may pursue EFDA designations with additional certificates in restorative functions, orthodontic dental assistant, or preventive dental assistant. They can also specialize in Anesthesia Monitor or Anesthesia Dental Assistant (with or without IV Therapy). These designations all require specialized, formalized training beyond basic dental assisting, completion of certain additional courses and exams, and state certifications.
The DANB offers five national certifications for dental assistants, which can help provide you with a competitive edge among employers, increase salary and advancement opportunities, and qualify you for additional responsibilities. They may also help you to satisfy your particular state’s requirements.
Here are the differences among these five certifications:
|Certification Name||Exam Description||Cost|
|National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)||The NELDA certification is made up of three exams:
Anatomy, morphology, and physiology
Radiation health and safety
|Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)||The CDA certification involves three exams:
General chairside assisting
Radiation health and safety
|Certified Orthodontic Assistant||This certification requires passage of two component exams:
|Certified Preventative Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)||This certification consists of three exams:
|Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)||Six exams make up this certification:
Anatomy, morphology, and physiology
|$125-$400, depending on component exam or combination of exams taken|
Each certification has different eligibility requirements, and some may have multiple ways candidates can meet those requirements. You can learn more from the DANB website.
Dental Assistant Schools By State
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia