What Dental Hygienists Earn: 2021 Edition

Richard Gawel

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While 2020 was tumultuous for dental hygienists, they seem to have gotten a raise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental hygienists earned a median pay of $77,090 with a $37.06 hourly wage last year. That’s an increase over 2019’s $76,220 and $36.65 totals.

A Closer Look

The BLS also is optimistic about the profession’s prospects beyond the pandemic. It projects overall employment to grow 6% from 2019 through 2029, which is faster than the average for all professions the BLS studied, with 13,300 new positions expected to be available.

The BLS attributes this growth to an aging population keeping more of its teeth and greater awareness of oral-systemic health among patients. The demand for dental hygienists also will grow as state laws increasingly allow them to work at the top of their training, making them more productive, the BLS said.

Job prospects will vary by geographic location though, the BLS said. Entry into dental hygiene programs is competitive as well, with the number of applicants exceeding the number of students accepted.

However, the BLS still expects the number of openings to exceed the number of graduates, with the most opportunities for dental hygienists who are willing to work in underserved areas and for those who are open to working less than 40 hours a week.

According to the BLS, dental hygienists held about 226,400 jobs in 2019, with 93% of them working in dental offices with a median annual pay of $77,330. Another 1% worked in physicians’ offices with a median pay of $75,590, and 1% worked for the government with a median pay of $65,080.

The BLS noted that benefits such as vacation, sick leave, and retirement contributions vary by employer and may only be available to full-time workers. Many dental hygienists work part time since dentists hire them to only work a few days a week, so some may work for more than one dentist.

Dental hygienists had the highest mean wage in Alaska at $115,050 and $55.31 per hour, followed by California at $109,9070 and $52.87, Washington at $95,450 and $45.89, the District of Columbia at $94,650 and $45.50, and Nevada at $89,360 and $42.96.

Based on metropolitan area, dental hygienists in the Santa Maria and Santa Barbara area of California had the highest mean wage at $133,730 with a $64.30 hourly pay, followed by the San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara area of California at $120,340 and $57.85, and Santa Rosa, California, at $118,980 and $57.20. In fact, California locales took eight of the top 10 regions.

An Expected Pay Raise

Dental hygienists faced significant professional and personal challenges in 2020. But the pandemic opened up significant opportunities too. Marissa Dolce, vice president of clinical hygiene at Mid-Atlantic Dental Partners, was not surprised by the increases in salary, noting that the pandemic created a shortage of dental hygienists.

“I believe approximately 8% of hygienists decided to discontinue practicing. Some of them are seasoned hygienists who decided to retire, younger hygienists who may have issues with childcare, and those who are concerned with risk. The shortage of hygienists creates more demand, which drives the wages higher,” Dolce said.

“The pay increase was not surprising, especially given the fact that many hygienists left the field as a result of the pandemic. I saw dental offices desperate to hire hygienists and competing with pay rates,” said Jamie Collins, RDH-EA, senior client success manager and professional education manager at MouthWatch.

“Hygienists who have temped prior to the pandemic decided to forego temping as a result of COVID. Those who continued were able to demand a higher reimbursement for doing so due to the demand. Some temp agencies are charging offices and paying temps a risk hazard fee per day. I know of a friend who makes an additional $8 per hour on top of her temp wages,” Collins said.

Karen Davis, RDH, BSDH, founder of Cutting Edge Concepts, said that the increase was surprising because so many professionals and workers saw reductions in hours, workload, and overall income as a result of industry shutdowns. Yet median salaries for registered dental hygienists have been steadily increasing since 2010, reflecting the value that people place on oral health overall, said Davis, who also is a Philips Oral Healthcare key opinion leader.

“That value has grown in the past decade as preventive and oral-systemic health messages have been communicated to the public at large. Dental hygienists have job security in light of the high incidence of periodontal disease still present in the US,” said Davis.

“Our health and wellness messages still need a large platform to entice lower-income populations, representing some of the greatest need, to seek preventive dental care earlier, as opposed to later in the disease process,” Davis said.

“At face value, the increase is surprising as the COVID-19 pandemic increased the overhead costs of dental practices to care for our patients in the form of additional PPE, equipment, pre-appointment screenings, and covering extra staff sick time taken for both personal and family illness,” said Misty Mattingly, RDH, BSDH, vice president of hygiene operations at Sage Dental.

“Yet with the underlying trends in the dental market, including the shortage of hygienists working because of the pandemic and skyrocketing demand, it logically follows that we see salary increases for dental hygienists across the country,” Mattingly said.

Tough Times

Despite the increases in pay for those who remained at work, many dental hygienists were furloughed as practices shut down and later saw reduced volumes upon reopening. Still, Dolce said many of these professionals had support during this difficult time and afterward as well.

“I do not believe that the hygienists being furloughed during the quarantine suffered any dire consequences financially, given that they could collect unemployment and receive the additional $600 from the government. While this may not have totally replaced their working income, it came close enough, depending on the state,” Dolce said.

“The company with which I am currently employed, Mid-Atlantic Dental Partners, was very sympathetic to the employees who were furloughed and paid for their health insurance premiums during the quarantine, which was very generous, considering there was no revenue generated during that time,” Dolce said.

“This was a tough year all around the dental profession, and certainly healthcare generally. But this salary increase is a good first step to helping dental hygienists recover from some of the burnout they’ve experienced over the past year,” Mattingly said.

“How does one equate a slight increase in median salary to the kinds of mental, emotional, and physical stressors dental hygienists endured during the pandemic? It is welcome and appreciated for sure, but dental hygienists across the country have been brave and compassionate to jump right back into patient care in spite of so much publicity about how dangerous our profession is in light of COVID-19,” said Davis.

“I have a renewed appreciation and respect for every RDH that resumed patient care as soon as he or she could, because our services truly are essential. I for one am thankful the median salary did not take a dip during one of the most challenging years in the history of our profession,” said Davis.

“The salaries of dental hygienists have been stagnant for years, so this increase was long overdue. It’s disappointing that it took a workforce shortage and global health crisis to facilitate a national increase,” Mattingly said.

“Many hygienists felt a discord between their employer’s perception and preparations as a result of COVID and took positions at another practice who provided additional measures, often with a higher wage,” Collins said.

“On the other hand, many dental hygienists sang the praises of their bosses who took safety seriously and ensured all preventative measures were in place. Pay raises, more time between patients, and additional safety procedures enticed some hygienists to stay put in their practice because they felt valued,” Collins said.

The Intangibles

Of course, there’s more to the profession than the paycheck.

“The practice of dental hygiene can be a most rewarding profession for those who wish to help others and for those who like to work through relationships. Having spent over 20 years practicing clinically in the same practice, I grew to cherish my patient relationships,” Dolce said.

“Also, the profession offers flexibility to work part time or full time, which can be advantageous for hygienists with children or other obligations. Lastly, there are now growth opportunities for hygienists working in the DSO sector. The physicality of the profession can be wearing over many years, and transitioning to hygiene leadership roles can be very rewarding,” Dolce said.

“For many dental hygienists, it is more than just a career. It is a deep rooted satisfaction of giving back to society and caring for others,” Collins said. “We create bonds with many of our patients, and while the additional risk-mitigation measures are to ensure the safety for all. It is difficult and we have adjusted to work with the additional PPE to ensure we can continue to provide the necessary care.”

“It is the people and relationships you develop in this profession. One cannot put a price tag on the personal relationships forged with patients in between oral hygiene instructions and periodontal therapy year after year. Many of my patients are cherished friends,” said Davis.

“But I am also part of a dental family. Dental teams work together as a well-oiled machine during the business of providing patient care. Many of the dental team members in my practice are cherished friends and are truly an extended family. And certainly, the relationships developed professionally with other colleagues is priceless,” Davis said.

“Dental hygienists are professionals who value flexible schedules, meaningful work, relationships with colleagues, career growth potential, and the ability to make a significant impact in others’ lives,” Mattingly said.

“Helping another person attain a healthy smile can change that person’s perspective on life, how they view themselves, and play a factor in their overall health,” Mattingly said. “That is an incredible reward.”

Davis recalled a friend who once asked her what was so challenging about cleaning teeth.

“Let’s see. Big tongues, gag reflexes, biofilm everywhere, time constraints, ergonomic stressors, just to name a few. Yet we band together and support one another in this fascinating profession to help prevent diseases,” she said. “Helping people get healthy, while forging deep relationships with so many people!”

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