Dental Assistants: Salary, career path, job outlook, education and more

Education Required
Some states require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. Most programs are offered by community colleges, although they also may be offered by vocational or technical schools. Most programs take about 1 year to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma. Programs that last 2 years are less common and lead to an associate’s degree. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), part of the American Dental Association, accredited nearly 300 dental assisting training programs in 2017.
Training Required
Dental assistants who do not have formal education in dental assisting may learn their duties through on-the-job training. A dental assistant, hygienist, or dentist in the office teaches the new assistant dental terminology, the names of the instruments, how to complete daily tasks, how to interact with patients, and other activities necessary to help keep the dental office running smoothly.
Job Outlook
The projected percent change in employment from 2016 to 2026: 19% (Much faster than average)
(The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent.)
Licenses/Certifications
States typically do not require licenses for entry-level dental assistants. Some states require dental assistants to be licensed, registered, or certified for entry or advancement. States may require assistants to meet specific licensing requirements in order to work in radiography (x ray), infection control, or other specialties. For specific requirements, contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.
Median pay: How much do Dental Assistants make?
$36,940 Annual Salary
$17.76 per hour

Dental assistants perform many tasks, ranging from patient care and taking x rays to recordkeeping and scheduling appointments. Their duties vary by state and by the dentists’ offices where they work.

What do Dental Assistants do?

Dental assistants typically do the following:

  • Ensure that patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Prepare patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Hand instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Dry patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Process x rays and complete lab tasks, under the direction of a dentist
  • Keep records of dental treatments
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Work with patients on billing and payment

Assistants who perform lab tasks, such as taking impressions of a patient’s teeth, work under the direction of a dentist. They may prepare materials for dental impressions or to create temporary crowns.

Dental assistants are allowed to perform the following procedures in some states:

  • Coronal polishing
  • Sealant application
  • Fluoride application
  • Topical anesthetic application

Coronal polishing, which means removing soft deposits such as plaque, gives teeth a cleaner appearance. In sealant application, a dental assistant paints a thin, plastic substance over teeth that seals out food particles and acid-producing bacteria to keep teeth from developing cavities. Fluoride application, in which fluoride is put directly on the teeth, is another anticavity measure. Some dental assistants may be qualified to apply topical anesthetic to an area of a patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing the area to help prepare a patient for procedures.

Each state regulates the scope of practice for dental assistants.

Careers for Dental Assistants

  • CDAs
  • Certified dental assistants
  • Dental aides
  • Expanded functions dental assistants
  • Orthodontic assistants
  • Orthodontist assistants
  • Registered dental assistants
  • Surgical dental assistants

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