Dental Assistants

Summary

dental assistants image
Dental assistants perform many tasks, ranging from providing patient care and taking x rays to recordkeeping and scheduling appointments.
Quick Facts: Dental Assistants
2015 Median Pay $35,980 per year
$17.30 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Postsecondary nondegree award
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2014 318,800
Job Outlook, 2014-24 18% (Much faster than average)
Employment Change, 2014-24 58,600

What Dental Assistants Do

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

Work Environment

Almost all dental assistants work in dentists’ offices. Most work full time.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

There are several possible paths to becoming a dental assistant. Some states require assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. In other states, there are no formal educational requirements.

Pay

The median annual wage for dental assistants was $35,980 in May 2015.

Job Outlook

Employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 18 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will likely continue to increase the demand for preventive dental services.

State & Area Data

Explore resources for employment and wages by state and area for dental assistants.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of dental assistants with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about dental assistants by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Dental Assistants Do About this section

Dental assistants
Assistants prepare and organize tools needed by dentists to work on a patient.

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. 

Duties

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
  • Help dentists by handing them instruments during procedures
  • Keep patients’ mouths dry by 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.

All dental assistants complete certain tasks, such as helping dentists with procedures and keeping patient records. 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.

Work Environment About this section

Dental assistants
Dental assistants provide support to dentists as they work on patients.

Dental assistants held about 318,800 jobs in 2014. Almost all dental assistants work in dentists’ offices. Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists and work closely with dental hygienists in their day-to-day activities.

Dental assistants wear safety glasses, surgical masks, protective clothing, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. They also must follow safety procedures to minimize risks associated with x-ray machines.

Work Schedules

Most dental assistants work full time. However, nearly 1 in 3 assistants worked part time in 2014. Some may work evenings or weekends.

How to Become a Dental Assistant About this section

Dental assistants
Dental assistants hand tools to dentists as they work on patients.

There are several possible paths to becoming a dental assistant. Some states require assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass an exam. In other states, there are no formal educational requirements.

Education

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 2015.

Accredited programs include classroom and laboratory work in which students learn about teeth, gums, jaws, and other areas that dentists work on and the instruments that dentists use. These programs also include supervised practical experience.

High school students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy.

Training

Dental assistants who do not have formal education in dental assisting may learn their duties through on-the-job training. A dental assistant 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.

Important Qualities

Detail oriented. Dental assistants must follow specific rules and protocols, such as infection control procedures, when helping dentists treat patients. Assistants also must be aware of what tasks they are allowed to complete in the state where they work.

Dexterity. Dental assistants must be good at working with their hands. They generally work in tight quarters on a small part of the body, using very precise tools and instruments.

Interpersonal skills. Dental assistants must work closely with dentists and patients. Sometimes, patients are in extreme pain and/or mental stress, so the assistant should be sensitive to their emotions.

Listening skills. Dental assistants should be able to listen to patients and other healthcare workers. They need to follow directions from a dentist or dental hygienist, so they can help treat patients and do tasks, such as taking an x ray.

Organizational skills. Dental assistants should have excellent organizational skills. They should have the correct tools in place for a dentist or dental hygienist to use when treating a patient.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some states require dental assistants to be licensed, registered, or certified. In other states, there are no formal requirements to become an entry-level dental assistant.

States that allow assistants to perform expanded duties, such as coronal polishing, require that they be licensed, registered, or hold certifications from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). To earn certification from DANB, applicants must pass an exam. The educational requirements for DANB certification are that dental assistants must either have graduated from an accredited program or have a high school diploma and complete the required amount of work experience. Applicants also must have current certification in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).

In addition, many states require assistants to meet specific education or training requirements in order to work with radiography (x ray) equipment. Requirements vary by state. Contact state boards of dentistry for specific requirements.

Pay About this section

Dental Assistants

Median annual wages, May 2015

Total, all occupations

$36,200

Dental assistants

$35,980

Other healthcare support occupations

$32,210

 

The median annual wage for dental assistants was $35,980 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,950, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $50,660.

Most dental assistants work full time. However, nearly 1 in 3 assistants worked part time in 2014. Some may work evenings or weekends.

Job Outlook About this section

Dental Assistants

Percent change in employment, projected 2014-24

Other healthcare support occupations

19%

Dental assistants

18%

Total, all occupations

7%

 

Employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 18 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will likely continue to increase the demand for preventive dental services. Dentists will continue to hire more dental assistants to complete routine tasks, allowing the dentist to see more patients in their practice and to spend their time on more complex procedures. As dental practices grow, more dental assistants will be needed.

As the large baby-boom population ages, and as people keep more of their original teeth than did previous generations, the need to maintain and treat teeth will continue to increase the need for dental care.

In addition, the number of individuals who have access to health insurance is expected to continue to increase because of federal health insurance reform. People with new or expanded dental insurance coverage will be more likely to visit a dentist than in the past. This will increase the demand for all dental services, including those performed by dental assistants.

Job Prospects

Overall, job opportunities for dental assistants are expected to be good. Dental assistants with advanced certification or training will likely have the best job prospects.

Employment projections data for dental assistants, 2014-24
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Dental assistants

31-9091 318,800 377,400 18 58,600 [XLSX]

State & Area Data About this section

Occupational Employment Statistics (OES)

The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program produces employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual states, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The link(s) below go to OES data maps for employment and wages by state and area.

Projections Central

Occupational employment projections are developed for all states by Labor Market Information (LMI) or individual state Employment Projections offices. All state projections data are available at www.projectionscentral.com. Information on this site allows projected employment growth for an occupation to be compared among states or to be compared within one state. In addition, states may produce projections for areas; there are links to each state’s websites where these data may be retrieved.

Career InfoNet

America’s Career InfoNet includes hundreds of occupational profiles with data available by state and metro area. There are links in the left-hand side menu to compare occupational employment by state and occupational wages by local area or metro area. There is also a salary info tool to search for wages by zip code.

Similar Occupations About this section

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of dental assistants.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION Help 2015 MEDIAN PAY Help
Dental hygienists

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, and provide other preventive dental care. They also educate patients on ways to improve and maintain good oral health.

Associate's degree $72,330
Medical assistants

Medical Assistants

Medical assistants complete administrative and clinical tasks in the offices of physicians, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities. Their duties vary with the location, specialty, and size of the practice.

Postsecondary nondegree award $30,590
Occupational therapy assistants and aides

Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides

Occupational therapy assistants and aides help patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working. Occupational therapy assistants are directly involved in providing therapy to patients; occupational therapy aides typically perform support activities. Both assistants and aides work under the direction of occupational therapists.

See How to Become One $54,520
Physical therapist assistants and aides

Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides

Physical therapist assistants, sometimes called PTAs, and physical therapist aides work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists. They help patients who are recovering from injuries and illnesses regain movement and manage pain.

See How to Become One $42,980
Surgical technologists

Surgical Technologists

Surgical technologists, also called operating room technicians, assist in surgical operations. They prepare operating rooms, arrange equipment, and help doctors during surgeries.

Postsecondary nondegree award $44,330
Pharmacy technicians

Pharmacy Technicians

Pharmacy technicians help pharmacists dispense prescription medication to customers or health professionals.

High school diploma or equivalent $30,410
Nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants

Nursing Assistants and Orderlies

Nursing assistants, sometimes called nursing aides, help provide basic care for patients in hospitals and residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes. Orderlies transport patients and clean treatment areas.

See How to Become One $25,710
Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Dental Assistants,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm (visited July 01, 2016).

Publish Date: Thursday, December 17, 2015

What They Do

The What They Do tab describes the typical duties and responsibilities of workers in the occupation, including what tools and equipment they use and how closely they are supervised. This tab also covers different types of occupational specialties.

Work Environment

The Work Environment tab includes the number of jobs held in the occupation and describes the workplace, the level of physical activity expected, and typical hours worked. It may also discuss the major industries that employed the occupation. This tab may also describe opportunities for part-time work, the amount and type of travel required, any safety equipment that is used, and the risk of injury that workers may face.

How to Become One

The How to Become One tab describes how to prepare for a job in the occupation. This tab can include information on education, training, work experience, licensing and certification, and important qualities that are required or helpful for entering or working in the occupation.

Pay

The Pay tab describes typical earnings and how workers in the occupation are compensated—annual salaries, hourly wages, commissions, tips, or bonuses. Within every occupation, earnings vary by experience, responsibility, performance, tenure, and geographic area. This tab may also provide information on earnings in the major industries employing the occupation.

State & Area Data

The State and Area Data tab provides links to state and area occupational data from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program, state projections data from Projections Central, and occupational information from the Department of Labor's Career InfoNet.

Job Outlook

The Job Outlook tab describes the factors that affect employment growth or decline in the occupation, and in some instances, describes the relationship between the number of job seekers and the number of job openings.

Similar Occupations

The Similar Occupations tab describes occupations that share similar duties, skills, interests, education, or training with the occupation covered in the profile.

Contacts for More Information

The More Information tab provides the Internet addresses of associations, government agencies, unions, and other organizations that can provide additional information on the occupation. This tab also includes links to relevant occupational information from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET).

2015 Median Pay

The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2015, the median annual wage for all workers was $36,200.

On-the-job Training

Additional training needed (postemployment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.

Entry-level Education

Typical level of education that most workers need to enter this occupation.

Work experience in a related occupation

Work experience that is commonly considered necessary by employers, or is a commonly accepted substitute for more formal types of training or education.

Number of Jobs, 2014

The employment, or size, of this occupation in 2014, which is the base year of the 2014-24 employment projections.

Job Outlook, 2014-24

The projected percent change in employment from 2014 to 2024. The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent.

Employment Change, 2014-24

The projected numeric change in employment from 2014 to 2024.

Entry-level Education

Typical level of education that most workers need to enter this occupation.

On-the-job Training

Additional training needed (postemployment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.

Employment Change, projected 2014-24

The projected numeric change in employment from 2014 to 2024.

Growth Rate (Projected)

The percent change of employment for each occupation from 2014 to 2024.

Projected Number of New Jobs

The projected numeric change in employment from 2014 to 2024.

Projected Growth Rate

The projected percent change in employment from 2014 to 2024.

2015 Median Pay

The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2015, the median annual wage for all workers was $36,200.