Dental hygienists and dental therapists

Applies to: All
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Last reviewed: 04/06/2013
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Last updated: 19/11/2008

Dental care hygienists

Dental hygienists and dental therapists work in all sectors of dentistry providing clinical and educational care to help patients achieve and maintain good oral hygiene. Working closely with a dentist, who undertakes the initial examination of the patient, hygienists and therapists are uniquely qualified to assist in the prevention and treatment of oral disease, focusing on preventing gum disease by scaling and polishing teeth and developing home care plans with patients to maintain their oral health. Cleaning teeth efficiently is a far more complex and skilled procedure than most people realise. Hygienists and therapists must be able to identify those areas where patients have difficulty in removing plaque and work with them to modify their toothbrushing technique to ensure effective cleaning. Many patients need to be shown how to clean the surfaces between the teeth.

Hygienists and therapists can apply topical fluorides and fissure sealants to reduce tooth decay, taking dental radiographs and undertaking monitoring and screening procedures. Dental therapists can also undertake simple restorations (fillings) and, on deciduous (milk) teeth, place pre-formed crowns, carry out pulp treatments and extract teeth under local anaesthetic.

Dental hygienists and therapists need to have a flexible approach to team working. Good communication skills and a high level of manual dexterity to undertake complex oral treatments are essential. Once qualified, hygienists and therapists need to keep their skills and knowledge up to date through Continuing Professional Development (CPD).


The majority of training establishments offer a combined course in dental hygiene and dental therapy leading to a combined diploma. Some combined courses have ’stopping off’ points for students who are unable to meet the criteria for the full combined diploma. In these situations a diploma in dental hygiene or certificate in oral health studies may be awarded, depending on the extent of the studies undertaken. A few training establishments continue to offer courses in dental hygiene alone, where students receive no training in dental therapy.

A list of the training centres and contact details can be found on the website of the BSDHT.

Training in dental hygiene and dental therapy can be undertaken in various ways:

  • Diploma in Dental Hygiene - a two year full time course

  • combined Diploma in Dental Hygiene and Dental Therapy - a 27 month full-time course

  • BSc in Oral Health Science - a three year full-time course

Entry requirements for these courses vary, but you will normally be expected to have obtained:

  • five GCSE/’O’ levels passes (Grade A-C) or 5 Scottish Standard grades at Grade 3 or above to include English and a Biological Science; plus

  • two ’A’ levels (Grade A-C) to include biology and preferably one other science subjects

  • previous work in a dental environment and the dental nurse qualification, would be advantageous

Registration with the GDC

Graduates of the Diploma in Dental Hygiene programme are entitled to register with the General Dental Council as Dental Hygienists. Graduates of the combined Diploma in Dental Hygiene and Dental Therapy are entitled to register with the General Dental Council as both Dental Hygienists and Dental Therapists (two registrations are required).

Where to work

The majority of dental hygienists and therapists work in one or more general dental practices, either on a full-time or part-time basis. Both NHS and private treatment may be provided. Dental hygienists and therapists are also employed in the SPCDS, the hospital service, the armed forces, industry and dental schools.