Dental hygienists perform a crucial service for everyone who goes to see the dentist. Dentists would never have time to perform cleanings individually, and so it falls to the hygienist to get rid of plaque, teach patients about good dental hygiene (and reprimand those patients who aren't flossing sufficiently), and keep records of how a patient's teeth are doing from visit to visit. They also take X-rays and polish teeth. Dental hygienists enjoy some real perks in their jobs, too. They have good job security as hygienists are really in demand right now; in fact, the forecast for hygienists' jobs looks bright for years to come. In addition, many dental hygienists get to set their own hours, more or less, and a significant percentage of dental hygienists only work part time. Plus, hygienists get to sit down at work much of the time, and work in calm, quiet, air-conditioned facilities. (If they work with children, however, the working environment isn't always calm and quiet, especially when patients are afraid of being at the dentist's office!)
In order to become a dental hygienist, you have to graduate from high school and get good enough grades to be accepted into a dental hygiene education program. If you're in high school and you know you want to become a hygienist, make sure you take as many science and math classes as you can, and really study hard in those areas. Make sure, too, that the Commission on Dental Accreditation has accredited whatever dental hygiene program you enroll in; currently, there are about three hundred or so hygiene programs so accredited in the United States. These programs will give you plenty of classroom instruction in the dental profession, and you'll also study such subjects as chemistry, anatomy, physiology, radiography and even human behavior. You'll also be introduced to major kinds of gum disease, to human tissue structure, nutrition and the actual physical materials that you'll need to use on the job. You'll learn all about X-ray machines, inside and out. Plus, you'll get plenty of hands-on practice when it comes to cleaning and polishing teeth. When you graduate from such a program of study, you will have an associate's degree and you'll be certified for employment as a dental hygienist. Some hygienists choose to continue their studies and earn bachelor's degrees, and sometimes even master's degrees, but an associate's degree is usually sufficient for getting employment in most private dental practices.
To be a good dental hygienist, you have to have excellent hand-eye coordination. You will be, after all, maneuvering sharp instruments in and around tiny crevices in people's mouths, and one false move could be quite painful for the patient. It also helps if you have good communication skills and are able to get along well with people in general, since you'll be having so much direct contact with patients.
By the way, some hygienists go on to work as teachers in dental programs, or in public policy organizations.