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Which Career Is Better: Dental Hygienist vs. Registered Nurse

Dental Hygienist vs. Registered Nurse

Are you stuck, torn between going into dental hygiene or registered nursing? Both seem like good ideas, but you’re confused about which career would be best for you.

Grab your toothbrush and stethoscope, and then have a seat. We’re going to brief you on both occupations.

Which Is better: Dental Hygienist Or Registered Nurse?

Here’s the thing: One truly isn’t better than the other. Sure, both work in the medical field. Both work with patients as part of a medical team. And both are highly satisfying and equally stressful jobs. It depends on your life goals and preferences. 

  • Dental hygiene: You are working on one patient at a time, and there’s no serious emotional investment. Your hours are straightforward, rarely nighttime, and with maybe just a few Saturdays thrown in. Dental hygiene can be considered repetitive, systematic work—some people love that, and others don't.
  • Registered nursing: Not only are you caring for a patient, but you may have to provide emotional support the entire family, as well. So, as rewarding as nursing is, it can take an emotional toll on a person. Days are never really the same; different cases come through the door on a regular basis.

Both jobs are secure for the future, in the assumption that they can’t be automated—both need a human element behind them. And, they can’t be off shored.

Who Makes More Money: Hygienists Or Nurses?

There are only a couple of thousand dollars separating dental hygiene and registered nursing when it comes to annual salary.

With nursing, the more specialized you are, the higher your salary becomes. But, then again, same goes for dental hygiene. The more degrees you have in your field, the bigger your paycheck potential.

Salaries are fairly comparable for both careers. Both will vary based on location, industry, and your experience.

Dental hygienist: In 2019, dental hygienists had an average pay of $77,230, with the top 10% earning more than $103,340 (bls.gov). According to BLS, top paying industries in insurance ($86,460), dentist offices ($81,400), and management ($77,040). The states that have the highest dental hygienist salaries are Alaska ($107K), California ($106,240), D.C. ($102,380), and Washington ($93,200).

Not all dental hygienists receive benefits such as health insurance and 401k retirement accounts.

Registered nurse: In 2019, registered nurses had an average pay of $77,460, with the top 10% earning more than $111,220 (bls.gov). According to BLS, top paying industries are in accounting, tax, bookkeeping and other related services ($92,200), the Federal Executive Branch ($90,340), and pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing ($86,400). The states that have the highest registered nurse salaries are California ($113,240), Hawaii ($104,060), and D.C. ($94,820).

RNs generally receive great benefit packages, so if you weigh that into the salary, RNs may be more fully compensated.

How Long Is Schooling: RN Programs Vs. Hygienist Programs?

Education for both dental hygienists and registered nurses is similar in length. Both degrees can be earned in either a two- or four-year program. Both careers require more advanced degrees to step into a research or teaching position.

Dental hygienist: Associate degrees take up to three years, and bachelor’s degrees take four. For both types of programs, you’ll have classroom, lab, and clinical (hands-on training). Licensing is required, and all states have different specifications. Contact your state’s board of dental examiners to find out what is required of you.

Registered nurse: Associate and certificate programs for registered nursing can take two to three years to finish. Bachelor’s degrees take four years. Some hospitals and medical facilities offer diploma programs, but they aren’t as common as certifications and degrees. With an associate degree, you may find an entry-level position. But, if you want to work in a hospital, most require their RNs to have at least a bachelor’s degree.

There isn’t an easier choice; both tracks are intense. You’ll have a lot of studying to do regardless of which career you choose to go to school for.

Which Has More Available Jobs: RNs Or Hygienists?

This is the part where the two careers differ. Nursing is a more secure job in any economy, and nurses are always necessary. Not that dental hygienists aren’t equally as necessary, but when things get bad, dentists are fully equipped to do what a dental hygienist does, so a dental practice may make hygienist cuts if they have to downsize.

  • Dental hygienist: Dental hygiene is predicted to experience tremendous employment growth through 2028, with close to 41K new jobs becoming available. The highest concentration of jobs will be found in dentist offices, followed by employment services, and doctor offices. The states that have the most dental hygienist opportunities are California, Texas, and New York.
  • Registered nurse: Registered nursing is predicted to experience huge employment growth through 2026, with 428K new jobs becoming available. Industries with the most opportunities for RNs are general and medical hospitals, physician offices, and home health care services. States where there are the most positions open are California, Texas, and New York.

Dental hygiene and registered nursing are both excellent career choices. You just need to decide which part of the medical field you prefer, and what kinds of responsibilities you’re able to handle, in order to make the best decision for yourself.

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