What’s the Difference Between a Dentist and a Dental Hygienist?

Whenever we book our teeth’s next spa day, we often say that we’re going to “see the dentist”. While that might be literally true—you will, of course, lay eyes on your dentist—it isn’t exactly accurate. The truth is that, barring exceptional circumstances, you’ll spend the majority of your trip to the dentist’s office speaking to a dental hygienist. That person rooting around in your mouth who somehow understands everything you’re saying even though you’re talking like you have a mouth full of marbles and drooling like it’s Thanksgiving all over again? Yeah, more likely than not, that’s your dental hygienist.

Knowing the difference between a dentist and a dental hygienist isn’t just a matter of semantics—it’s more than a distinction without a difference. Neither is it a little nugget of knowledge that only dental students choosing a career path need to concern themselves with. Knowing the difference between a dentist and a dental hygienist can help you get a better understanding of your trip to the dentist’s office and the exact procedures that their diligent staff are guiding you through. Furthermore, having an understanding of everyone’s role in a dentist’s office can help you steer your questions and concerns to the right person. Plus, knowing the difference provides an opportunity to impress your dentist with more than your pearly whites on your next visit. Let’s explore the differences between a Doctor of Dental Surgery and a Registered Dental Hygienist.

Different Dental Programs, Different Expertise

The biggest difference between a dentist and a dental hygienist comes down to education. Like any other dental professional, hygienists will have to complete a degree program. After that, they’ll undergo specialized training and finally acquire their registration as a dental hygienist with their provincial governing body upon successful completion of an examination.

For dentists, the education tree has a few more…roots. Dentistry programs tend to be longer, broader, and more intensive than hygienist programs as they are doctoral in nature. Dentists who choose to specialize—periodontists, orthodontists, maxillofacial surgeons, etc.—will have to complete further training and education.

But whether we’re talking about someone with a D.D.S. or an R.D.H. next to their name, the training is rigorous. In Ontario, both hygienists and dentists have to successfully complete placements as part of their programs. So, regardless of how long they’ve spent with their face buried in the books, both dental hygienists and dentists have plenty of hands-on experience by the time you recline in their chair, open wide and say, “Ah.”

What Dental Hygienists Do

Dental hygienists are on the front lines of every dentist’s office. As such, they’re the ones that visitors to the office interact with most and have to have a broad base of knowledge and skills. Hygienists:

  • perform teeth cleaning during regular check-ups,
  • remove plaque and tartar,
  • polish teeth to make them white,
  • conduct screening procedures,
  • take notes of any possible conditions,
  • provide information on dental home care,
  • assist dentists with procedures/surgeries when necessary and
  • put smiles on faces.

During regular check-ups, hygienists are generally keeping an eye out for any signs and symptoms that might indicate more serious conditions. If they do see something noteworthy, they would then refer their observations to the attention of a dentist. Being that hygienists interact with visitors most, being personable, warm, and welcoming is a big part of their job.

What Dentists Do

The role of a dentist is a little more hands-off than that of a hygienist and while their hygienists are hard at work putting a smile on visitors’ faces, dentists will be:

  • administering the office/clinic
  • conducting treatments and procedures such as fillings, crowns, removals,
  • analyzing patient data and medical history as compiled by hygienists,
  • identifying “root” causes of symptoms and diagnosing oral and dental conditions,
  • prescribing medications,
  • making referrals to specialists as needed and
  • putting more smiles on faces.

Dentists do much of the behind-the-scenes work that allows the office/clinic to run smoothly. They respond to the questions and concerns of their patients and are better equipped with the right knowledge and training to recommend different treatments and procedures.


The skills of both dentists and dental hygienists are necessary for improving and maintaining the oral health of their patients. And knowing the difference between them can help patients better navigate their health system’s dental care to get exactly the kind of help they need when they need it. Dawson Dental is proud to have a highly-qualified and amiable staff of both dentists and hygienists to attend to all of our customers’ needs. Make an appointment with us and in the “Extra Details” section of the form, impress us with the knowledge you’ve learned today!