Dental Hygiene Vs Nursing

Schooling and Requirements for Nursing

Before nursing school you have to complete a list of prerequisites that can differ depending on your area and what school you plan to apply to. An associate’s degree in nursing will get you into the field faster, however more employers are hiring personnel with at least a bachelor’s degree. Most nurses with an associate’s degree end up furthering their education to a bachelor’s or a master’s eventually, possibly with the help of benefits provided by the employer.

Usually if you are planning to go into a university program for a bachelor’s in nursing, you will have to complete the following along with several communications and additional math classes.

  • General Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Nutrition
  • Psychology
  • Statistics

When the educational components are done you may complete the licensing portion which consists of examinations that test your knowledge based on your problem solving and clinical skills. For example to become a registered nurse, RN, you must complete your nursing diploma which is either your associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Next you must pass the NCLEX-RN (National Counsel Licensure Examination- Registered Nurse) board examination to then be able to apply for licensure.

Jurisprudence examinations consist of questions regarding the state’s laws and regulations for practice. This exam is different per state and is not required in every state.

Schooling and Requirements for Dental Hygiene

Similar to nursing, there are prerequisites you have to take before applying to hygiene school. However, most hygienists who plan to work in a private practice stop at an associate’s degree because a bachelor’s degree does not generally offer higher positions or more pay. A bachelor’s degree for a hygienist would be beneficial for other work settings such as teaching, research, public health programs, etc.

Regardless of associate or bachelor degrees, in order to apply to hygiene school you must complete courses which are dependent on the requirements set by the dental hygiene school itself. These courses usually include:

  • General Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Anatomy and Psychology
  • Physiology
  • Nutrition
  • English/ Speech
  • Sociology

Once the educational and clinical portions are close to or are complete, you may begin your board examinations which include:

  • NBDHE (National Board of Dental Hygiene Examination) which consists of 350 questions
  • ADEX Dental Hygiene Examination which consists of 2 parts taken on different days: Computer clinical exam and patient treatment clinical exam
  • Local Anesthesia Administration Examination for eligible hygienists, optional for any hygienist who wants to be able to administer local anesthesia. This examination consists of 50 multiple choice questions.
  • Jurisprudence examinations consist of questions regarding the state’s laws and regulations for practice. This exam is different per state and not required in every state.


Nursing overall has less examinations than dental hygiene. The nursing board examination has anywhere from 75 to about 265 questions and is designed to get a thorough reading of the users skill level. If a test taker has answered 75 questions but answered some wrong, the test is designed to keep asking questions until the test taker can answer a fair amount of questions correctly.

However if the test taker has answered many questions incorrectly especially in a row, the test will stop and the test taker will have failed. This form of evaluation is used to pass the test taker as well. The test can stop at 75 questions being that the test taker has answered most if not all 75 correctly.

For the dental hygiene examination you will generally answer 350 questions that will be categorized into about 3 sections. These sections are supposed to test your practical, problem solving, and scientific knowledge regarding the profession and skills as a whole. Test takers may finish the examination in anywhere from 3 hours to about 8 hours but will have answered all 350 questions.

Extra Expenses

Along with the actual expense of schooling and tuition, you will be required to buy tools and items that you will need during the course of your educational journeys.

In hygiene school you will be responsible for your uniform and shoes as well as a”kit”. This can be a monetary lump sum you have to pay in addition to your tuition every semester or can be included in your tuition bill. This is dependent on your school. Often times this kit includes your instruments and additional tools you need to treat patients as well as needed supplies for the dental clinic such as disposable lab coats, lab materials, polishing tools, anesthesia, patient dental bags, etc.

Generally in nursing school you will have similar expenses but nurses don’t usually have an extensive kit of instruments they use per patient. A nurse may be responsible for less items total and in turn pay less for their school supplies. This is offset with the fact that nurses usually opt for bachelor’s degrees and often spend more overall money on schooling to get to their profession compared to hygienists.

Pay and Benefits

The United States BLS, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, reported that in May 2019 nurses made an average of $73,300 per year. This varies widely per state and ranges from just $58,340 to $106, 865 with California being the highest and South Dakota being the lowest. These numbers are averages for those with at least a bachelor’s degree in Nursing.

For Dental Hygiene, BLS reported that in May of 2019 the average salary was $76,220 per year for a dental hygienist with an associate’s degree. This ranges from $46,290 to $107, 190 with Alaska being the highest and Alabama being the lowest.

In terms of benefits this is where the career paths differ vastly.

Paid Time OffEducation ReimbursementInsurance Medical/DentalBonus/ Incentives401k/ RetirementOvertime
NursingYes, usually with full time employment Yes, with bigger corporations or hospitalsYes, usually some type of plan is offeredMore common with sign on bonuses in larger company/hospitalUsually offeredUsually offered
Dental Hygiene Yes, usually with full time, but full time work is less commonNot usually in private practiceNot usually in private practice This is fairly common with private practice on an annual basisNot usually in private practice Usually is discouraged in private practice
Chart Represents Average Work Place Settings For Both Careers

Work Schedule

In both career paths, work schedule will vary depending on what type of setting you are working in. Typically for a dental hygienist in a private practice or educational work setting, you will work anywhere from 20-40 hours per week. It is also common to work for multiple offices per week or work a 4 day week.

Nursing in a large hospital can vary from 36-40 hours per week (not including overtime) and working beyond the 9-5 workday hours is fairly common as well. A nurse’s weekly schedule can include three 12 hour days or shorter 8 hour days/nights.

Which Career is Right For you?

Prerequisites are fairly equal in terms of what is required to be able to apply to nursing versus hygiene school. The tough choice here may be whether to start as a hygienist in 2 years or start as a nurse in 4 years. Of course you can start as a nurse in 2 years, but you may find jobs challenging to attain as employers are starting to hire candidates with more education. Paying for education is also a huge factor that weighs into this decision as well, being that 4 years at a university will cost considerably more than 2 years at a local college.

Dental hygienist’s examinations are said to be overall more expensive and more taxing than nursing examinations. There are more examinations with dental hygiene than with nursing and the examinations contain very specialized and specific questions. However the passing rates of both the NBDHE and NCLEX-RN are similar being in the average range of 88%-92%.

Average annual salary of both career paths are within $3,000 of each other and so they both pay very well even though nursing education on average takes 2 years longer. Benefits are a major player in career choice in general and the debate between nursing versus hygiene is no exception. The careers are very different considering the average job setting. While nurses often work in hospital settings whom usually can offer more benefits to their employees, hygienists will often work in a private practices having less employees and thus benefits are often very expensive to offer.

Burn out! Burned out nurses will tell you they should have become hygienists and burned out hygienists will tell you they should have become nurses. The truth is both careers are taxing on your body, relationship with family, and on your mental health. Both careers will have you in a facility day after day doing very repetitious acts. Both careers will have rewarding days and disastrous days. Both careers will include terrible bosses and fantastic bosses.

It is important to be realistic in what you want from your career. You do not have to work full time in either job and you do not have to work long hours in either job. It may make finding a job harder but when you do land the perfect job, it will prolong or even avoid a burn out in your career. If after reading this, you want neither job then so be it. Go for what you think will allow you to be the best you for yourself and your family.

Comments from Real Hygienists Found on Indeed

 You may also be fortunate to work for a supportive dentist who doesn’t work you to death out of bitterness, for how much they pay you per hour.  It’s a bit of a trend for hygienists to be expected to work like a dog and then clock out when patients cancel or no show.  No time to sharpen instruments,  catch up on notes, restock room, ect… the burn out rate is truly high. Emotionally,  physically and mentally.

Yes, dental hygiene takes an immense toll on your entire body from repetitious movement, strain on eyes and loss of hearing from constant exposure to high frequency sound. Nursing offers a wide range of options.  If I could go back in time I would have went for nursing instead. Plus, you get way better benefits.   Hygienists get paid more per hour at an entry level compared to nurses. But you want a career that you can physically endure until you are at retirement age.

On a positive note, Dental Hygienists don’t work weekends, evenings, or holidays.  Most don’t even work full time as our pay is high enough to part time and live a satisfying life! I’ve been a hygienist for 18 years and this profession has definitely served my lifestyle very well- all by only working part time…

In Canada, DH’s make a lot more than RN’s and the hours are much better. Working 12 hours shifts til you’re 53 doesn’t sound all that great to me. Good luck raising a family with those hours.From experience and word of mouth, I hear dental hygiene is FAR harder than becoming a registered nurse

Comments from Real Nurses Found on Indeed

I have been in healthcare for 20 years, an RN for 5, and though there are moments that warm my heart, nursing is the worst job I have ever had, The only good thing is the salary, which is also the hole nurses get buried in,  I hate the unnecessary BS nurses have to tolerate on an almost daily basis, and wish I would have backed out once I had exposure during nursing school.

I almost got fired for telling a young teenage girl on the wing absolutely do not go into nursing. I was trying to spare her the truth.  I was not going to lie to her. This job does not pay even close to what we have to do and put up with. It isn’t worth being miserable and exhausted and possibly disabled.

Please do not be discouraged and don’t give up. its your dream!! After being 6 years and 2 failed attempts, I just passed my NCLEX and got my RN license!!

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