Your dental hygienist is more than just “the girl who cleans your teeth.” In fact, while 93% of hygienists are female, more men are entering this growing health-care field.

Wait, did you just say health care? Yes, I said health care. Caring for your mouth is part of your overall health. Dental care is indeed health care despite how our medical system functions.

I’ve been called many names as a dental hygienist: tooth scraper, gum gardener, and cleaning lady. These names do not remotely describe what I do. Truly, we should change our job title to oral health prevention specialist; perhaps then that “cleaning” appointment might feel a little more like a physical and less like just a tooth scraping.

Educational requirements

Your dental hygienist has had a great deal of formal education. All registered dental hygienists have taken chemistry, anatomy, microbiology (oh, that one was hard!), statistics, nutrition, psychology, and more. And those are just the prerequisites to get into a hygiene school!

You might also want to read: Dear Patient: Keep these 6 things out of your mouth

Once we enter hygiene school, we take more courses on anatomy, oral pathology, pharmacology, research methods, and more, in addition to hands-on clinical courses. Upon graduation, we must pass written and clinical boards (again, really hard). Some clinicians have an associate’s degree with just a few classes shy of a bachelor’s due to all those prerequisites. Others have degrees ranging from a bachelor’s to a PhD.

And we don’t stop learning when we graduate. Continuing education is required to stay on top of all the new science and innovation in oral health to renew our license.

Short story: we are really smart!

Oral-systemic connection specialists

When you come in for your hygiene appointment, we aren’t just looking at your teeth. Hygienists understand how conditions in your mouth can point to issues in the rest of your body long before you feel a thing. We are disease detectives. While we’re screening you for cavities and gum disease, we are also looking for signs of cancer, diabetes, airway obstruction, nutritional deficiencies, and more.

Inflammation in your mouth can be a pathway for pathogenic oral bacteria (the bad guys) to be introduced to other parts of your body and cause disease and destruction. Chronic inflammation puts a strain on your immune system. So when you encounter that flu virus, your body might not have what it takes to fight it off because it’s too busy trying to battle untreated cavities or bleeding gums.

Prevention specialists

Speaking of bleeding gums, one of the remarkable things about being a dental hygienist is that we can prevent some diseases. We don’t have to be the bad guy slinging a drill. When you’re in for your appointment, sure, we poke around looking for signs of active disease. But the whole time, we’re thinking about ways to set you up for success and prevent you from needing anything more than an easy checkup.

It starts with reviewing your medical history and looking for red flags that can impact your oral and overall health. The questions we ask you about your home care and changes in your medical history aren’t to scold or be nosy—we’re looking for ways to identify early signs of an issue and prevent you from needing further treatment. We have a lot of tricks up our sleeve beyond brushing and flossing.

That “cleaning” you came in for is much more of a whole-body assessment to discover ways to keep or get you healthy. So give your oral health prevention specialist a high-five when you see them next, and let them know that you know they are more than just a tooth cleaner!