What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Learn about the salary, required skills, & more

A day in the life of a dental assistant: Manual dexterity to perform tasks, Organize, clean, and maintain equipment, Take, develop, and mount radiographs and x-rays, Record dental histories and the vital signs of patients

The Balance / Colleen Tighe

A dental assistant is responsible for office and laboratory duties in a dentist's office. He might also provide some patient care, but the exact procedures he's permitted to perform—if any—vary by state. The might include applying sealants and fluoride to teeth, removing plaque, and taking x-rays.

Dental assistants held about 332,000 jobs in 2016. They work under the supervision of dentists and beside dental hygienists.

Dental Assistant Duties & Responsibilities

This job generally requires that you perform the following duties, but again, it can vary by dentist and by state:

  • Prepare patients for the oral examination, including making them comfortable in the exam chair.
  • Organize and maintain lab equipment
  • Schedule appointments and follow up with patients.
  • Properly take, develop, and mount all radiographs and x-rays, usually under the direction of the dentist.
  • Prepare treatment rooms, instruments, and tray setups for dental procedures, including sterilization.
  • Record medical and dental histories and the vital signs of patients.
  • Provide aftercare, including drying patients' mouths and providing oral hygiene instructions.
  • Handle patient billing and payments.

Some states allow dental assistants to perform additional duties, including polishing, fluoride application, and applying topical anesthetics. They might also create crowns and dental impressions. Their primary role is to free dentists from assuming these tasks so the dentists have more time to spend with their patients.

Some dental assistants become office managers, dental-assisting instructors, dental hygienists, or dental product sales representatives, sometimes with additional training and schooling.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017; American Dental Association Member Center

Dental Assistant Salary

Dental assistant salaries can vary by the nature of duties and responsibilities assigned to the individual.

  • Median Annual Salary: $37,360 ($18.09/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $53,130 ($25.54/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $26,170 ($12.84/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

Each state regulates the range of duties and pay for dental assistant positions based on its own guidelines and legislation. These figures are national averages.

Education, Training & Certification

State laws can also impact the level of education and training required for the position of dental assistant. Some states have no formal education requirements at all.

  • High School: High school students interested in pursuing careers as dental assistants should take courses in biology, chemistry, and health.
  • Accredited Training Programs: Although many dental assistants are trained on the job, some states require that those working in this occupation attend an accredited training program. These one-year programs are often offered by community colleges, vocational schools, and technical schools. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), part of the American Dental Association, accredits dental assistant programs.
  • Licensing: Some states license or register dental assistants, although not always for entry-level positions. Requirements usually include completing an accredited program and passing a written exam administered by the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB). These rules can also vary by state.

Depending on state requirements and the preferences of the dentist, on-the-job training might be acceptable and available, allowing new assistants to work and learn under another dental assistant, a hygienist, or the dentist herself.

Dental Assistant Skills & Competencies

In addition to training and a license, a dental assistant needs certain technical skills, physical stamina, soft skills and personal qualities:

  • Organizational skills: From ensuring that tools and equipment are in place to dealing with the details of dental billing and insurance, a knack for organization and an eye for detail can be critical.
  • Good manual dexterity: Above average fine motor skills are important. A good many of the tasks associated with this career involve working with the hands.
  • Listening, speaking, and interpersonal skills: These skills are necessary for communicating with dentists, hygienists, and particularly patients as they voice questions and concerns or exhibit stress or fear.
  • Critical thinking skills: These skills are necessary in evaluating alternative solutions to problems and immediate reactions to emergencies.

Job Outlook

This occupation is projected to grow by 19% from 2016 through 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is considered much faster than the average for all occupations, and it's due in part to an increasing demand for and public awareness of the importance of preventative dental services. More dental care might be required as well as the baby boomer generation gets up in years.

Work Environment

Approximately nine out of 10 dental assistants work in dentists' offices. About 2% work for physicians and another 2% work for the government.

Work Schedule

Jobs are typically full time, and they sometimes include evening and weekend hours. Approximately one-third of dental assistants worked part-time in 2016.

How to Get the Job


The Dental Assisting National Board offers a searchable database of state requirements and exam applications.


Search for dental programs in the U.S. and Canada on the Commission on Dental Accreditation website.


Check resources like iHireDental and DentalPost for job openings.


Find out what you're likely to be asked, and decide ahead of time how you'll answer. Here are a few questions to get you started.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Those who are interested in dental care and other healthcare careers also consider the following positions at these salaries.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017