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A Career in Dental Nursing

Dental Nurses are an essential member of the dental team. They do a lot more than just passing instruments to the dentist!

In this article, Gemma Forsythe discusses what’s involved in working as a Dental Nurse and how to get involved.

Gemma Forsythe

Dental Nurse

Editorial Board, Dental Nursing Journal

Gemma Forsythe is a registered dental nurse working in Magee Dental Care, Lurgan, Northern Ireland.  She is an editorial board member of Dental Nursing Journal and a qualified oral health educator.  You can find her on Instagram @dentalnursegem

A Career in Dental Nursing

A career in dental nursing is not particularly well understood amongst the general public. People could probably list a dentists job duties quite easily, in comparison to a dental nurse’s duties.  There are many different elements to the role of a dental nurse – it is not just passing instruments back and forth to the dentist!  You will be working closely alongside a clinician, so maintaining a good working relationship is crucial.  You will also be working with a wide range of people coming in as patients, so you have to be friendly, approachable and have great communication skills. 

Our role involves:

  • Setting up the dental surgery, disinfecting the clinical environment between each patient and closing down the surgery at the end of the day
  • Maintenance of sterilising equipment and decontaminating instruments
  • Ensuring stock levels are sufficiently maintained in your surgery
  • Mixing/preparing dental materials
  • Updating patient records; including dental charting and typing notes as per the dentist’s instruction during appointments
  • Monitoring and reassuring patients
  • Supporting the clinician and ensuring they have all that they need
  • Waste segregation, including safe disposal of sharps and clinical waste
  • Occasional receptionist duties

Pros & Cons of Dental Nursing

  • The opportunity to support nervous patients and build up a rapport provides great job satisfaction
  • Variety; no two days are the same in dentistry
  • Lots of different career progression opportunities
  • You can work in a diverse range of settings
  • You can earn while you learn
  • The role can be physically and mentally demanding at times
  • You are at an increased risk of neck and back problems
  • This is not the job for you if you are squeamish – seeing blood, pus and other bodily fluids is the norm
  • We do not get enough recognition for what we do

My working day starts at 8:30am, when I enter the practice and head up to the changing room to get into my scrubs.  We are not allowed to wear our uniform outside the practice for cross infection purposes.  Our first patient comes in at 9:00am, so we have plenty of time to get organised for the day.

After I get changed, I head into my surgery and wash my hands using the correct handwashing technique and get set up for the day.  This includes switching on all equipment and ensuring it is all in working order, flushing through the water lines and wiping down all surfaces.  I set up what I need for my first patient.

I check the day list to see what treatments we have scheduled. If there are any dentures, crowns or bridge-work, I will ensure we have the lab work ready.  The treatments we undertake in practice can vary each day.  It can range from fillings and root canal treatment, to more cosmetic procedures like orthodontics (e.g. Invisalign) and composite bonding.  I enjoy this type of work, it is rewarding to see a patient’s reaction when they are given their dream smile!

I head into our decontamination unit to collect the ‘dirty box’ – this is a box where all used instruments are collected to be transported to the decontamination room.  The box is  cleared in the decontamination room every few patients to ensure instruments do not pile up for the decontamination nurse – this nurse is responsible for cleaning and sterilising instruments to the highest standards.  I also collect the clean box – which includes all clean instruments that will be required for the day.

Things have changed in terms of personal protective equipment (PPE) due to COVID-19.  Our PPE for non-aerosol generating procedures (AGPs) is an ear-loop mask, visor, apron and gloves.  Our PPE for AGPs includes a long sleeved gown, FFP3 respirator mask, visor and gloves.  Our FFP3 masks are cleaned and disinfected between each use.  We also have a 10 minute ‘fallow’ period after each AGP procedure, which means you have to leave the room for 10 minutes to allow particles to ‘settle’ before cleaning.

We usually see patients until 13:00 (lunch hour), however things don’t always go to plan.  Whether it’s a patient that is late to their appointment, someone requiring a different procedure than what we had prepared for, or an emergency appointment that has taken longer than anticipated.  We try to keep to time as much as possible, but there are occasions when this is simply out of our control. 

We then see patients again from 14:00 to 17:00.  I finish at 17:30 to allow plenty of time to clean up the surgery, flush aspiration and water lines and brush and mop the surgery floor. Finally, I would restock the surgery with instruments and materials required for the following day. 

I then head upstairs to the changing room to change out of my scrubs to go home!


Dental nurses may start off working as a Trainee Dental Nurse without completing any specific qualifications. However, in order to eventually progress to working as a qualified dental nurse, you will have to undertake the required training to allow you to register with the General Dental Council (GDC). This is the regulatory body for dental professionals and GDC registration is required in order to practice as a dental professional in the UK. 

There are various part-time and full-time dental nursing courses and qualifications available. These include:

  • City & Guilds Level 3 Diploma in Dental Nursing
  • NEBDN National Diploma in Dental Nursing
  • Certificate of Higher Education in Dental Nursing
  • Foundation Degree in Dental Nursing

The above courses all prepare you for GDC registration and your choice of course is most likely to be determined by location. Courses usually involve working part-time as a trainee dental nurse or in an apprenticeship.

I completed the NEBDN National Diploma in Dental Nursing through my local college. This was a once weekly evening course completed over a period of 18 months.  It involved completing a record of experience (coursework), as well as both written and practical exams.

Entry Requirements

These usually include a minimum of two GCSEs in English and either Maths or a Science subject.  However, entry requirements vary with each course. Some courses require A-levels or NVQ Level 3. As such it is best to contact providers for specific requirements.

Career Progression

One of the great things about dental nursing is that there are so many avenues you can explore.  There are a variety of different courses you can take as a dental nurse, such as oral health education, impression taking, sedation nursing, fluoride varnish application, orthodontic nursing and radiography.

You can also choose to work as a dental receptionist, treatment co-ordinator, or work towards becoming a lead nurse or practice manager.  Dental nurses are also well suited to transition into a sales representative role for dental suppliers.

Furthermore, it is quite common for dental nurses to undertake further training to allow them to sit on the other side of the dental chair. This would involve enrolling on a university degree programme in order to qualify as either a dental hygienist, therapist, orthodontic therapists or dentist.


By training as a dental nurse, you will be joining a growing and rewarding profession, in a role where you can really help and care for people.  I am happy to answer any questions or queries anyone has. Feel free to message me on Instagram!

Further Information

Gemma Forsythe

Gemma Forsythe is a registered dental nurse working in Magee Dental Care, Lurgan, Northern Ireland.  She is an editorial board member of Dental Nursing Journal and a qualified oral health educator.  You can find her on Instagram @dentalnursegem


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