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What Is the Difference Between a Dentist and an Orthodontist?

Dentists and orthodontists both work to help you smile brighter. Review how each is different so that you know which is right for your next treatment.

Last updated on

August 6, 2023

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What Is the Difference Between a Dentist and an Orthodontist?

Many people use the word dentist to describe someone who does pretty much anything relating to oral health. And while you probably see a dentist more often than an orthodontist, there are some significant differences between the two.

Let’s take a look at how a dentist and an orthodontist differ so you can get a better idea of when you should visit each one and what you can expect when you walk into the office.

What Is a Dentist?

A dentist is a healthcare provider who can diagnose and treat oral health conditions. It’s more of an umbrella term that can encompass a wide range of specialties within the oral health field. But when you use the word dentist in most cases, you’re thinking of someone who can help keep your gums and teeth healthy with regular checkups and teeth cleanings.

Dentists can help you get procedures like dental fillings, crowns, and bridges to help fix teeth that may have become damaged from decay.

Dentists are not to be confused with oral hygienists, who work under a dentist at a given office. Dental hygienists free a lot of burden from the dentist by conducting routine cleanings, x-rays, and other procedures, allowing the dentist to focus on more complex procedures like crowns or fillings.

General dentists need a few more years of education and additional training compared to hygienists. These dentists earn a BA degree and then enter a four-year program.

What Do Dentists Do?

The work of a dentist can be broken down into three categories: preventive dentistry, restorative dentistry, and emergency dental care. A general dentistry practice is essentially a primary care provider for the mouth, focusing on overall oral health, 

In preventative dentistry, your dentist works to prevent teeth and gum disease by subverting issues before they become severe. These treatments include exams and cleanings, x-rays, fluoride treatments, and sealants. They can offer aesthetic services like teeth whitening as well. 

Restorative dentistry is aimed at repairing the damage that has already taken place. This involves veneers, bridges, fillings, crowns, and dental implants to restore the structure and function of lost teeth.

Finally, with emergency care, your dentist might be available for root canals, tooth extractions, or other time-sensitive needs, even during the off-hours of the day.

What Is an Orthodontist?

An orthodontist is a type of dentist that specializes in teeth and jaw irregularities. They are concerned about the alignment of your teeth within the jaw and the bone structure of the jaw rather than the health of your teeth and gums themselves.

Orthodontics is a more cosmetic branch of dentistry that focuses on how your mouth looks. Orthodontists need to attend a residency program in order to be trained enough to enter their role. An orthodontic residency is an extra two to three years at an accredited program after graduating from dental school. 

What Do Orthodontists Do?

While they won’t give you cleanings, conduct root canals, or fix cavities like a dentist, they can help your teeth look better overall. One of the main reasons to go to an orthodontist is to straighten crooked teeth through braces or invisible aligners (Invisalign). Their main goal is to help give you a straight bite, allowing you to eat, chew, and speak properly.

They can do this through jaw surgeries to help address underbites, overbites, or crossbites. This can be done by using wires or surgical screws, as well as plates to support the jawbone. This can help you improve facial symmetry, ease the pain from TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorders), and correct teeth alignment to reduce the risk of tooth decay.

Orthodontic care is preventative in a sense because you’ll be given a retainer after your procedure to ensure that health issues don’t come up later on. These need to be worn at night for the duration of your life to make sure that your teeth don’t move later on.

Similarities Between Dentists and Orthodontists

While dentists and orthodontists focus on particular things, there are naturally some similarities between the two. The obvious similarity is that each of these providers focuses on enhancing oral care. However, both also can work hand in hand to provide dental care.

For instance, if you ever need dental implants placed, you might get help from both a dentist and an orthodontist. An orthodontist might give you the surgery to strengthen your jawbone and implant the supports themselves, but a dentist might finish the procedure by placing the crown.

Additionally, you’ll continue to visit dentists on a regular basis after receiving orthodontic care. If you receive braces, you’ll visit an orthodontist for regular checkups, too. But after the braces are removed, you’ll continue to see a dentist who will check that your teeth look straight and proper even after the orthodontic treatment.

Sometimes, orthodontists work in the same practice as dentists, but in most cases, they are two separate offices. 

Orthodontist vs. Dentist: Key Differences

There are quite a few differences between dentists and orthodontists outside of just the practice themselves. As a general rule of thumb, you can think of it like this: all orthodontists are dentists, but very few dentists are also orthodontists.

Here are some other disparities worth reviewing:


Orthodontists require more schooling than dentists. This is because they need to be licensed to perform surgery, unlike dentists. Dentists do not perform invasive surgeries. It can take upwards of 11 years to become an orthodontist, including four years at an undergraduate school, four years at a dental school, and then two to three years at an orthodontics residency program.

Dentists need to go to undergraduate programs and earn their doctorates, but they do not need to complete a residency because they do not perform surgeries. This means that at the dentist’s office, you’ll really only be receiving non-invasive procedures that are aimed at enhancing your oral hygiene overall.


Based on the nature of the treatments being given, orthodontic treatments tend to be more expensive than those from dentists. This also makes sense, given the additional experience and time in school that orthodontists have in order to perfect their craft.

Things like routine cleanings and fillings generally won’t cost too much out of pocket since they are relatively simple, routine procedures. But if you ever need braces or Invisalign, these are complex procedures that take months to bring you the results you need, resulting in a higher cost.

Another contrast is that most procedures performed in a dentist’s office are covered by dental insurance because they are considered preventative or restorative care. Since many orthodontic services aim at enhancing the appearance of your mouth rather than the look, many dental insurance programs will not cover orthodontic care unless it is deemed necessary for your health.

This can make the out-of-pocket costs of receiving dental care feel insurmountable. And considering that over 33% of the American population lacks dental benefits, this can be a major challenge that is difficult to overcome.

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And just because you can save on the out-of-pocket costs doesn’t mean that our providers are inexperienced. Our dentists and orthodontists in our network are accredited, licensed professionals with excellent patient reviews and top knowledge of their craft. It’s quality you can trust at prices you can handle.

The best way to see the difference is to feel it for yourself. Find a dentist in your city today and get started towards the healthiest version of you.

When Should You See a Dentist vs. an Orthodontist?

If you’re still struggling to figure out if you need to see a dentist or an orthodontist, here are some helpful tips to get it sorted.

You probably want to see a dentist if:

  • You need a routine cleaning
  • Your teeth feel sensitive or painful
  • Your gums are bleeding after flossing or brushing
  • You’re noticing small holes or pits in the teeth and gums
  • You lost a tooth or have a cracked tooth from trauma
  • You have general discomfort or concerns about your teeth and mouth

You might want to see an orthodontist if:

  • You’re referred to one by a dentist
  • You’re noticing pain or clicking in your jaw when you speak or eat
  • You notice that your teeth are shifting out of place
  • Your upper teeth fall incorrectly on top of your bottom teeth, or vice versa
  • You have space in between your teeth
  • You need to get a tooth removed
  • You’re looking to get braces or invisible aligners

As a rule of thumb, you probably wouldn’t go to an orthodontist before first seeing your family dentist. More often than not, a dentist will refer you to an orthodontist if they notice that your teeth might benefit from their services.


If you ever go to your dentist’s office, you might notice that their plaque has the initials DDS or DMD. The former stands for Doctor of Dental Surgery, and the latter stands for Doctor of Dental Medicine. These are the same degrees and require the same education — it’s up to the university to decide which degree is awarded.

The training you need to become a dentist is generally the same as individuals who go to medical schools to become doctors of physical health and well-being. For that reason, you can always rest assured that your dentist or orthodontist will be highly skilled in their profession.

Dental Issues and Treatment Options: Flossy

Dentists and orthodontists are both dental professionals who work to improve your smile and oral health, but there are some main differences. The main distinction is that orthodontic treatment falls under the umbrella of dentistry, which is a wider wide range of services.

Orthodontists need to attend a residency program to be able to perform surgery. They are also focused on the alignment of your teeth and jaw rather than the health of your teeth and gums, like dentists. With that said, both need to attend dental school, and both are licensed to practice their profession.

As far as cost goes, orthodontic procedures are usually more expensive because of the complexity and because they are often considered cosmetic treatments that are not covered by insurance. But don’t let the cost of dental care stop you from getting it.

Flossy is a pay-as-you-go service that matches you with a low-cost dental professional that can save you up to 50% on the out-of-pocket costs associated with dental care.

Flossy can be used as an alternative to insurance or as a supplementary discount when your insurance doesn’t cover you. We fill in the gaps.

Choose a dentist in your area and book an appointment today.


What Is a Dentist? | Cleveland Clinic

TMJ disorders - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic

Dental coverage, access & outcomes | ADA

DDS and DMD | MouthHealthy - Oral Health Information from the ADA

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