BackgroundSocial conditions have a significant impact on the health of individuals and populations. While the dental curriculum is focused on teaching students about the diseases that affect the dentition and oral structures from a biomedical perspective, education about the social determinants of health is frequently regarded as less important. Thus, it occupies a smaller and disconnected part of the dental curriculum. The aim of this study was to explore the ways dental students conceptualised the social determinants of health after one year in dental school.MethodsReflective statements written by first year dental students at the end of the first year of study were collected. This qualitative study has an interpretivist basis and a thematic analysis of the reflections was conducted by two researchers. Metzl’s structural competencies were used as a further analytic device.ResultsFour inter-related themes were identified: First, professional attitudes taken up by students influence their conceptions. Second, structural barriers to students understanding social determinants of health generate partial understandings. Thirdly, the social gulf that exists between the student body and people of different circumstances provides context to understanding the student’s perspectives. Finally, we described how students were learning about the social determinants of health over the academic year.ConclusionsDental students face several challenges when learning about the social determinants of health, and translating these learnings into actions is perhaps even more challenging. Metzl’s structural competencies provide a framework for advancing students’ understandings. One of the most important findings of this research study is that coming to an understanding of the social determinants of health requires sustained attention to social theories, practical experiences as well as institutionalised attitudes that could be achieved through an intentional curriculum design.