Headphones and earbuds have become staples of everyday life. While those little listening devices keep us connected and entertained wherever we go, they can also put us at risk for permanent hearing loss. Luckily, there are simple steps you can take to protect your ears. Here, we cover headphones and hearing loss causes, the pros and cons of different headphone types, and tips for safe listening and hygiene.
Headphones provide us with our own little sound bubble for listening as loud and as long as we like, but exposure to high volumes can damage the sensitive structures in our ears and lead to noise-induced hearing loss. Though not always immediately noticeable, noise-induced hearing loss can occur after just one burst of unsafe sound—and the damage can be irreversible. As many as 40 million adults under age 70 show signs of noise-induced hearing loss.
Although younger generations may appear more tolerant of loud noise, noise-induced hearing loss can occur at any age. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 50 percent of teenagers and young adults are exposed to unsafe noise levels from smartphones and other personal audio devices. One in five teens today have some form of hearing loss, a 30 percent increase since the 1980s and 1990s.
While it’s common to keep headphones or earbuds in for several hours a day, listening at high volumes for long periods of time takes a toll on our hearing. Research shows that listening to sound above 85 decibels for more than 8 hours can lead to hearing loss. Though 85 dB is the magic number, today’s smartphones can blast sound up to 120 dB. At 120 dB or more, hearing damage occurs almost immediately.
When it comes to wearing headphones, balance is key. The louder the volume, the less time you should spend listening. Experts recommend sticking to the 60/60 rule: listening at 60 percent of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day.
In addition to monitoring the volume and duration of listening, the quality and type of headphones you use can also help protect your ears. Though volume plays the largest role in headphone safety, choosing the right pair of headphones can make all the difference. A cheap pair of earbuds may come in handy on the go, but the poor sound quality can cause you to turn up the volume to unsafe levels. Experts tend to recommend over-ear headphones as the safest option, as these provide better sound quality and are better at blocking out external noise.
Also known as “full size” or “around ear” headphones, these have cushions that encase the ear and help block out background noise. A higher sound quality allows you to listen at a lower volume. Ideal for feeling completely involved in the listening experience.
These are similar to over-ear headphones, but the cushions sit on the ear instead of surrounding it. When it comes to over-ear vs. on-ear, on-ear headphones are often preferred as a more portable, comfortable alternative to over-ear headphones.
Earbuds have become enormously popular for their small size and strong sound. Though they are the most commonly used, they also have the potential to be the most harmful when it comes to hearing loss because of their proximity to the eardrum.
Excluding earbuds, there are several headphone types that can be worn with hearing aids: over-ear, on-ear and bone conduction headphones. Bone conduction headphones sit off of the ear and work by sending vibrations through the jawbones and cheekbones to your inner ear and brain for processing.
Here are the best headphone types for each type of hearing aid:
Tip: Your hearing aid will amplify the sound coming from the headphones, so make sure to adjust the volume accordingly.
Hearing loss isn’t the only risk associated with headphones—dirty headphones and earbuds can increase the possibility of ear infection. As we carry them around from day to day, earbuds pick up dust, dirt, sweat and grime and can cause an 11-fold increase in bacteria in the ear. Just as we clean our clothes regularly, it’s important to keep our headphones clean and sanitized as well. Here are some tips for how to safely clean your headphones and earbuds.