Decibel Chart Guide to Hearing Safely

Last update on Jul, 29, 2021

What is loud?

We live in an exciting and bustling world. Loud sounds are all around us, from the roaring engines of lawnmowers to the clamor of construction sites. Even your favorite hobbies may involve amplified sound exposure: watching a live concert or the latest movie at the local theater; spending an afternoon at the shooting range; cheering on your team at a live sporting event.

But loud noise levels have the potential to damage your hearing, leading to temporary or permanent hearing loss. In fact, 10 million Americans have noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)—the official term for permanent hearing loss caused by excessive noise. And as many as 40 million adults have hearing test results that indicate hearing loss from exposure to loud noise.

NIHL can result from brief exposure to extremely high sound levels, or repeated exposure to loud noise over time. Sometimes it only affects one ear, while other times it affects both. This type of hearing loss often occurs gradually over time, making it hard to detect until the damage is already done. Learn about the science behind sound and how to protect your hearing here.

How is sound measured?

Sound travels in waves. The intensity of energy that these sound waves produce is measured in units called decibels (dB). The lowest hearing decibel level is 0 dB, which indicates nearly total silence and is the softest sound that the human ear can hear. Generally speaking, the louder the sound, the higher the decibel number. So, just how loud is 50, 65, 75, or even 95 decibels? These benchmarks should give you an idea. 

Noise measurement of common sounds:

  • Whisper: 30 dB
  • Normal conversation: 60 dB
  • Lawn mower: 90 dB
  • Movie theater: 80-100 dB
  • Live music: 100-115 dB

How many decibels is too loud?

Researchers have discovered that extended or repeated noise exposure to levels of 85 decibels or above can cause permanent hearing loss. When it comes to protecting yourself from damaging levels of sound, wear hearing protection or avoid environments with a sound volume higher than 85 decibels.

Three main factors influence the severity of hearing damage:

  • Sound level (how loud the sound is)
  • Proximity (how close you are to the sound)
  • Time (how long you are exposed to it)

The louder the noise level, the less time it takes for the damage to take place. In fact, for every 10 decibels of noise exposure, the intensity of the sound goes up 10 times. At 85 decibels, the maximum recommended exposure time is 8 hours. By 100 decibels, the noise exposure limit drops to 15 minutes, and at 10 decibels more (110 dB), the risk exposure time plummets to just one minute. Exposure to sound levels for longer than that could result in permanent hearing loss.

How to protect your hearing from loud sound exposure

Loud sounds are everywhere, and the damage can be permanent. The good news? This type of hearing loss is also very preventable. There are several ways you can protect yourself from the harmful effects of high noise levels.

Turn down the volume

Learn which sounds in your environment are too loud. For sounds that you can control, dial down the volume to a safer decibel level. Not sure how many decibels is too loud? There are several decibel meter apps (see below) that can provide noise measurement in your environment.

Walk away from loud sounds

The next best thing you can do, if you’re not able to control the volume of the sound, is to simply distance yourself from the source of the sound. At concerts, this might mean moving away from the speakers. You can sit farther away from the source of fireworks during Fourth of July and other celebrations.

Wear hearing protection

If you’re in a loud location where you're not able to lower the volume or walk away, be sure to wear proper hearing protection when around damaging levels of noise. Before attending a concert or loud event, always think about how to protect your hearing. There is a huge selection of hearing protection options available today, including ear plugs, earmuffs and noise-cancelling headphones. Earplugs for musicians are specifically engineered to reduce the overall volume while retaining sound quality and clarity, as well as speech comprehension.

Best decibel meter apps

We’re all very familiar with units of measurement, such as inches and pounds, but decibel levels can be harder to gauge. Luckily, a variety of decibel meter apps are available for smartphones. As you decide how to protect your hearing, consider these apps, which can measure the noise levels around you to determine how many decibels is too loud. They'll help you take educated action to protect your ears from noise-induced hearing loss.

  • NIOSH Sound Level Meter App (Free; available for iOS only
    This app was developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to measure noise levels in the workplace for safety and health professionals. However, it is free and available to the general public. The app uses the phone’s built-in microphone to give you real-time noise exposure data, which you can then save and share with others. (Note: For best results, you can purchase an external, calibrated microphone).
  • Decibel X (Free with in-app purchases; available for iOS and Android
    If you've ever wondered, "how is sound measured?" you may be interested in this popular and free decibel meter app. It turns your smartphone into a professional (and portable) sound level meter, and is known for its accuracy, reliability and easy-to-use interface. Decibel X displays real-time sound levels both numerically (in decibels) as well as visually in beautiful wave and bar graphs. Bonus: This app is also supported by Apple Watch, so you can measure sound right from your wrist.

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