Headphones and Hearing Health: A Guide to Safe Listening

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 how headphones cause hearing loss, the pros and cons of different headphone types, and tips for safe listening and hygiene.

Are Headphones Bad For My Hearing?

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. 

The good news? Headphones hearing loss is entirely preventable. Adopting safe listening habits when wearing headphones will protect your ears and create a better listening experience overall.

Safe Listening: How Loud, and For How Long?

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.

For reference, here are the decibel measurements of some common sounds:

  • Whisper: 30 dB
  • Normal conversation: 60 dB
  • Heavy traffic: 85 dB
  • Lawn mower: 90 dB
  • Power drill: 130 dB
 

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.

Tips for safe listening with headphones:

  • Follow the 60/60 rule.
  • Take listening breaks.
  • Check the volume by holding your headphones out in front of you. Can you hear the music? If so, it’s too loud!
  • Set a maximum volume limit. Adjust the sound settings on your smartphones and other devices to ensure that the volume doesn’t exceed 60 percent. 
  • Be mindful of where you use headphones. Avoid wearing headphones in loud environments. When listening in a noisy place such as a busy coffee shop or gym, it’s common to crank up the volume to an unsafe level to block out the surrounding noise.
 

Turn down the volume if:

  • You can’t hear anything around you
  • The person next to you can hear what you are listening to
  • You experience ringing in the ears (also known as tinnitus), buzzing, dulled or muffled hearing after listening

Headphones vs. Earbuds: Which Are Safest For My Ears?

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.

Here is a breakdown of the three main headphone types:

Over-ear headphones

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.        

Pros:

  • Diffuse sound around your ear instead of directing it straight into the ear canal
  • Good sound quality
  • Block out background noise, allowing for listening at lower volumes
 

Cons:

  • Large and bulky
  • Can be costly
 

On-ear headphones

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.

Pros:

  • Good sound quality
  • More portable than over-ear headphones
 

Cons:

  • Not as portable as in-ear headphones
  • Not as good at blocking out background noise
 

In-ear headphones (earbuds)

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 because of their proximity to the eardrum.

Pros:

  • Small and lightweight
  • Affordable
 

Cons:

  • Produce up to 9 decibels higher sound by placing sound closer to the eardrum
  • Filter less background noise, causing listeners to turn up the volume
  • Less sanitary

Can I Wear Headphones If I Have Hearing Aids?

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:

  • Over-ear headphones are most compatible with: BTE (Behind-the-ear), ITC (In-the-canal), ITE (In-the-ear), RIC (Receiver-in-canal)
  • On-ear headphones are most compatible with: CIC (Completely-in-canal), IIC (Invisible-in-canal)
  • Bone conduction headphones are most compatible with: CIC (Completely-in-canal), IIC (Invisible-in-canal), ITC (In-the-canal), ITE (In-the-ear)
 

Tip: Your hearing aid will amplify the sound coming from the headphones, so make sure to adjust the volume accordingly.

Over-ear headphones

On-ear headphones

In-ear headphones

Bone conduction headphones

How to Clean Earbuds and Headphones

Noise isn’t the only risk—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.

How to clean earbuds:

  • Use a soft, dry toothbrush to gently dislodge any clogged dirt or earwax trapped in the wire mesh part of the earbud
  • Dampen a cotton swab with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer and wipe down the wire mesh area, then allow to air dry
  • If your earbuds have silicone ear tips, you can remove them, let them soak in soapy warm water for 5 minutes, and allow to air dry
 

How to clean headphones:

  • Dampen a cloth with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer and gently wipe down the outer part of the ear pads, then allow to air dry 
  • Headphones made of special materials (wood, leather, etc.) may require special care
 

Headphone hygiene tips:

  • Clean your earbuds regularly, especially if you wear them during exercise
  • Avoid sharing headphones
  • Store earbuds and headphones in a container to protect them from dirt and debris

Let’s talk hearing health

If you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss, you’re not alone. Nearly 38 million American adults report some trouble hearing. Take your first step to better hearing today by downloading our free hearing guide.

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