Earplugs to protect your hearing: Which type for you?


We recently talked about hearing loss, how “easy” it is for today’s environments and personal habits to damage your hearing, and ways to help preserve it. One of those ways is to use earplugs when you will be exposed to unusually loud sounds for even a short time, or a louder-than-normal environment for a sustained period.

What kind of earplugs might be right for you?

The purpose of this article is to bring these issues to your awareness. It is only a summary and details are generalized. To fully appreciate what hearing dangers exist in your environment, and to determine the extent to which you should be concerned and/or take precautions, and what precautions are best for you, please look further into the issue or consult a hearing health professional. Some solutions perform differently for various individuals. If you have any hearing difficulty, noticeable hearing loss, ailment (including but not limited to pain, discharge or pus in the ear), or want expert advice, please consult your physician or a hearing specialist promptly.

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People wear earplugs for various reasons, not all related to hearing preservation. We’ll take a quick look at many types of earplugs. In order to determine which kind you need, and judge their efficacy in meeting your needs, first consider what your needs are.

Some people want to block out snoring. Some (swimmers) want to block out water. Some want to block as much environmental noise as possible, others want just to bring it down to a safer level but still need to hear their surroundings (such as the presence of announcements or emergency alerts), and others (such as musicians) want to protect their ears but need to hear the full spectrum of audio frequencies, as faithfully as possible.

For hearing protection (as opposed to, say, water protection), there are various types of earplugs to consider: Foam, Silicone, Flanged, Wax/Cotton, Custom-molded and Active. There also “active” earplugs. Some play white noise, and some reduce sounds the way those noise-cancelling airplane headphones do.

There are also attenuators you wear over your ears, and those “headphone-looking” things worn by baggage handlers, etc. We’re guessing you won’t want to wear those out-and-about town, so let’s just look at the plugs and when you might want to use them. Incidentally, don’t worry about their length ... an adult’s ear canal is about an inch long. (Even so, do NOT stick anything else in it!)

And, from various reviews we’ve seen, be aware that price alone might not be a reliable indicator of an earplug effectiveness or suitability for you. In fact, according to package data, the inexpensive squishy cylinders block nearly the 33 dBa thatis about as quiet as you’re going to find.

(Incidentally, motorcyclists and race drivers tell us that their helmet provides hearing protection, although they do use earbuds for communication. On public roads, safety experts advise not using any earplugs, so as to hear warnings around you.)

Squishy Foam or Shaped Rubber (polyurethane, PVC, latex, or silicone)

These are found, for example, on the drug store shelf, and are meant to be disposable (although some people do wash and disinfect them for re-use). They won’t block all frequencies, at least not uniformly, but will do for mowing the lawn and may help you ignore someone’s heavy snoring.

Our Chief Edge Officer, David Goldberg, wears these to loud concerts and such environments.

“They are very comfortable,” David reports, “and never fall out, at least for me. Problem is, they cut out all treble. I previously used earplugs made for shooting guns. It’s great that they have a filter inside that allows treble in and bass out, but I found them very uncomfortable.”
David’s sons like monster trucks, and when they go to a truck show, he has the kids wear earplugs, too.

David Grunberg, the founder and director of the Spectrum Symphony of New York also chooses foam earplugs.

“I wear earplugs in the subway and on the street, but not consistently,” Mr. Grunberg said. “I use the soft foam plugs that are most comfortable. I don't care if it's only 20 dB of reduction, even a slight reduction in noise seems to help.”

There are essentially two types of foam plugs. One type is a PVC memory-foam cylinder (mentioned above) that you roll to compress, press into the ear and hold in the canal for up to 20 seconds while it slowly expands. The other is a tapered shape of soft polyurethane; it’s designed to fit into the canal without rolling – just push. Unfortunately, some people find it difficult to get the tapered end into the canal without the plug doubling over.

Some users report that the cylinder seems to be denser and more effective (or maybe just seals better), and that the tapered soft-rubber kind don’t stay put very well. Others have no difficulty inserting the tapered ones, and report that they’re more effective than cylinders.

Although the manufacturers may say not to re-use them, you’ll probably get a dozen or so uses out of this type before starting a new pair. At a dollar or less per pair in multi-packs, who’s counting?

There’s also a silcone type that you don’t squish – just plug them into your ear like a bottle-stopper. The review we’ve seen found them less effective than the kind you roll. On the other hand, when out and about, they seem easier and quicker to insert.

Note: If you are allergic to latex, you might want to avoid some plugs in this category.

Silicone putty

These don’t fit into the ear canal, but over it. They’re putty in the shape of a disk. You press the disk flat over the opening. In fact, if you try to press them into the canal, you’ll create undue pressure.

Users report that they the putty disks can be re-used a few times, but will pick up dirt and dust, etc., and anyway will soon lose tack and some of their effectiveness. Reports of their relative performance vary, but if your ear canals are smaller than average, this might be the more practical choice. On the other hand, they might fall off during a jumping-jack or two. They’re inexpensive, so give them a try.

This type is also used by swimmers to block water.

Wax or Wax/Cotton

This technology has been used for a couple of millennia. And people tell us it still holds its own against other options, even with a heavily snoring spouse.

In our small, unscientific survey, one user said the spongy compressible kind don’t fit her ears, but with these, “the difference between using them or not is that, instead of waking up 27 times a night, I wake up twice.” Some reviews we’ve seen online (of another brand) have not been so kind, saying that wax-type plugs dry out, get dirty, or are trouble to remove. Our correspondent said that hasn’t been her experience with the brand she uses (Quies).

At about a dollar a pair, you can be the judge. Snoring might be injurious to health in various ways, but hearing health probably isn’t one of them, so let’s move on....

Flanged

For some situations, consider earplugs that are “officially” reusable and easily inserted. Flanged plugs are so-named because sound is blocked by a series of concentric rings (flanges) along the central shaft. Some are certified by the military and governmental agencies for various conditions. They may be intended for occasional “impulse” noises, letting low-level sound come through. Some even have caps on the hollow central shaft, that can be temporarily opened in order to hear speech better. Made of flexible material, they are intended for re-use. Typical specs indicate they don’t block sound as effectively as the others above.

One reviewer found at least one brand of this type to be virtually ineffective, saying his in-ear headphones do a better job of blocking sound. But with these, too, the price per pair is affordable enough that you can judge for yourself.

Custom-molded

The range of satisfaction in this category seems rather wide. Despite being custom-fit to your ear, some users have reported discomfort. Are they more effective? Apparently that also depends on the plug. Before spending a lot of money on these, look into them carefully, or get a satisfaction guarantee.

Flat Acoustic Filters and Special-purpose

The sophisticated earplugs worn by musicians and DJs reduce all frequencies similarly, so that the sound isn’t muddied, it’s just quieter. The better ones aren’t cheap, and everyone is different, so we suggest you talk first with a hearing care professional to determine your particular risk and needs. Some plugs are custom-molded to your ear and ear canal.

Talking with a healthcare provider, retailer or searching online will also turn up various other special-purpose plugs.

Remember that a high price does not necessarily mean that “sophisticated” plugs will be more effective and/or comfortable. In fact, a reviewer at Slate.com found some expensive plugs to be among the worst.

“Active” plugs

By “active” we mean devices that involve some sort of active electronic process, as opposed to “noise-isolating” (a passive process, essentially any sort of plug).

Some active designs intend to mask sound with white noise, others try to cancel it with out-of-phase sound, the way that a jet engine’s drone is erased by some airplane headphones. Only the latter type is truly “noise-cancelling” (NC). Note that they are not particularly effective against non-steady sounds (e.g., rifle shot), although models may vary with snoring. And they don’t cancel whatever sound might bypass them into your ear.

Theoretically, earbuds or headphones can actively cancel droning noise without having to play music, etc., as well. (For example, the way some cars now actively cancel engine and road noise.) But so far, we haven’t found any NC earplugs/buds that are not also earphones. Some reviews suggest that the music reproduction of some models is not as good as their noise reduction (and with other models, vice versa); in those cases, you might prefer to think of them as just earplugs. And without the additional masking effect of music, you might find a $1 pair of earplugs to be more effective.

We question the white-noise approach. Many authoritative sources say to avoid wearing earbuds to bed, because if you fall asleep with them in, you could subject your ears to 8 hours of noise at who-know-what loudness levels.* And what would be the result of a lifetime of white-noise nights? But on an occasional air flight or such, we’d think no problem.

So, again, first talk with a hearing specialist, not just the vendor.

*(There’s another potential issue with wearing earbuds to sleep – a friend of ours once intentionally fell asleep to a recording of forest rain. Come morning, he thought it was a rainy day, turned over and went back to sleep, almost missing a great day of skiing!)

Can regular use of earplugs be harmful?

By the way, don’t use plain cotton. We’re told that can be harmful.

Bearing in mind what we wrote in our article Earbuds and earplugs: A heads-up on hearing health -- about earbuds potentially irritating the ear canal and perhaps stimulating excess ear wax production, even creating a dam -- we wonder if habitual use of earplugs also poses this issue. And if they are too tight, they could promote irritation and infection.

But we’re not suggesting that you wear earplugs throughout your day, as you might do with earbuds, so with earplugs these issues seem minor. And, as far as wax is concerned, if you do find this to be a problem, it can be remedied. Unlike hearing loss, wax accumulation and minor irritation are reversible.

If you’re an airline baggage handler or for some other reason need to wear hearing protection for long periods, we suggest you use over-the-ear noise protectors, and/or check with your healthcare provider.

It all depends.

The point is to reduce sounds to a safer level. (See It hurts when you do that! How to protect your hearing.) No earplug, no matter what type or the cost, is going to block out sound entirely. But unless you’re in a dormitory full of snorers, that’s just as well. Will you be able to hear warnings and subway announcements?

Well, in any case, if you take care of your hearing, you’ll at least be able to hear them in years to come.

ADDITIONAL READING:

The Sound of Silence: Sussing out the ear-plug market. By Ulrich Boser
http://www.slate.com/articles/life/shopping/2005/05/the_sound_of_silence.html

Quies. (Just one of many manufacturer. We’ve linked to this one because their products range from pure wax to sonically flat acoustic filters.
http://www.quies.com

Hush brand earplugs (possibly not yet on the market). Billed as “smart earplugs” their “intelligence” seems limited to the fact that they’re smartphone controlled and can play a wake-up alarm. The white noise they generate is apparently not active cancellation of any sort.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/26/smart-earplugs-hush_n_6221560.html

Audio-Technica active noise-cancelling in-ear headphones These are earbuds (headphones), not pure noise-blockers. What happens when you have noise-cancellation on and the audio off? We’ll ask them.
http://www.audio-technica.com/cms/headphones/b8f997425a783390/

The Best Noise-Cancelling In-Ear Headphones. The WireCutter

For additional sources, see Earbuds and earplugs: A heads-up on hearing health.

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