Finding the right earplugs for you
“The world is very noisy,” says audiologist Susan Terry, founder of Broadwater Hearing Care in St. Petersburg, Florida. And it’s not only the shrill of sirens and the clatter of restaurants: our hobbies, from skeet shooting to concert-going, along with our jobs, can be a source of loud sounds.
Sound is measured in decibels. Over time, sounds that are louder than about 70 decibels—for example, nearby sirens, gas-powered leaf blowers, or a motorcycle engine—can damage your ears and lead to noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Earplugs help protect your ears, and are one of the most useful ways to prevent hearing loss.
“Earplugs basically are a device that is inserted in the ear to mitigate the sound that reaches the cochlea, the inner ear, to prevent hearing loss,” Terry says.
You’re likely familiar with disposable versions, made from brightly colored foam or silicone and plastic, from the drugstore. Custom options are also available. Here’s what you need to know.
'Drugstore' earplugs are the cheapest option
The most readily accessible and cheapest earplugs can be purchased in drugstores, hardware stores and sporting goods stores. These disposable options are generally made from foam.
“You just roll them down, stick them in your ear, and they expand out to prevent hearing loss,” Terry explains. Disposable earplugs are available in a variety of sizes, shapes, and attenuation levels, Terry says. (Attenuation means how much they dampen sound.) The deeper you insert them, the more they'll muffle sound.
Pre-molded reusable options, made from studier materials, such as plastic or silicone, are also available. Some of these types of earplugs have filters in them that reduce the muffling sound that foam earplugs create, an appealing option for people who like to go to live music shows.
Custom-fit earplugs provide best fit
Disposable earplugs are a relatively unsubtle option, and sometimes people struggle with finding a comfortable fit. If your work environment, everyday activities, or hobbies expose you to frequent noises, you may want to invest in custom earplugs.
“There are [features] available as a custom product that we don't have for a disposable earplug,” Terry says.
Custom earplugs can be designed specifically for your hearing situation: For instance, Terry fitted a dental hygienist—who spends her days in the presence of high-pitched dental drills—with custom earplugs that block out the hum of dental tools but still let her hear patients.
People who use guns frequently can wear custom earplugs that block the loud gun noises, but still allow them to hear their surroundings. Musicians can opt for ones that preserve audio fidelity of the full dynamic range of sound. Doing so reduces a musician's risk of developing hearing loss and tinnitus.
“A custom plug is generally made from an ear impression that is taken by an audiologist and then sent to the lab to be made,” Terry says. Custom earplugs can be more comfortable—since they fit your ear precisely, the pressurized feeling that accompanies over-the-counter options is lessened.
Most hearing clinics near you can fit you with custom earplugs. They usually cost about $100, unless you have special needs, in which case they may cost more. Disposable ones, in contrast, can be as cheap as a dollar, Terry says.
Earplugs and noise reduction ratings
When you’re making a purchase, check the packaging for the noise reduction rating (NRR). The higher the NRR number is, the more noise will be reduced, Terry explains. Choose according to your situation: If you’re going to be doing yard work with a loud lawn mower, you’ll want a higher NRR than if you’re trying to reduce restaurant noise (but still want to be able to hear your dining partners). The noise reduction rating is usually around 30 decibels, meaning they reduce sounds by that amount. If you're getting custom-fit hearing plugs, your hearing care provider can tell you what the NRR is.
When should you wear earplugs?
People use earplugs when they’re sleeping—to cover up loud street noises or a partner’s snoring—as well as when using machinery around the house or yard, attending concerts or sporting events, hunting or skeet shooting, or riding motorcycles (the wind sounds can be damaging, even with a helmet on, Terry notes). Basically, if there are loud sounds, there’s cause to wear earplugs. More on how to know if sound is too loud.
If you work in a loud environment (think: construction or industrial settings), your employer will likely mandate that you wear hearing protection, Terry says. This could be earplugs, or it might be earmuffs, which fit over your outer ear, forming a tight seal, according to Creighton University. For really loud environments, you may want to wear both earplugs and earmuffs.
Kids and earplugs
Fitting small ears with earplugs can be challenging, Terry notes. It can be easier to use over-the-ear muffs that are sized for small children—these are perfect for when you take children to concerts or sporting events. They work well, and they’re inexpensive, she says.
What if earplugs hurt?
If you wear earplugs for a long time, such as while sleeping, they can make your ear canals sore. It also might mean the size is too big. Search for earplugs with a slimmer profile, Terry says. Often the bright pink earplugs sold in drugstores are smaller and a better fit for women and preteens.
If you have hearing loss, earplugs can protect your residual hearing
Do you have hearing loss? You absolutely should still wear earplugs in noisy environments. Talk to your hearing care provider about how to balance your need to wearing hearings aids with the need to protect your hearing, if, for example, you work in construction or a hairstylist. Here's why you should protect your residual hearing.
How well do they work?
Wearing earplugs or earmuffs is effective, reducing noise by about 15 to 30 decibels if worn correctly, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. Doubling up and wearing both earplugs and earmuffs offers more protection, notes the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
When to opt for custom earplugs
If you’re only occasionally or situationally exposed to loud noises, the everyday disposable options from the drugstore are likely the right option.
“For most everybody with their daily noise exposure, a pair of foam plugs are a great place to start,” she says. Consider custom ones if you have a noisy hobby or job, Terry suggests.
Here’s one way to think of it: If you’re attending a concert every few months, think about carrying disposable earplugs in your pocket. But if you’re a musician, or see live shows on a weekly basis, consider opting for custom-fitted earplugs. That same logic can apply to other activities: If you shoot skeet twice a year, go with disposable earplugs and earmuffs, but if it’s a regular activity, custom earplugs might be a better option.
Not sure what makes sense to you? Reach out to your local audiologist, Terry suggests. “I don’t know of any audiologist who wouldn’t be happy to talk to someone over the phone for a minute or two to guide them in the right direction.”