So many of us spend all day with our headphones and don’t ever think how much damage they are causing to our hearing. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 billion young adults are currently at risk of irreversible and permanent hearing loss because of unsafe listening and exposure to loud sounds.
The movie Sound of Metal perfectly captures the scary reality of losing your hearing and being unable to get it back. We follow a drummer in a metal band that performs shows and is exposed to constant loud noise because of the nature of his work.
It initially starts with constant ringing in his ears to him not being able to hear anything around him except faint sounds. He thinks getting implants will restore his hearing back to normal but they only give out a more distorted sound that leaves him frustrated.
None of us would want to end up like him, especially when this kind of hearing loss is completely preventable.
Let’s explore how sound can lead to hearing damage, and if so, what can we do to prevent it?
Can Loud Sound Lead to Hearing Loss?
Prolonged exposure to loud sounds is the second most common for permanent hearing loss. Exposure to constant sound can also lead to tinnitus and dizziness.
This not only affects hearing but also has various effects on the quality of life, such as withdrawal from social life and social isolation due to difficulty in communication, difficulties in the workplace, and other areas of life.
Constant exposure or duration of listening is just as crucial to hearing damage as loudness. A study shows that listening for more than 5 hours per day was associated with higher hearing problems.
Importance of Protecting Our Hearing
Listening to loud noises over prolonged periods damages the inner ear’s auditory nerve and hair cells. These hair cells are responsible for transmitting sound signals to your brain. Constant noise exposure damages and kills these hair cells, which means a decreased ability to hear sound.
Hearing loss is permanent and irreversible. Your hearing will not return to normal once it has been damaged.
Once your hearing has been lost, the only method for treating hearing loss is through hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Can Headphones Cause Hearing Loss?
Listening to loud music is harmful, without a doubt. The trouble with headphones is that they are always close to your ear. The loud sound waves from headphones reach our ears and cause vibrations in the inner ear.
This is where hair cells are located, and exposure to these vibrations stuns them and causes them to not function optimally for some time. While they might sometimes recover, prolonged exposure to loud sounds can damage them, leading to permanent hearing loss.
Headphones don’t always have to be loud to damage your hearing. Length of exposure is also a factor in hearing loss. Of course, louder sounds will damage your hearing much faster than quieter ones, but they can still damage your hearing.
There’s a time limit to how long you can listen to certain sound decibels.
How Long Can You Listen to Certain Sounds
|Sound and Noises
|Sound Level in Decibels
|Response after Repeated Exposure
|Damage to hearing after 2 hours of exposure
|Damage to hearing after 50 minutes of exposure
|Car horns, sporting events
|Hearing loss possible after 15 minutes
|Headphones at highest sound level, rock concerts
|105 - 110
|Hearing loss possible in less than 5 minutes
|Standing near fire crackers
|140 - 150
|Pain and ear injury
|Rupture of eardrum
Data via cdc.gov
As you can see, the quieter the sound, the more time you can spend listening to it. Vice versa, the louder the sound, the less time it takes to damage your hearing.
How Long Can You Listen to Your Headphones?
It depends entirely on the volume you are listening to.
A regular pair of headphones at the highest volume can be at 100dB, reaching up to 110 dB, which can damage your hearing in a few minutes. At 100 dB, it is recommended to not exceed 15 minutes; at 110 dB, the safe limit is just one minute.
While some experts recommend not exceeding the 80% sound limit on your headphones and keeping the range between 60 to 80%, a better measure would be to keep them below 60% and between 50 to 60%. Anything above that usually exceeds 70 dB, which is the limit for safe hearing. Sounds louder than 80 dB can cause hearing damage over time.
Every 10-point increase in decibels equates to a tenfold increase in sound intensity and is twice as loud for us. If the sound is leaking from your headphones, then they are too loud and at least at 85 dB.
Which Type of Headphones are Good for Ears?
Loudness matters on how close a particular sound is to your ear. The closer a sound is to your ear, the louder it will be. Different types of headphones are at varying distances from your ear.
Let’s look at the different types of headphones and see how they work to understand which are safer than others.
Are Earphones Safe? – Earphones Vs In-Ear Buds
Experts have said that earphones and in-ear buds are damaging because of their proximity to the ear and how they play sounds directly into the sound canal, exponentially increasing the risk of hearing damage.
Plastic earphones are put in front of the ear canal instead of being inserted in. This leads to poor sound isolation, which means you’ll have to listen to louder sounds to hear clearly, leading to rapid damage.
When we come to in-ear buds, their silicon tips block the ear and offer sound isolation, which means you can listen to them at lower sounds. However, they are inserted inside your ear canal, bringing them close to the inner ear and affecting your eardrum.
Which is Safer? – On-Ear Headphones Vs Over-the-Ear Headphones
On-ear headphones typically sit over the ear but cannot cover your ears entirely. This leads to average sound isolation, which means you have to turn up the volume way higher to hear more clearly.
On the other hand, Over-the-ear headphones are large enough that they can encapsulate your ear, creating a seal that offers good noise isolation. This allows you to hear good-quality sound even at a lower volume. They also deliver sound into the auricle or outer ear instead of earphones, reducing the impact on the eardrum.
They tend to be more comfortable to wear and prevent the pain that comes from wearing other types of headphones.
Experts unanimously agree that over-the-ear headphones are the safest kind of headphones you can use, given you use them at prescribed hearing levels and don’t go above.
Are Noise-Cancelling Headphones Safe for Hearing?
Many people use their headphones during commutes in noisier environments such as trains and buses. If you’re using headphones with poor noise isolation, you’ll have to turn the volume way up to hear anything, sometimes to potentially dangerous levels, which will cause permanent hearing damage.
In environments like these, noise-cancelling headphones come in handy as they reduce and block out environmental sounds around you, allowing you to hear at much safer sound levels.
In fact, noise-cancelling headphones were first invented to protect the hearing of professionals like pilots that were at risk because of loud aircraft sounds. Now, many professionals exposed to loud sound levels use these headphones to minimise damage to their hearing.
Tips on How to Listen to Music Safely
Here are some tips to help you listen to your music safely and minimise the risk of hearing loss.
Turn the Volume Down and Increase it as Required
A good rule of thumb for listening to music is to avoid trying to figure out the loudest sound level that is safe but rather the lowest level at which you hear the sound clearly.
A good practice for this is turning down the volume before listening to anything. This will also prevent random bursts of sound from startling you. Now, slowly raise the volume until you’re at a level where you hear everything clearly.
Listen to Warnings
Most phones warn you when you try to exceed the 80% sound level mark. These warnings are there for a reason, and it’s best to listen to them. 80% volume on its own is really loud, so limit your usage at this level and turn back to safer sound levels as soon as possible.
Invest in Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Noise-cancelling headphones might seem pricey, but they are a worthwhile investment to help you avoid damaging your hearing. They are especially useful in louder environments and allow you to listen to your music without increasing the volume.
They are also great, just as usual, because even in relatively quieter indoor spaces, they’ll block out fan and air conditioner noises, allowing you to hear your music at lower levels.
Replace Earphones with Over-the-Ear Headphones
Earphones are the most common type of headphones because of their affordability and how easy they are to carry around. Headphones are usually expensive, especially over-the-ear headphones.
But since earphones are placed so close to your ear, you will be at a higher risk of damaging your hearing with them. Over-the-ear headphones are still away from your ears and encapsulate them to help you listen to much lower sounds.
Taking a Break and Lowering Your Volume
Even if you are following all other safe listening practices, it is still essential to take breaks in between. A good rule is to take off your headphones every hour or so and give yourself a break before getting back into listening.
By now, you probably know how scary hearing loss can be, and the damage caused by it is permanent and irreversible. The rise of personal listening devices and headphones has contributed significantly to this.
We often turn a blind eye to how our listening habits might affect our hearing, but it’s time we pay close attention to it.
Hearing loss is entirely preventable, and by incorporating a few healthy listening habits into your daily routine, you’ll be saving yourself and your hearing from otherwise irreversible damage.
Samreen Parvez found her love for tech by messing around with the settings on her family’s old digital cameras. This led to a passion for different gadgets and a fascination with all the things they can do. Her interest in all things tech related, combined with a love for writing and research, led her to craft content at Tech Wizard.