Your Ear Gear and Hearing Health

Smartphones and earbuds

During the days of the Walkman, many used to wonder what those little things that are plugged into the ears of the youth. Even during the early days of the iPod, many were fascinated by the white earphones with which they come.

But once the 2010s rolled in, we no longer bat an eyelash when we see someone playing loud music on their smartphones. It's become the norm.

That's only part and parcel of technological advancement, but it doesn’t come without a price.

This habit of constantly using earbuds is compromising many teenagers’ health—particularly their hearing.

Your Ear Gear and Hearing Health

Your ear gear, the listening devices you wear in or around
your ears, is a critical part of your hearing health. The boombox was invented
in the Netherlands in 1969. A decade later, a device called the Walkman® shrank
those giant speakers so they would fit around your ears, providing you with a
personalized, mobilized listening experience. Then, in 2001, the world was
introduced to the iPod®.

According to, in 2017, 368 million headphones
or headsets were sold worldwide. Eighty-seven percent of people use their
headphones to listen to music; 49 percent use them to watch TV or movies; 36
percent to listen to the radio; 28 percent to listen to audiobooks; and 25
percent for good old-fashioned phone calls. That’s a lot of noise in your
ears—what could go wrong?

Here’s What You Need to Know about Noise-induced Hearing

Noise-induced hearing loss happens because of loud noises
that damage the inner ear. Listening to music at volumes louder than 85
decibels (dB) for prolonged periods of time will cause permanent hearing loss.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) permit workers to listen to 85 dB
for eight hours in a row. But for every three dB above that, the time that is
considered “safe” is divided in half. That means you’re only recommended to
listen at 88 dB for four hours, at 91 dB for two hours, at 94 dB for one hour,
at 97 dB for 30 minutes, at 100 dB for 15 minutes, and so on. The average
portable music player is played at 100 dB, and cellphones or listening devices
in the U.S. can produce a maximum of 115 dB.

Here Are Five Tips for Preserving Your Hearing

  1. Turn
    it down
    —Set your volume limit on your device so you’re listening at no
    louder than 70 percent of the possible volume.

  2. Turn
    it off
    —Hearing damage occurs at loud volumes for long periods of
    times. You can use the 60/60 rule: listen at 60 percent volume for 60
    minutes, then take a break for 30 minutes or more to allow your ears to
    rest and recover.

  3. Choose
    over-the-ear headphones over earbuds
    —Earbuds can be up to nine dB
    louder than over-the-ear headphones. That would reduce your safe listening
    time from two hours to 15 minutes if you were listening at 91 dB!

  4. Choose
    noise-cancelling headphones
    —This is particularly important if you like
    listening to your device(s) in noisy environments, like busy city streets.
    Without realizing it, you will dial up the volume in your earbuds to
    overcome the noise around you.

  5. It’s
    all about that bass
    —If you’re a big fan of the deep vibration and
    “head-banging” effect of music, use the equalizer on your device to turn
    up the bass. Even by turning down the volume, you’ll still get the feeling
    that pleases you.

That said, safe hearing levels are all based on older
research. We used to think that muffled hearing and tinnitus (ringing
in the ears) that we experienced after a great concert or club was just
temporary hearing loss from loud music. We now know that even a limited amount
of noise exposure can cause permanent damage to delicate ribbons between the
hair cells in our ears. The damage only becomes obvious a decade or two later
when we start having trouble hearing conversations with noise in the
background. Remember: Less noise = better hearing.

Here’s What You Need to Know about Earbuds and Ear

Ear canals have wax and bacteria in them. That’s not a
problem unless it becomes infected. Earbuds trap wetness in the ear canal,
which is worse if you’re hot and sweaty from a workout. Bacteria and fungi love
moist, warm, dark areas like your ear canal, and studies show that earbuds can
cause an 11-fold increase in the bacteria in the ear canal.1

You shouldn’t share your earbud with anyone because that can
increase your exposure to new bacteria or fungi. If you store your earbuds in
your bag or pocket, they can also pick up outside germs that then get
transported to your ear canal when you put them back in. And if you have a
scratch or cut in your ear, those new germs or bacteria can lead to a serious

Remember: Make sure to clean your earbuds once a
week, particularly after sweating and especially if you’ve shared them with
someone else. Use a cotton ball dampened (not soaked) with rubbing alcohol, and
clean off any wax or debris. Store your earbuds in a clean, dry case and not
loose in your bag.

Here’s How to Avoid Outer Ear Pain from Headphones

Headphones worn over or around the ear can cause pressure
damage to the outside part of your ear, called the pinna. Bending or squeezing
the delicate cartilage of the pinna under headphones can cause pain, and you
run the risk of causing a skin abrasion that could get infected. You can also
cause inflammation of the cartilage, called chondritis, which can be difficult
to treat. You could even end up with a permanent deformity.

Remember: Your headphones should fit snugly but not
too tight. Pain is an important indicator telling you when something is wrong.
If your headphones hurt, loosen them or get another kind of headphone.

Here’s How to Maximize Your Safety with Ear Gear

It’s great to lose yourself in your favorite music or a
great podcast or audiobook, but jeopardizing one of your most important senses—hearing—as
you navigate the world may not be worth it. Cycling, particularly city cycling,
is dangerous. Dodging cars, open doors, potholes, pedestrians, and other
obstacles while pedaling is challenging with all your senses, and even more so
if you eliminate or even reduce your hearing by wearing earbuds or headphones.

A 2011 study revealed that two-thirds of cyclists who wear
earbuds while cycling cannot hear sirens, automobiles honking, or cars whizzing
by in traffic. However, the study did find that listening to music with a
single earbud and keeping one ear free of any distracting noise did not affect
a cyclist’s auditory perception.2

Remember: Don’t use earbuds or headphones while
walking, biking, or driving. Enjoy your surroundings! But if you must, use only
one earbud or headphone at a time. Or, you can get a bone conduction headset
that sits behind your ears, so you can hear music and still be alert to all
that’s around you.


Mukhopadhyay C, Basak S, Gupta S, Chawla K,
Bairy I. A comparative analysis of bacterial growth with earphone use. Online J
Health Allied Scs. 2008;7(2):4

de Waard D, Edlinger K, Brookhuis K. Effects of
listening to music, and of using a handheld and handsfree telephone on cycling
behavior. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour,
Elsevier, November 2011.

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