Are Earbuds Bad for Your Ears — Getting Down to Brass Tacks

Are you looking to buy new earbuds? If so, you’ve probably already asked around about the features you need to look for when choosing the perfect pair. Wired or wireless? Check. Plastic or silicone tip? Check. Replacement buds in three sizes? Check. But have you stopped to wonder — are earbuds bad for your ears?

The chances are you haven’t. If that is indeed the case, you are not alone. Not so long ago, I was in the same situation. I got a pair of foam tip earbuds based only on their overall appearance and the price tag that fit my budget. Little did I know that foam tips would offer mediocre noise isolation that no volume levels known to man could rectify! So I kept on hitting the volume button until it reached the max and shoving the poor things as deep in my ear as I could.

Ultimately, I got an ear infection that merited a trip to the ear-nose-throat specialist. I was astonished when they told me that the earbuds were to blame for my predicament. Afterward, I plunged myself into extensive reading on the topic. In this article, I will share what I found out about the proper ways to use earbuds to preserve your hearing.


A Word on Earbuds

Earbuds are smaller, cheaper, more convenient, and less noticeable alternatives to headphones. And just as there are many kinds of headphones, there are several options when it comes to earbuds too.

Namely, earbuds and earphones, though the terms are frequently used interchangeably, are different devices. Earphones, or in-ear headphones, are designed to be inserted inside the ear, while earbuds sit on the outer ear and face the ear canal. Earbuds are those plasticky gimmicks, like the ones that standardly come with an iPhone, whereas in-ears tend to have a silicone tip to ensure that they fit snugly in the ear.

While there may not be a staggering difference in the way they look, there undoubtedly is one in how they sound. In-ears have better sound isolation because they close the entrance to the ear canal, blocking the outside noise. The result is clearer, more vibrant audio. On the other hand, earbuds are tiny speakers resting on the ears that let some of the background noise in. For that reason, some people find the sound quality of earbuds to be subpar.

latest earbuds

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

With the advent of new audio technologies, people are at higher risk of noise-induced hearing loss than ever before. Young adults and adolescents seem to be the most affected by loud-music-induced hearing loss, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Since we live in a noise-polluted world, we feel the need to amp up the volume on our devices to cancel out the noise around us.

Earbuds blast sound through the ear canal directly at the eardrum. It sends vibrations to the small bones located in the inner ear and to the cochlea. The cochlea is filled with fluid and thousands of tiny hair-like cells that move when they receive the vibrations from the eardrum. The louder the sound is, the more powerful the vibrations, and the greater the strain is on the hair cells.

If you’ve ever experienced temporary hearing loss, e.g., after a concert, it means that you’ve exerted these hair cells too much, and they needed time to recover. However, unlike the hair on your body, those hair cells cannot regrow. So when they sustain substantial damage, your hearing becomes permanently impaired.

Hearing damage is gradual, and recognizing its onset early on is vital. One of the first signs is hearing sounds that no one else around you can hear. People usually describe them as buzzing, ringing, and humming noises. In any case, if you are unsure, visit your doctor and make an appointment with an audiologist even if you always feel one earbud quieter than the other.

Image of runner woman smiling and touching earpods outdoors

Are Earbuds Dangerous for Ears

Depending on how you use them, there are several potential ways your earbuds can hurt your ears and lead to noise-induced hearing loss. Luckily, there are things you can do to curb hearing damage. These are some of the steps you can take:


Step 1: Avoid Loud Noise

All experts agree that earbuds are perfectly safe as long as you don’t turn the volume up all the way. As it turns out, listening to sounds louder than 85 decibels puts you at risk of ear damage. That is approximately how loud most people are when they shout.

However, most earbuds can produce audio of up to 120 decibels, which is roughly the equivalent of a rock concert. Are you still unsure of how loud is too loud? Not being able to have a conversation with someone while wearing earbuds is a good indicator.


Step 2: Limit the Use of Your Earbuds

Volume levels are not the only things you should think about. How long you use earbuds uninterruptedly also affects your chances of hearing loss. It goes like this — the higher the volume, the less time it takes to cause hearing damage.

For example, listening to music at the recommended 85 decibels is safe for over 24h. But blasting your audio at near maximum levels can cause damage in minutes.

Also, a good rule of thumb is to limit the duration of exposure and the volume according to the “60–60 rule”: keep the volume at 60% for up to 60 minutes, and then take a break.


Step 3: Consider Swapping Your Earbuds for Over-The-Ear Headphones

As mentioned before, the leading cause of hearing impairment is the volume level. Yet, decibels decrease with distance — the closer the sound source is to your ears, the louder it gets, and vice versa. That plays a role in whether you choose to go for a headphone or earphone model.


Earbuds vs. Headphones — Which Is Better for Your Ears?

With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over-ear headphones are less damaging to the ears than in-ear ones.

Earbuds are close to the eardrum and emit audio directly to it. Since they usually don’t have noise-isolating tips, the sound is diluted by external noises. That means that users, like yours truly, amp up the volume to cancel out distracting background noise. If you’ve jumped on the AirPod bandwagon, you’ll be sorry to hear that the ever-popular device carries the same risks as other earbuds.

In contrast, over-ear headphones stand further away from the eardrum. What’s more, many models have noise-canceling properties. Because over-ears don’t allow music to leak, it can be played at lower levels while maintaining a superior quality of sound.


Step 4: Try Hearing Aid Headphones

In case you wear a hearing aid, earbuds are not an option for you. Nowadays, there are wireless hearing aids that connect to your playback devices via Bluetooth, so you can use them instead of headphones!


Step 5: Prevent an Ear Infection

Earbuds close the entrance to the inner ear and, with prolonged use, contribute to the wax buildup in the ear canal. They also push the wax further down toward the eardrum and put you at risk of an ear infection.

Even though earbuds aren’t associated with any dangerous bacteria, they do transmit yeast. Therefore, take care of your ear health, clean your devices regularly, and think twice before you share your earbuds with others.

The Final Verdict

Let’s not beat around the bush — you don’t need a rock concert in your ears. Turn down the volume on your earbuds and give your ears some time out if you want to keep your hearing intact. Also, to prevent infection, keep earbuds tidy and don’t share them with others. To be on the safe side, you can also swap them for a pair of over-ears.

In the end, are earbuds bad for your ears or not? In my opinion, they can contribute to hearing damage and infection if you are careless of how you use them, but it’s hardly a pressing issue. Drop me a line in the comment section and tell me what you think. And if you enjoyed the article, remember to hit the share button! Before you go, check out our guide to fix one earphone not charging

John Gurley

John Gurley

John Gurley is the Founder, CEO, and Editor At Muse Mini. He has a passion for music and headphones and loves to cover all things music!