Protect your ears from noise

Last updated: July 2009

In an era when some people think nothing of spending hours on end listening to their MP3 players at high volume, the risk to your hearing from everyday activities might be greater than you think. Someone whose day includes a workout at a noisy gym while listening to music on an MP3 player, lunch at a clamorous restaurant, a subway ride, a few hours of mechanized yard work, and a night out with friends at a dance club can easily end up with a dose of noise exposure that over time can be damaging.

That is more than just a theoretical concern. About 30 million Americans have hearing loss. Studies show that roughly 15 percent of American teenagers are showing early signs of that condition, at an age when their hearing should be almost perfect.

"We are prematurely aging our ears," says Brian Fligor, Sc.D., director of diagnostic audiology at Children's Hospital in Boston.

Here's how to tell whether your lifestyle is putting your own hearing at risk and what you can do about it if it is:

How hearing loss happens

Loud noises can temporarily or permanently damage the microscopic hair cells in the inner ear that convey sound to the brain. Those cells can bounce back from an occasional assault, such as that Metallica concert you went to last year. But if you live a habitually loud life, some of those cells might eventually stop working for good.

Hearing loss might progress for many years before you become aware of the problem. It usually starts with a loss of soft consonant sounds such as "f" and "sh," making speech more difficult to understand. But it can grow into a very serious condition that can isolate people from family and friends, leading to depression and other psychosocial problems.

How much noise is too much?

That's more difficult to answer than you might imagine because some ears can withstand loud noises better than others, and individuals' exposures are so variable and difficult to track.

Noise is measured in decibels, with 0 being the quietest sound a person can hear, 60 a normal conversation, and 140 (a gunshot at close range) a level that can cause immediate, permanent damage. Every additional 10 points on the scale represents a doubling of perceived loudness. At loud volumes over long periods, an increase of even a few decibels adds to your risk of hearing loss.

Our health and safety experts, after studying existing guidelines and scientific research on hearing loss, have concluded that almost everyone can safely be exposed to 70 decibels, about as loud as your morning shower, indefinitely without harm. But you should do everything you can to avoid or minimize exposure to noise above 100 decibels. That's a sound level that can be exceeded by rock concerts, sporting events, movie theaters, and some MP3 players when played at maximum volume.

As for the decibels in between, it all depends. Particularly if your hearing is already deteriorating or you are exposed to significant noise on the job or recreationally, try to avoid other prolonged exposure to noise between 75 and 85 decibels. Above that, everyone should limit prolonged exposure or use hearing protection. For instance, if you're going to spend time operating a 90-decibel lawn mower, wear earplugs or earmuffs.

As for MP3 players, Fligor's research shows that most people listen at safe volumes in quiet settings. But in a louder place, such as an airplane cabin, a gym, or a city street, a large majority of listeners dial the volume up to risky levels to drown out ambient noise.

What you can do

Gauge your exposure. Check the chart to see how loud different types of products and environments can be. The more of them you're exposed to, especially for extended periods, the greater your risk.

As a rule of thumb, if the noise around you makes it difficult to carry on a conversation without shouting, it's too loud.

A rough way to test for temporary hearing loss is to put your car stereo on its lowest audible setting before you enter a noisy place, such as a rock concert. If you can't hear it when you return, you might have a temporary noise-induced hearing loss.

Turn it down. Discipline yourself to play music at a lower volume. Keep your MP3 player well below maximum volume and limit listening time to 90 minutes per day. Use your MP3 player's volume limiter if it has one.

Schedule quiet times. Hearing loss is cumulative, so make sure to offset noisy periods with quieter ones.

Use hearing protection. Foam earplugs can reduce your noise exposure by about 20 decibels, but only if you insert them properly. Here's how: Roll the earplug gently between your fingers to make it long and thin, then reach over your head to lift your ear with one hand while inserting the earplug with the other. Hold each earplug in place until it expands. Or you can use over-the-ear earmuffs, which are easier to put on and take off but can be hotter and bulkier.

Use the right headphones. Our tests have shown that noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones and insert-type rubber-tipped earbuds, properly sized to fit your ear canals, can be good at blocking background noises that lead to higher listening volumes. We found that the Panasonic RP-HC55 insert-type earphones were tops for noise canceling, and the Bose QuietComfort 2 were also very good at sound reduction. Just avoid using them in places where you need to stay alert, such as city streets and airports.

How loud is it?

These are often loud enough to add to your risk, according to our own tests of everyday products and published research on a variety of environments.

77 to 92 decibels

86 to 99 decibels

50 to 90 decibels

72 to 104 decibels

78 to 106 decibels

89 to 120 decibels

89 to 115 decibels

72 to 86 decibels

83 to 112 decibels

A caution about kids & MP3 players

Sony MDR-222KD headphones

We tested three MP3 players and three aftermarket headphones marketed to children and found reason for caution.

Played with their factory earbuds at maximum volume, all three of the players (the Disney Mix Stick, the Mattel Barbie Girls, and the SanDisk Sansa Shaker) were loud enough to pose a hearing risk with prolonged regular use.

Of the three aftermarket headphones, the Ingemi Corp iHearSafe, and the Sony MDR-222KD claimed to limit maximum volume. The Sony was somewhat quieter at maximum volume than the factory headphones but could still pose a risk on some players for extended periods. The iHearSafe lowered volume further but on some players might actually be so quiet at maximum volume that children will have difficulty hearing the music. (NOTE: iHearSafe is recalling its Safe Volume headphones, ear buds,and ear clips because of a potential lead hazard. The affected units were produced and sold between Sept. 1, 2008, and March 17, 2009. The company urges consumers to stop using these products and to contact iHearSafe at 877-443-2772 for a refund.) The third model, Kid's Gear, didn't claim to limit volume, and it generally didn't.

Bottom line. Check your child's player at its maximum volume with the headphones it will be used with. If it sounds loud to you, it's probably too loud for your child. Demand that it be turned down, limit use time, or take it away.

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