Headphones & Hearing: 9 Answers You Should Know Before Your Purchase

By Alex McIl – 6th Nov 2021

Having a set of headphones or earbuds has become a necessity for most people in the days of the pandemic when social contact has become highly reduced and online meetings a usual practice. However, there are hearing-related risks that come with using headphones. Today, we will present to you what you should know before buying your headphones.

headphones and ear care for hearing

Do Headphones Cause Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss can be caused by headphones. This may happen not because of the headphones themselves but because of the way they are used. If you play music too loudly, after some time (depending on the volume level), your ears will start feeling the consequences.

The damage most usually happens to the cells whose function is to transform the sound vibrations into nerve signals that reach your brain. Loud headphone noise may damage those cells physically or require so much activity from them that they literally become exhausted.

This is a real risk. According to the World Health Organization, about half of people between the ages of 12 and 35 (from countries with middle and high income) listen to music on their devices so loudly that it is very likely to result in hearing loss [R]. But the good news is that it can be prevented with responsible behavior. 

How Do You Prevent Hearing Damage From Headphones?

This is done very easily. When we talk about headphones, given that their place is fixed (your head), you should take into account two factors: the volume of the sound and the duration of the listening period. The point is: the higher the sound, the shorter the exposure time.

WHO recommends some strategies for preventing noise-induced hearing loss. Among them, here is what you can do to ensure you are using your headphones safely:

  • Keep the volume down. Sometimes, even one level down can make the difference.
  • Use noise-canceling headphones when it is safe. With them, you won’t need to increase the volume in case of other external noises.
  • Limit the time you spend listening to loud sounds on your headphone.
  • Have hearing check-ups to make sure your hearing is healthy.
  • Always be aware of the risks of loud noise.

Are Earbuds Worse For Hearing Than Headsets?

Both headsets and earbuds can be harmful in the aspect of how loud your volume is. However, headsets are a safer choice when it comes to your hearing. There are three basic reasons for this.

  1. Earbuds are simpler to make and you can easily find low-quality ones in stores. The problem with them is that they sometimes distort the sound, which is why you may be impelled to turn up the volume.
  2. Headphones are placed outside your ear. On the other hand, the earbuds go inside the ear and that may intensify the loudness by as much as 9 dB compared to headsets.
  3. Canceling the outside noise is an important factor, as it may lead you to increase the volume. Earbuds are not efficient at blocking this noise whereas even the worst of headsets will block at least some of it.

Which Headphones Are Safest For Your Hearing?

The technical requirement that will protect your hearing is for the headphones to be of good enough quality to emit sounds from both sides equally. Also, if one speaker gets broken, you should refrain from using the headphones. The reason for both situations is that you may feel inclined to turn up the volume and enhance the risk of impairing your hearing.

hearing health check up, protect your ears

For the same reason, when you are choosing to buy a pair of headphones, you should choose the noise-canceling pair. If you are listening to music (a lecture, podcast, or a meeting) through your headphones and there is some other noise around you that disturbs you, the logical thing to do is to hit the volume up. 

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs because of long exposure to loud sounds. When choosing a set of headphones, it is best to take those that will limit this as much as possible.

What Happens If I Use Headphones Daily?

Nothing bad needs to happen if you use your headphones responsibly.

If we talk about the physical side of the situation, it would be a good idea to take your headphones off from time to time. In this way, you will avoid the physical discomfort that comes from wearing the gear for too long. This goes especially if you are wearing glasses. They, together with headphones, may be quite strenuous for your ear lobes to hold.

When it comes to the sounds that you hear from your headphones, as long as you keep them at an acceptable level, you will be fine. Remember that you should reduce the time spent listening to loud noises. If it is at about 80-85 dB, you will be fine for up to 8 hours with no risks. 

What Volume Is Safe For Headphones?

The volume that a human ear can handle is the same for all sound sources because they depend on the volume of the sound that your ears pick up. As sounds travel, they get weaker as you move away from the source. With headphones, you should have in mind that the source is placed directly on your ears.

According to a WHO report on noise-induced hearing loss, here is the table of the noise levels and exposure times that will most probably not damage your hearing.

Time of Exposure
Noise Level in dB
Whole day
80
8 hours
85
2.5 hours
90
47 minutes
95
15 minutes
100
4 minutes
105
1.5 minute
110
28 seconds
115
9 seconds
120
Credit: WHO – Hearing Loss due to recreational exposure to loud sounds, a review, 2015

To reduce the need for raising the volume on your headphones because of other external noise, you ought to consider getting a noise-canceling set.

Can Over-The-Ear Headphones Cause Ear Infections?

Yes, any headphones, including over-the-ear headphones, can cause ear infections. But this can be avoided easily.

When you wear your headphones for a longer period of time, the inside of your ears will become warmer and more humid. This happens because the air doesn’t circulate within your outer ear and it doesn’t regulate the conditions there. These conditions are perfect for bacteria to develop and grow; hence the increased possibility of an ear infection.

The way to avoid this is regular cleaning. You should make sure your ears (the outer part only, it is very important not to try and clean the inside of your ear canal) and your headphones are cleaned frequently. Even though infections are a possibility, this is the way to avoid them successfully.

Can Hearing Damage From Headphones Heal?

No, this is a problem that cannot be repaired. That is why you need to be very careful about the noise levels you expose your ears to both through your headphones and otherwise.

An important point is that damage to the auditory system is usually slow to show itself, especially if the harmful sound levels are long-term or repeated, which is a frequent case in headphone usage. Once the damage appears, more unhealthy exposure will just augment it. Hence the need for responsible handling of your headphone set.

As WHO states, listening through headphones at high frequencies for more than 5 years leads to the inability to hear certain high frequencies (between 3 and 6 kHz). With continuous exposure, this hearing loss expands symmetrically in both directions. This cannot be reversed and the problem can only keep spreading.

How Common Is Hearing Loss From Headphones?

Unfortunately, this is a risky issue, as more and more people are using headphones every day.

WHO reports about a study in the USA that found the number of people using headphones to listen to music rose by 75% from 1990 to 2005. We can only imagine that by today, that number has become a lot higher. Also, a 2008 report from the European Commission showed an estimation of between 184 and 246 million personal audio devices sold in the European Union between 2004 and 2007.

With so many audio devices used daily come all the risks of hearing damages paving the way to a complete loss of hearing. Another USA study stated in the WHO report shows that between the years 1994 and 2006, the rate of teenagers (12 to 19 years of age) suffering from hearing loss rose from 3.5% to 5.3%. Also, according to the American Osteopathic Association,  1 out of 5 teenagers suffers from hearing loss nowadays and they attribute it mostly to the use of headphones.

Summary & Final Thoughts

After you have read this little guide for responsible use of headphones, you should be aware of the dangers of turning up the volume on your headphones. It is important to make sure that the sound is played on both sides. And the specific type and model of the gadget is completely up to you to choose.

Frequently Asked Questions
✓ Is hearing loss caused by headphones reversible?

Irrespective of where the loud noise is coming from, noise induced hearing loss causes the same damage to your ears. If exposure to loud noises is prolonged, this damages the fine hairs in the ear. Like anything, catch it in time and you may have a change to recover your hearing. However, leave it late and the damage is irreversible.

✓ Is hearing loss caused by headphones on the rise?

The short answer is a resounding YES! With the increase of devices bringing us entertainment on demand, more of us are using headphones as not to be disrupted from any ambient noise. This has resulted in 1 in 5 teens experiencing some type of hearing loss, which is up by 30% compared to 20 years ago.

With the data only covering the increase on hearing issues on teens, it's more than likely the same is happening to adults too! Therefore, the overall figures are likely even higher.

✓ Which are likely to cause more damage, earbuds or headphones?

Both can cause hearing issues if decibel levels are too high for too long. However, as earbuds sit inside your ear, the sound is directed straight into the ear canal. Headphones sit over the ear and are a little further away from the canal. Not only that, headphones are also better at blocking out background noises (especially ones that have noise cancellation), which means you can listen to audio more clearly without having to increase the volume.