Protecting Your Ears From Noise-induced Hearing Loss

In our previous article on the topic, we discussed how noise-induced hearing loss can occur, and what it’s like to have it. If you don’t already have noise damage, you’d probably agree that it’s worth preventing! And if you do already have noise-induced hearing loss, it’s not too late to protect your remaining hearing. This article will discuss some of the ways you can protect yourself against noise damage, and hopefully, prevent hearing loss!

Types of hearing protection

Hearing protection comes in two basic types: earplugs and earmuffs. But there are many differences beyond the two types. Choosing the most appropriate hearing protection product for your needs can be a confusing process! You’ll need to take into account the type of noise you’re anticipating being exposed to: are you an avid concertgoer, a gun enthusiast, a construction worker, or a dentist? You’ll also need to consider your communication needs while wearing the earplugs; it wouldn’t do, if you’re a dentist, for you to be unable to talk with your patient or your staff because your earplugs muffled speech too much. Finally, you’ll also need to consider the issue of being physically fit. If you’re a motorcyclist and you need earplugs that fit underneath your helmet, they will need to be small and comfortable, and obviously, earmuffs won’t be the right choice!

Of course, your budget will be a factor as well. The cheapest hearing protection on the market is a pair of disposable foam earplugs, which you can pick up for a few bucks at your local drugstore. When properly inserted (more on this later), these are actually one of the more effective options, but if you’re using them on a regular basis, you may want something more specialized. The more specialized your hearing protection, the more you can expect to pay; electronic earmuffs for shooting can run from about $30 to $100, and custom-fitted electronic earplugs can be several hundred dollars.

Let’s start by discussing those disposable foam earplugs. They’re easy to find in stores, usually in multipacks, and they’re cheap. Furthermore, they actually have one of the higher noise reduction ratings (NRR) on the market – typically between 30-33 decibels. The NRR of a hearing protection device gives you a rough idea of how much protection that product will give you, but there is an important caveat: those numbers are generated by a lab test, not by real-world tests of the earplugs when average people have inserted them into their own ears. If the earplugs don’t fit perfectly and plug all gaps, the noise you’re trying to block will sneak through those gaps and reduce the protection you’re getting by half or more. If you can’t get the earplugs inserted fully and deeply into your ears, and if you don’t feel like your hearing is extremely muffled once they expand into place, you are not getting 30-33 dB of protection.

You can also buy custom-made solid earplugs. The NRR on these is similar to that of the cheap foam earplugs, or sometimes even a little lower, but because they’re custom-made for your ears, getting them correctly inserted is much easier, and the odds of success much higher. These require an impression of your ear, so they can only be purchased from an audiologist or other hearing care professional, or a qualified retailer who is trained to safely take earmold impressions.

Simple earmuffs can also provide very effective hearing protection. They, too, need to fit correctly, without gaps that sound can sneak through, and they need to stay in place and be comfortable for the time you’re wearing them. They are often called “passive hearing protection” to differentiate them from similar-looking “active,” or electronic, earmuffs, and you can expect an NRR of 26-32. 

A Note on NRR

If you’re looking for maximum protection from loud noise, you may ask if you should simply look for the highest NRR available. The answer, in a word, is yes – higher NRR means more overall protection. However, you’ll notice right away that NRR seems to stop in the low 30s. Why aren’t their products that reduce 40, 50, or even 60 decibels? 

You’re probably used to thinking of your ears as the only way sound can get in, right? The pinna, which is the external part of your ear, and the outer ear canal are the primary conduit through which sound waves get to your inner ear. But they’re not the only way sound can get to your inner ear. If the sound is loud enough, your entire body – skull, soft tissue, even bodily fluids – will transmit sound to your inner ear, no matter how much hearing protection you wear. This is why noise reduction ratings top out around 34 decibels, and why you should be skeptical of products claiming to reduce noise by more than that. 

Specialty Products for Shooting

Guns are the single largest cause of noise-induced hearing loss. Their sudden, sharp sounds can be so loud – 140 dB or more – that permanent hearing damage can result from a single unprotected gunshot. Obviously, hearing protection is absolutely critical if you’re planning to participate in, or even be around shooting activities!

The most dangerous shooting environment, as far as your hearing is concerned, is the indoor firing range. You’re shooting many times, you may be using a large-caliber firearm, and because you’re indoors, the sound is concentrated rather than dispersed as it would be outdoors. In this environment, you should be wearing both earplugs and earmuffs. YouTube has dozens of videos showing earmuffs being blown right off the shooter’s ears by the sonic force of a high-caliber gunshot; obviously, if this happens, those earmuffs aren’t doing anything at all, and at least there would be some backup protection in place if the shooter had earplugs in underneath the muffs. If your earmuffs don’t blow off, the double layer of protection is much better for your hearing, as it overcomes imperfections in the fit, and assures that you’re doing everything you can to keep your ears safe.

That said, evidence shows that even double hearing protection isn’t enough to prevent noise-induced hearing loss in people who are regularly shooting at indoor ranges. Here is a 2008 study showing that police officers who regularly trained at an indoor firing range for ten years showed evidence of noise-induced hearing loss, despite using both earplugs and earmuffs. Again, double protection is much, much more effective than single protection or none at all. But it’s important to be aware that gunshots are so damaging that no hearing protection is enough to prevent noise damage completely.

Hunters have different requirements due to their need for situational awareness. Hunters, in fact, like to have environmental sounds amplified, so just wearing as much solid hearing protection as possible is a no-go. The best solution, in this case, is what’s called “active hearing protection.” This is an electronic product, available in both over-the-ear (earmuff) and in-the-ear styles, which will amplify soft sounds but then shut off quickly in response to gunshots. The obvious downside to these is that no matter how quickly the suppression kicks in, there is still that fraction of a second where your ears are exposed to the gunshot, but it is certainly better to wear active hearing protection compared to no protection at all.

Active hearing protection is also popular at firing ranges with people who are either instructing or being instructed, due to the need to converse during the session. Foam earplugs covered by electronic earmuffs would be your best bet here, rather than the electronic muffs alone.

All active (level-dependent) hearing protectors are not created equally, as this study makes clear. The NRR figures that hearing protector manufacturers provide are derived using steady-state noise, not impulse noises like gunshots. There is no information available regarding any individual product’s effectiveness against impulse noises. Some products are more protective than others, and in the absence of data, it’s hard for a consumer to know how effective a hearing protection device is. Our recommendation is to wear the strongest possible protection where you can still function in the environment you’re operating in; if the gunshots are still uncomfortably loud, you don’t need data to know that’s not enough protection. Consider your environment as well: indoor firing ranges are more dangerous than outdoor ranges, and larger caliber firearms are more dangerous than smaller ones

Specialty Products for Music

Music is a less complicated problem than gunshots because it is a relatively steady sound. The main concern with music is reducing the overall amplitude of the sound without adversely affecting the quality of it. If you’ve worn regular earplugs to a concert, you’ve probably experienced the sensation of the music being muffled to the point of ruining it. Yes, regular (solid) foam earplugs are the best protection against noise damage, but as we said earlier, we’re not here to ruin your fun! If you’re headed out to a loud concert, there are hearing protection products that are designed to help protect your hearing without muffling the music.

These products are called concert earplugs, or musician’s earplugs, and they contain a filter that reduces sound evenly across all frequencies. A solid earplug reduces the high frequencies much more than the low frequencies; think of listening to people talking behind a closed door. You hear the low murmur of their vowel sounds, but not the higher-frequency “s,” “f,” or “th.” When you’re listening to music, obviously this is undesirable – frequency is the same thing as pitch, and you don’t want to be unevenly muffling some pitches more than others, as this will distort the music you’re paying to hear! Concert earplugs reduce all pitches equally, meaning that the music sounds the same as it would have without protection, but the overall level is reduced somewhat (typically 10-25 dB). The highest quality products come from reputable manufacturers such as Etymotic and Westone, and you can either purchase non-custom versions for twenty or thirty bucks, or you can have them custom-fit to your ears by going through a hearing care professional.

Your environment matters where music is concerned as well. Indoor concerts, where the sound is contained and magnified, are louder and more dangerous than outdoor concerts, where sound waves can disperse. It’s still important to wear hearing protection at a loud outdoor concert, of course. But if you have a choice between an indoor or an outdoor show, the outdoor one is a better bet for your long-term hearing health!

Other Scenarios

If you’re looking for hearing protection for a specific scenario, your best bet is to talk to your hearing care professional about your needs. As a starting point, though, here are a few common scenarios you may want hearing protection for:

  • Riding a motorcycle. Generally, you’ll want a solid earplug for this, as motorcycles are damagingly loud and you’re typically riding them for extended periods of time. Custom-fitted, canal-style earplugs that fit comfortably beneath your helmet are the best option.
  • Power tools and construction work. Another profession where we see a lot of early-onset hearing loss is construction work, including sheet metal work. The power tools involved in this type of work – nail guns, jackhammers, saws, drills – can be damagingly loud, and in the case of nail guns, can be the same type of impulse noise that makes guns so damaging. We would therefore recommend the maximum possible hearing protection for these scenarios, meaning doubling up on earplugs and earmuffs. 
  • Noisy bars and restaurants. Concert plugs are also great for these places, as they reduce the overall din while leaving you still able to understand your conversation partners.
  • Dentists – we didn’t forget you! At the beginning of this article, we used dentists as an example of a profession that people don’t often associate with noise-induced hearing loss, but should. To protect yourselves against those high-speed drills and other equipment, consider filtered earplugs as the cheaper option, or level-dependent electronic earplugs on the higher end. Either of these will help protect your hearing while still permitting you to converse with patients and staff.
Thoughts on Personal Listening Devices, Headphones, and Earbuds

People often ask whether earbuds are more damaging than over-the-ear headphones, and the answer is that it’s complicated. What really matters is the sound pressure level at your eardrums. Earbuds are inserted into your ear canals and are therefore closer to the eardrums than over-the-ear headphones are, and because they can seal off the ear canal from the outside world, they can concentrate the sound into a small space and increase the sound pressure. If the volume on the device is the same with earbuds as with headphones, then the earbuds will be more damaging. However, if the device is turned up louder with the headphones such that the sound pressure at the eardrums is the same, then the damage is the same. The key with either headphones or earbuds is to keep the volume low enough that it isn’t damagingly loud at the eardrums. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re listening to music through your device, you should be able to hear someone who comes up and speaks to you. 


Noise-induced hearing loss is a problem affecting millions of Americans, and it’s absolutely worth avoiding if you can! This article has covered some of the most common sources of noise-induced hearing loss and some ways to protect yourself. Earlux is proud to offer some quality hearing protection devices in our product line. Hearing care is health care, and we’re “hear” to help!