A steady rhythm to energize long workouts. Audiobooks to make chores more fun. A way to concentrate on work without being distracted by the background conversations of coworkers. These are just some of the reasons why people love earbuds and use them for hours at a time.
Still, many people have questions about earbud safety and if it’s okay to wear them so much. Are wireless earbuds safe? Is noise cancelling bad for your ears? Why do my earbuds hurt my ears?
Read on to learn about popular types of earbuds and how to use earbuds without damaging your ears.
But first, what are earbuds?
Simply put, earbuds are small headphones that you wear inside your ear. Some, but not all, earbuds include a built-in microphone.
Earbuds are used for audio entertainment and communication. You can use them to listen to music, podcasts and movies. Earbuds with a mic are also helpful for hands-free communication – for example, as gaming earbuds or to take calls from your mobile phone or computer.
Since others cannot hear what you’re listening to when you wear earbuds, you can wear them around others without being disruptive. Earbuds can also cancel out background sounds, so you can hear audio content without being distracted by the people and noises around you.
Wearing earbuds is common during activities such as working, video calls, running, online gaming and swimming.
How earbuds work
The sound you hear through your headphones is not the same as the sound produced by your device. One of the main functions of earbuds is to change electrical energy from your listening device into sound waves and to transmit the signals to your ear so you can hear them – usually as vibrations that travel through your ear canal to your eardrum.
Differences in the types of earbuds
There are many types of earbuds, and it seems that there are more options every day. The biggest differences tend to be how the earbuds fit and the technology behind them – and these differences can affect headphone safety (we’ll get to that later in the post).
Wired earbuds plug in directly to your phone, computer, tablet or other device. When you turn on a song or a story, the sound travels through the headphones wire as electrical current. When the electrical current reaches the headphones, it’s turned into sound waves which are responsible for the sounds we hear.
Wireless earbuds do not have a cable leading to your phone or device. But some styles of wireless earbuds have a flexible strap that connects the right earbud to the left earbud. Most wireless earbuds are Bluetooth earbuds, meaning they use short-range microwaves to wirelessly send electrical signals from your device to the headphones.
All earbuds that fit in your ear canal block out some noise since they create a physical barrier between your eardrum and the outside world. But noise-cancelling earbuds do more to block out the noise – they change how your ears hear through inverse audio. Active noise-cancelling earbuds use tiny microphones and complicated circuitry that produce outgoing soundwaves that are opposite of the soundwaves coming in from your environment.
But active cancellation doesn’t work for everyone – some people can still hear background noise. It’s also possible that you may find active noise cancellation uncomfortable or have side effects such as headaches, dizziness and nausea.
Bone conduction earbuds
Bone conduction earbuds fit differently than other earbuds. Instead of going into your ears, they usually sit on your temples. They also work differently, sending vibrations through the bones of your head and jaw to your inner ear. Some people might find the sensation uncomfortable and have headaches, vertigo or dizziness when using them.
Since the sound doesn’t go through the eardrum, these types of earbuds can work for people with hearing problems. In fact, bone conduction technology has been used in hearing aids for hundreds of years.
The downside is that these types of headphones don’t block as much background noise as in-ear headphones. But the plus side is that you’re more aware of your surroundings – something that’s definitely valuable if you’re using earbuds while doing outside activities like running.
The big question: Are earbuds bad for your ears?
While earbuds make life more interesting and enjoyable, there are some earbuds health risks you should know about.
Hearing loss from earbuds
The biggest potential risk of using earbuds is hearing loss and tinnitus resulting from damage to your inner ear.
In-ear earbuds play music directly into your ear canal. When the soundwave from the music reaches your eardrum, it creates a vibration that’s passed through the tiny bones of your middle ear and then into your inner ear.
Your inner ear is covered with delicate hair cells and the vibrations cause these hairs to move. This movement creates an electrical impulse that’s sent to the brain where it’s interpreted as sound. If your music is too loud, it can permanently damage these hair cells, making it so they don’t send out electrical impulses in response to vibration. And, without these electrical impulses, your brain doesn’t know there’s anything to hear, or what it does hear may sound unclear or distorted.
Irritation or ear infections from earbuds
Here’s a fact that comes as no surprise: earbuds can get very dirty. For starters, there’s earwax, oil from your skin and dried sweat from your ears. Then there’s dirt and grime that collect when the earbuds aren’t being used.
In most cases, dirty earbuds are just gross, but they can also increase your risk of infection. Earbuds can get covered in bacteria, fungus or skin irritants that could get into your ear canal when you insert them – but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get an ear infection.
Usually, your earwax helps protect you from dirt, fungi and bacteria when it gets in your ears. Still, there are a few reasons why earbud users are more likely to get ear infections:
- Damage to the ear canal or eardrum – When there’s damage to your ear, the bacteria or fungi can find a way into your body, causing an infection. If the skin in your ear canal is scratched or irritated, you’re more likely to get an outer ear infection also known as swimmer’s ear. If you have a burst eardrum from listening to music too loudly, it increases your chance of a middle ear infection.
- Warmth and moisture – Bacteria and fungi grow in warm, wet places. When you wear earbuds, that’s exactly the environment you create inside your ears.
- Impacted earwax – Wearing earbuds can lead to earwax buildup. While earwax protects your ears, it’s possible to have too much. Impacted earwax can trap dirty water, fungi and bacteria, making it more likely that you’ll develop ear infections.
Radiation exposure from wireless earbuds
You may wonder, do earbuds emit radiation? The answer is yes. Bluetooth wireless earbuds send out non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation (EMR), mostly as microwaves. And wired earbuds emit extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation.
At this point, there is no conclusive evidence that earbud radiation is harmful. Earbuds are pretty new, and we don’t know if there will be long-term effects from earbud radiation. Still, earbuds are generally considered safe by the scientific community.
Are there safer options for listening on the go?
Given the earbud health risks, maybe you’re wondering if there are better options to listen to your tunes and podcasts at work or at the mall.
Are headphones safer than earbuds?
Yes, headphones are somewhat safer than earbuds for a couple of reasons. They don’t go in the ear, so there’s less risk of infections. Plus, your audio content isn’t pumped directly into your ear canal – but you can still get hearing damage with headphones if you listen too loudly.
Are bone conduction earbuds safer than traditional earbuds?
It’s possible. For one thing, bone conduction earbuds don’t go in the ear canal, so there’s less risk of ear infections. They also won’t cause hearing loss from a ruptured eardrum. But if you misuse bone conduction earbuds, it’s still possible to damage your inner ear, causing hearing loss.
Bone conductions are also newer technology, meaning we don’t yet know the long-term effects of using these types of headphones.
How to use earbuds safely
You don’t need to ditch your favorite pair of earbuds or switch to headphones or a bone conduction option. By taking steps to use your earbuds correctly, you can reduce the chance of hurting your ears or hearing.
How to wear wired and wireless earbuds
Your best resource will be the instruction booklet that comes with your earbuds. But here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Ensure the right fit – If your earbuds come with different tips, make sure you’re choosing the ones that are sized for your ears. If they’re too large, they could hurt your ear canal.
- Put them in the correct ears – You’ll notice each earbud has an R or L corresponding to the right and left ears. You may hurt your ear canal if you put the earbuds in the wrong ears. Plus, sound quality will likely suffer.
- Insert at the correct angle – When inserting earbuds, angle them up and toward the front of your head. This will help create a better fit since the ear canal angles toward the front and top of your head.
- Make sure your ears are clean – If your ears are dirty, you may be more likely to get an infection. Plus, you won’t be able to hear audio content as clearly. But to make sure you don’t hurt your ear canal, clean your ears without Q-tips.
How to keep earbuds at a safe volume
Hearing loss due to earbuds is 100% preventable – you just need to make sure the volume isn’t too loud.
Have you ever wondered, how loud is too loud? To answer that question, we’ll talk briefly about decibels (dB), a measurement used to determine how loud sounds are and if they are safe or could affect your hearing.
Decibels measure the pressure levels created by different volumes of sound. When your ears are exposed to high decibel levels, the resulting pressure can damage your ears. The decibel range goes from 0 dB (sounds so quiet we can’t hear them) to 140 dB (sounds so loud that they cause pain). Listening to anything over 85 dB for a large amount of time can cause permanent hearing loss. To put that in context, a nearby alarm clock is about 80 dB and a blender is 90 dB.
Decibel levels of common sounds
|Sound||Decibel Level (dB)|
|Sounds that are safe for your ears (85 dB or quieter)|
|Leaves rustling||20 dB|
|A whisper||30 dB|
|Light rainfall||50 dB|
|Normal conversation||60 dB|
|Alarm clock||80 dB|
|Sounds that can cause hearing loss (86 dB or louder)|
|Phone or MP3 player (at full volume)||100 dB|
|Concerts and sporting events||110 dB|
|Jet planes at takeoff||120 dB|
|Ambulance siren||130 dB|
If you’re an adult, try to keep your earbud volume between 60 dB and 85 dB. Kids’ ears are more sensitive and more likely to get damaged. To avoid hearing loss in children, make sure they’re using kids’ headphones that limit the maximum volume to less than 82 dB.
Because here’s the thing: The volume on most listening devices can be cranked up beyond what’s safe for human ears. For example, Apple devices can go over 100 dB. So watch the volume bar and try not to go above 70% of total volume. Also, watch for warnings from your phone or device. If it tells you that your audio volume is too loud, turn down the sound.
Your best bet is to listen at as low a volume as possible. If you’re always cranking up the volume to block out background noise, you may want to give noise-cancelling headphones a try.
Take regular breaks
It’s best to give your ears a break every couple of hours – even five minutes without tunes can help. This will give your ears a rest from the intense vibrations that come with listening with earbuds.
Since bacteria and fungi like to grow in dark, moist places, pulling out the earbuds also gives your ear canal a chance to air out, reducing your chance of infections.
Plus, removing your earbuds gives you a chance to hear what’s going on in the world and to interact with others.
How to clean earbuds (and when to do it)
Clean earbuds are safer, last longer and sound better. But how often should you clean your earbuds? The answer depends on how you use them. If you use your earbuds while doing indoor household chores and you keep them on your desk, you can probably just clean them once every week or two. But if you use them a lot or during sports, you’ll likely need to clean them more often.
A quick clean every week or two
If you regularly use your earbuds, try to give them a quick clean every couple of weeks. Here are the steps:
- Disconnect from power – Wired earbuds should be unplugged from your device. Wireless earbuds should be powered off.
- Use a damp cloth to wipe off the earbud tips – You can use plain water, soapy water or rubbing alcohol to wipe them down. The cloth should not be drippy – if fluid gets into the headphone circuitry, it could affect how well they work. For the same reason, you should not submerge your earbuds unless they are waterproof.
- Dry before storage – Use a microfiber cloth to dry your earbuds immediately after cleaning.
Dry off after sweaty or wet activities
If your earbuds get covered in sweat or water, rinse and dry them as soon as you can. Your earbuds should be completely dry before charging or storage. If you’re at the gym or pool and don’t have time to allow them to dry before storing them, put them in a plastic bag with a silicone gel pack until you get home.
A bigger clean when needed
The best way to know if your earbuds need a bigger clean is to look at them. If they are covered in earwax, dust, oil, sweat or sticky fingerprints, they need to be cleaned. Here are the steps:
- Pull off the ear tips and then gently remove the wax. An inexpensive earwax removal tool can make the process much easier. The loop side of the tool can help you scoop out the earwax, and the brush end helps to loosen any residue left on the earbuds. You can also use an unused toothbrush for this step.
- Wipe the earbuds using a cloth dampened with soapy water – dish detergent usually works best.
- Dry with a microfiber cloth.
- If you have AirPods or other earbuds that are stored in a case, you’ll want to take time to clean the connectors and the case. A dry cloth can work. Another option is a moistened (but not dripping) Q-tip. If there’s any residue on the connectors, use the cleaning tool to gently remove it.
How to store earbuds
Always make sure your earbuds are clean and completely dry before storing them in a case. If you don’t have a case, try to store your earbuds in a place where they won’t get dirty. If you’re worried about humidity, it can be helpful to store them in a bag with a silica gel pack.
Worried about your ears? We hear you.
Earbuds are usually safe when used correctly. Still, it’s possible to damage your ears or hearing. Make an appointment with your primary care doctor or clinician if you notice hearing loss or signs of an ear infection such as redness, itchiness, ear pain, ear discharge, hearing changes or fever.
Primary care doctors can diagnose and treat hundreds of conditions. They’ll talk with you about your symptoms, and work with you to create a treatment plan. And if you need more advanced care, they can refer you to an audiologist who specializes in diagnostic hearing tests, or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor who can treat underlying conditions that may be contributing to hearing issues.