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Is Constantly Using Earbuds Wrecking My Hearing?

That depends on whether or not you turn them up to 11

My earbuds might as well be superglued to the insides of my ears. I crank fantasy pub music — and the occasional whale sound — to keep me motivated while I work. I tune into podcasts while walking the dog and in pursuance of more serotonin on my exercise bike. I play spooky true crime stories on YouTube before bed, too. (Anything to help a guy get some sleep during the pandemic, amirite?)

I do worry that the constant noise lambasting my eardrums will someday ruin my hearing, though. After all, experts have long been telling us that headphones cause hearing loss: In a 2015 interview with NBC News, an ear, nose and throat specialist estimated that hearing loss among today’s teens is about 30 percent higher than in the 1980s and 1990s.

The decline of boom boxes, the growing availability of mobile devices and the shift toward open work spaces from individual offices — and now, trying to work from home while your partner, kids and some dude mowing his lawn make as much noise as humanly possible — are all reasons for this, and we’re seeing more and more repercussions. In 2015, the World Health Organization warned that more than one billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of personal audio devices, including smartphones and the headphones we plug into them.

None of this is to say headphones are inherently damaging — the real problem is that people are cranking the sound to dangerously high levels for extended periods of time to drown out the surrounding noise (or just because they like it loud, which, I get it). This prolonged listening to loud noise causes hearing loss by damaging stereocilia, which are microscopic hairs that send chemical messages through nerves to the brain when they’re bent by sound entering the ear canal. When the sound is too loud for too long, these stereocilia snap.

The Safest Volume to Listen to Music

How loud is too loud, and how long is too long? Here are a few loudness facts to consider, according to the CDC (for reference, most iPhones and iPods produce a maximum of 100 to 115 decibels, and researchers generally agree that it’s safe to regularly listen to one of these devices at about 70 percent of its maximum volume):

  • At 70 dB, which is equivalent to the sound of a washing machine, it may sound kinda loud, but your hearing should be safe.
  • At 80 to 85 dB, which is equivalent to the sound of a gas-powered lawn mower, damage can occur after two hours of exposure.
  • At 95 dB, which is equivalent to the sound of riding a motorcycle, damage can occur after about 50 minutes of exposure.
  • At 100 dB, which is equivalent to the sound at a sporting event, damage can occur after 15 minutes of exposure.
  • At 105 to 110 dB, which is equivalent to the sound of someone shouting directly into your ear, damage can occur after less than 5 minutes.
  • At 120-plus dB, which is equivalent to the sound of standing beside sirens, damage can occur almost immediately.

The short (and alarming) version: The Dangerous Decibels campaign from the Oregon Health and Science University claims you can pretty accurately expect to damage your hearing within 15 minutes of using the in-ear headphones that come with your iPod or iPhone at maximum volume. Fortunately, if you have an iPhone, you can check if you’re listening to music too loudly by opening the “Health” app, tapping “Browse” on the lower-right side of the screen and choosing “Hearing.”

While in-ear headphones (aka earbuds) have a bad reputation because they emit sound extremely close to the eardrum, they’re not necessarily worse than headphones that sit over the ear, which trap in sound that also reaches the eardrum at nearly full force. It’s true that some earbuds are capable of producing sound nine decibels higher than some over-the-ear headphones (again, because of their proximity to the eardrum), but you can always turn the volume down to compensate.

What’s more important than lingering on the fact that in-ear headphones can be of more harm to hearing than over-the-ear headphones, is understanding that some headphones (including earbuds) are worse at blocking out surrounding noise than others, which might encourage you to pump up the volume to harmful levels — and that is the real problem.

Going by that logic, the best headphones for your hearing are noise-cancelling headphones, since they’ll help you resist the temptation to turn the music up.

Knowing all this, your safest bet if you’re a hardcore headphone user like me is to keep your portable stereo music systems at or (preferably) below 70 percent of its maximum volume. (Half volume is usually a safe bet.) It may not be rock ‘n’ roll, but neither is not being able to hear your spooky true crime stories before bed.