Whether noise-canceling, Bluetooth and wireless, or corded, meaning they must be plugged into our phones or computers, headphones have become relatively well integrated into our modern, technological lives. And while headphones can bring us great convenience when it comes to listening to music while on the go, watching tv shows on a remote device while not disturbing other family members, and taking phone calls or listening to audiobooks, there’s a significant downside too:
• Over one billion teenagers worldwide are at risk of hearing loss because of their use of headphones and earbuds
• Subclinical hearing loss (where hearing loss is present but not at a level high enough to meet a clinical diagnosis) is present in over 80% of headphone users aged 20-40 years in some studies
• When using headphones in an already noisy environment, your risk of hearing loss rises by 4.5-fold
Simply put: the risks associated with repeated loud noise exposure due to regular headphone use are significant, and it’s worthwhile exploring the effects of headphone use and how we can use our headphones more safely to reduce our risk of damaging our ears and hearing. Here’s what you should know.
How Can Headphone Use Cause Hearing Loss?
The issue here is not the physical use of the headphones or earbuds themselves; it’s not about physically placing your headphones over or inside your ears. The real issue is the volume of the sound emitted over a specific length of time. We have a safety threshold for sound here in Australia, which equates to 85 decibels as an average of over 8 hours at work, which is the blender level. If you’re being exposed to loud noises for a shorter time frame, i.e., 2 hours, the acceptable decibel range may be slightly higher – for this 2-hour example, it can be raised to 91 decibels. But when you’re wearing your headphones all day, at work, on your commute to and from the office, at home when watching television or having downtime, your listening volume over a longer period may become too much for the sensitive structures within our inner ears.
After all, our inner ears contain thousands of hair cells (approximately 16,000) responsible for producing electrical signals that travel to the brain so we can hear and interpret sound. Unfortunately, if these sensitive hair cells are damaged due to exposure to excessive noise, they cannot regrow or heal – and our path toward hearing loss begins.
How Much Headphone Noise Is Too Much?
You must take great care not to expose your ears to a noise level above 140 decibels without ear protection that will lessen the noise. Any exposure above this 140-decibel level could instantly damage hearing, with examples of this volume (and higher) including sledgehammering or gunshots. On the other hand, a sound less than 70 dB is unlikely to cause any significant damage to the ears. Here are some comparative examples to help you understand the level of sound you’re being exposed to:
• 60 dB is the equivalent of a conversation being had in a restaurant or at the office
• 70 dB is equivalent to the noise of a shower or dishwasher
• 80 dB is equivalent to that of a kitchen blender
There is also a one-metre rule that you can follow to help ensure safe noise levels: if you need to raise your voice to talk to someone who is standing or sitting one metre away, and this is the constant level of noise throughout the day, then the level of noise is probably too high.
Unfortunately, the maximum volume on our headphones and earbuds typically greatly exceeds 85 dB, which can contribute to ear damage and hearing loss when being listened to at a high volume. This is where you must always use headphones at a safe and comfortable level, even when “blasting” music to drown out other office sounds, for example, is very appealing.
Tips For Safe Headphone Use
To help you use your headphones safely and protect your hearing, we recommend the following:
• Take regular breaks between prolonged headphone use – so if you need to wear headphones for phone calls and other activities at work, make sure you spend your lunch and coffee breaks without your headphones and ideally in a quieter environment
• Have earplugs or other ear protection ready at events (like concerts, sporting events, air shows and the like) so you can have protection if you need it, like if you’re present at the event for longer than two hours and need a rest for your ears
• Prioritise the use of over-the-ear headphones instead of in-ear buds to increase the distance from the source of the sound to the eardrum
• Keep the music on personal devices at a lower, comfortable level throughout the day – staying mindful that raising the volume in response to “drowning out” background noise is likely to do more harm than good when it comes to your hearing
• Check if your device has a sound volume limit. An iPhone may access this via Settings > Music > Volume limit to select a maximum.
• Opt for noise-canceling headphones at work to block out external sounds so you can successfully listen to meetings, phone calls or music at lower volumes
Get routine hearing checks with qualified and trusted hearing care professionals so you always know what is happening with your hearing and can take appropriate action or make adjustments as needed