How to Wear Headphones (Safely)

Woman wearing headphones in the park

They say that music is a universal language. Indeed, the earliest musical instruments date back 40,000 years, while the concept of music can be traced back further still.

Music is also everywhere. From morning birdsong to the commercials we watch and the games we play, you can't escape music – and you might not want to, either.

If you listen to music as much as everyone else, you probably use headphones throughout the week. But do you know what you're doing when it comes to wearing them the right way?

Do headphones cause hearing loss?

Headphones are just headphones, right? On their own, they can't do too much damage. But like most things in life, if used excessively, headphones can have a genuine and serious effect on your health.

Headphones hearing loss

In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that over 1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss due to the use of portable listening devices. As trivial as headphone safety sounds, there’s no denying it’s having a huge impact.

Bose, one of the world’s leading headphone manufacturers, offers guidelines on how to wear its headphones. Its suggestions are:

  • Make sure the headphones are put on correctly, with the R and L corresponding to the right and left ears
  • Make sure the ear cushions fully cover your ear
  • Remove jewelry that gets in the way

Well, we suppose those are all conducive to a good listening experience, but they don’t touch on how to use headphones safely. Looks like it’s up to us.

Book a free appointment with a hearing specialist if you're worried about any hearing damage you may have due to headphone usage.

Keep it down!

The first thing to look at when using your headphones is the volume level. The table below shows how certain everyday sounds produce escalating levels of noise:

0 dBHearing threshold*
20 dBLeaves rustling
40 dBLibrary
60 dBNormal conversation
80 dBTraffic on a highway
100 dBChainsaw
120 dBLoud rock concert
140 dBPeak exposure limit**

*Someone with perfect hearing starts being able to hear

**Even brief exposure can cause permanent damage

Extended exposure to any noise above 80 dB is considered damaging to your ears. With this in mind, let’s look at the ideal volume for headphone use.

A concrete number doesn’t exist, but experts seem to agree that between 60-70% of the phone’s maximum volume level is the peak. At its loudest, the iPhone can produce between 100 and 115 decibels. Looking at our chart, we can see that this is a dangerous amount of sound.

60-70% of this gives us an optimal listening range of about 60-80 dB. This fits in with our scale – 60 dB relates to a normal conversation, while 80 dB is when sound starts to do damage over an extended period of time.

This generally agreed-upon volume limit has been taken so seriously, the EU has placed volume limiters of 85 dB on any phones or devices that play music.

But remember, it isn’t just the volume of the sound that causes damage – it’s the amount of time you spend listening to it.

Keep an eye on the clock

That’s right – when it comes to protecting your ears, time spent listening is just as important as volume. The World Health Organization suggests listening to your music at 60% volume for just one hour a day. While this sounds like not enough time at all, keep in mind this is coming from the WHO itself. This is the absolute safest option, and is the equivalent of a caring mother telling you to wear three sweaters “just in case.”

While this is the safest approach, you can still listen to music safely without following such a strict guideline. For example, the Australian Hearing Hub recommends a volume under 80 dB for up to 90 minutes a day. And in the words of the National Institute on Deafness: “Sounds of less than 75 dB, even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. However, long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 dB can cause hearing loss.”

Headphones safety

It’s important to note that the decibel scale is logarithmic. Every increment of 10 dB is ten times louder than the previous. This means that 100 dB is significantly louder than 90 dB, whereas 20 dB is only slightly louder than 10 dB. Knowing this, it’s easy to see how listening to a 90 dB album for an hour would be far more devastating than even an 80 dB album.

Also, while this is unrelated, it bears mentioning: the kind of music you’re listening to has no impact on hearing loss. The stereotype is that hard rock or heavy metal produces the loudest music, but 80 dB of a gentle violin recital will do just as much damage as 80 dB of Norwegian death metal.

Book a free appointment with a hearing specialist if you're worried about any hearing damage you may have due to headphone usage.

Which types of headphones are best for your ears?

If we’re being honest, the type of headphones you use isn’t too important when it comes to protecting your hearing. The most important factor, surprisingly, is the sound quality that each pair of headphones offers. While this might not be the first thing you think of when considering what damages your ears, the reasoning does make sense.

If you’re listening to music using headphones, and the song is coming through as muffled or fuzzy, you’d probably turn it up in order to hear a bit better. This, while allowing you to hear the song, would obviously be a bad idea as far as your hearing is concerned. That’s why, when looking for headphones, sound quality and the ability to block outside noise should be your primary concerns.

While there isn’t a huge amount of difference between in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear headphones’ effects on hearing loss, there is one variable worth discussing when it comes to headphones: noise cancelling.

Noise-cancelling headphones cause pressure on ears

When putting on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, you might feel as though you just took off aboard a plane. It feels like there is a noticeable pressure shift, as if your ears have popped.

Noise-cancelling headphones act in an extremely interesting way. After taking in the surrounding sound, the noise-cancelling unit within the headphone manufactures an “anti-sound.” It flips the sound waves to create the exact opposite, and then plays that noise along with the audio you’re listening to. The anti-sound counteracts your surrounding sound, so you’re just left with the audio you’re trying to hear.

The ear-popping sensation is felt because your ear is receiving more pressure. However, this does not damage your ear in any significant way, and shouldn’t be treated like you’re listening to double the amount of sound.

Manufacturers taking the initiative

While people are generally responsible for their own health, it doesn't mean that some companies can't take the initiative and help us out on our quest for healthy ears.

Headphone manufacturer Puro has released a pair of headphones specifically designed to protect your ears. They lock their volume levels at a safe 85 dB, and use noise-cancelling to ensure the user's won't be turning up the music to compete with external sound.

What should I do?

Well, you could take the advice of the World Health Organization, and reduce your daily “headphone intake” to one hour a day. However, if you think this is an unreasonable request, then you may well keep your current listening habits. If you do, just be wary of the volume of your music.

Do your best to keep it under 80dB (for iPhone users, this is 70% of your volume bar.) And even though one hour might sound a bit too restrictive for you, do stay aware of the amount of time you spend listening to music, even if it’s in the dB “safe zone.”

A good way of viewing it is in the words of Professor David McAlpine. He proposes the idea of a “sound diet,” in which people approach sound the same way we are encouraged to approach junk food and alcohol.

For example, Prof. McAlpine suggests that if you’re going to a loud concert in the evening, give your ears some rest during the day, e.g. by not using your earbuds on the way there.

All in all, the ears are delicate systems which are constantly in use. It’s always good to give them a break, and to take your headphones off.

Next steps

If you’re worried that you may be experiencing any kind of hearing loss due to use of your headphones, or just want more information on the topic, use our online tool to book a free consultation with your nearest hearing specialist.

Written by:

Duncan is an Australian-born American-raised creative writer with a passion for healthy ears. He continues to build upon his audiology qualifications with research and various courses.

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