Are Earbuds Safe For You? Breaking Down the Truth About Earbud Safety

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According to statistics, 77% of people own smartphones.  Our smartphones are more than just devices to make phone calls; we also have access to all sorts of media in the palms of our hands.  

We listen to music, watch videos, and even make music with our smartphones. Essentially, they are our own portable multimedia hubs.

Our sense of hearing is significantly engaged as we consume the media that is available to us.  Many people listen to music via their smartphones, and a recent study reported that 87% of the population uses earbuds or headphones when listening to music.  

If you look around you, you will notice just how true this is; it’s almost a guarantee you’ll see someone wearing them anywhere you go.

 If you’ve ever been to a health club, you’ve probably seen just how many people love to exercise while listening to music; most likely, they had their earbuds in.  Or, if you’ve taken a subway ride, you’ve seen passengers with their eyes glued to their phones, and odds are, they had their earbuds in.

Ever since Apple started including their own brand of earbuds (earpods) with their products, earbuds have become more desirable than headphones, and people tend to gravitate towards them.  

The only issue is that there is a concern as to whether earbuds, which are designed to sit close to your eardrum, are bad for you. The questions is - are earbuds safe?  Let’s find out.

Are Earbuds Safe?

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The first set of earbuds recorded in history was introduced to the world in a science magazine in 1926.  They were touted as being lightweight and ultra-portable; however, they did not achieve mainstream appeal at the time.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that earbuds were popularized alongside the advent of Apple’s iPod mp3 player, and amidst their rise to mainstream prominence, people started to ask, “are earbuds safe?”

With all that being said, we have less than 20 years of research related to the safety and possible negative effects of earbuds.  Studies analyzing the long-term effects they have on our eardrums have only started popping up recently; thus, those who have concerns are justified.  

Here are some of the main claims as to why earbuds may be a safety risk:

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Hearing Loss

As compared to headphones, earbuds fit inside your ear, blocking your ear canal from outside sound.  This means that the sound produced by earbuds reverberates inside your ear canal, resulting in a more concentrated sound.  

Some wonder if such a concentrated sound could be damaging to your eardrums.  Headphones, on the other hand, do not block the ear canal and give your ears a chance to breathe.

In addition, compared to headphones, earbuds emit sounds a lot closer to your eardrums.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility that if a sound is too loud, it can actually tear right through your eardrum and cause extreme, permanent hearing loss.  

Fortunately, smartphones are not capable of emitting audio loud enough to do this, but the fact remains that our ears are sensitive.

Smartphones are, however, capable of producing volumes that can cause nerve damage, and nerve damage results in hearing loss.  

Hearing loss in these cases is usually incremental; thus, you may not notice a significant change in your hearing ability after one high-volume listening session.  However, with prolonged exposure to high volumes over time, damage is inevitable.

Ear Infection

Items that are not cleaned properly will accumulate bacteria, and earbuds are no exception.  It just so happens that the majority of people who use earbuds do not clean them after they are used, and some who ponder the question “are earbuds safe?” suspect that the use of unsanitized earbuds may cause ear infections.

An ear infection which is left untreated can cause hearing loss and damage to the bones in the middle ear.  This is yet another factor that has been mentioned in discussions about earbud safety.

The Truth About Earbuds And Eardrum Damage

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So again, are earbuds safe?  Well, don’t throw away your earbuds, because the answer to the aforementioned question is - yes, earbuds are safe.  They are completely safe to use.  

This does not mean, however, that you cannot experience hearing loss when using them; it is entirely possible. But, the real contributor to hearing loss is the decibel level of sounds and not the earbuds themselves.

Just as we use inches and feet to measure length, we use decibels to measure the intensity of sounds.  For example, the sound of someone breathing measures at 10 decibels (dB), and normal conversation volume averages at about 60 dB.  

At 80 dB, damage to your ears is possible after 8 hours of exposure, and at 100 dB, serious damage is possible after 8 hours.

The higher the sound volume, the more likely ear damage will occur and in shorter periods of time.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot listen to loud music from time to time, but you should take into the account the advice of Hippocrates, who said, “Anything in excess is opposed to nature.”

Consider the following analogies.  Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning is perfectly safe; however, if you were to drink 10 cups of coffee in the morning, that much caffeine could put you on the brink of a heart attack.  

Also, there is nothing wrong with using salt to season your food, but exceeding your recommended daily sodium intake day after day may eventually cause you to have high cholesterol.

The next time you ask yourself “are earbuds safe?” simultaneously ask yourself if coffee or salt is safe.  It’s not the product itself but rather how it is used or abused; that is the most vital in relation to health.

As for earbuds potentially perpetuating ear infections, there is absolutely no evidence to support this.  

A recent controlled study that tested to see whether or not earbuds can cause infections concluded that earbuds do not pose any threat to health in that regard.  At the end of the study, the group of participants this study focused on did not have any infections due to earbud use.

The point to take away from all of this is that earbuds are perfectly fine to use as long as whatever you listen to is set at a reasonable volume level.  

Even if you do listen to music that is a bit loud, there is nothing to worry about as long as you limit the amount of time you listen to it.  And, earbuds do not increase the chance of contracting an ear infection.

How To Use Earbuds Safely

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As mentioned above, it is definitely possible to experience hearing loss with earbuds if you use them irresponsibly.  Any loud noise can cause damage to the eardrum if it is absurdly loud or listened to for too long.  

With earbuds, you have the luxury of being in control of the volume, and if you follow a few simple guidelines, your hearing will not be negatively affected.

Keep Your Volume Below The Halfway Point

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Most smartphones these days have their volume bars calibrated to operate within a certain decibel range.  An iPhone can reach a maximum of 100-115 decibels, and this level of sound is equal to what you would experience at a rock concert.

Just because you can turn your music up that loud does not mean that you need to. Experts recommend that you keep your volume level below 50%.   

In noisy environments, this may not be practical, but it’s a good rule to follow when you’re able to in order to evade any risk of hearing loss.

Use Noise-Cancelling Earbuds

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If you have to turn your volume up loud due to outside noise, investing in a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones is a great idea.  

They will help block out unwanted sound, allowing you to turn your volume down to a lower level.  A good pair of noise-cancelling earbuds will fit snug in your ear, act as earplugs, and produce quality sound.

Take Periodic Listening Breaks

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Because eardrum damage is possible when you listen to sounds at 85 dB and above for 8 hours straight, it is recommended that you take periodic breaks when using earbuds.  

Scientists say that 60 dB is a more reasonable level to keep your volume at, but if you choose to listen at 85 dB or more, you should strive to take an extended break every 4 hours.

It’s important to give your eardrums a rest.  As with any part of your body, your ears become fatigued when they are overworked.  By giving them a chance to rest and recover, you can help ensure that nerve damage does not occur.

Final Words

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Asking “are earbuds safe?” is like asking if coffee or salt is safe.  Used responsibly and in moderation, there is nothing to fret about.  

Earbud use does not result in hearing loss unless they are used to listen to audio at unreasonably high volumes for lengthy periods of time.

If you follow a few simple rules of thumb, they are a perfectly safe and a convenient tool that will help you enjoy all types of audio on a range of multimedia devices.  

Even though there are naysayers who will make unwarranted arguments about why they are bad for you, science says and proves otherwise.

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