Your ear gear, the listening devices you wear in or around your ears, is a critical part of your hearing health. The boombox was invented in the Netherlands in 1969. A decade later, a device called the Walkman® shrank those giant speakers so they would fit around your ears, providing you with a personalized, mobilized listening experience. Then, in 2001, the world was introduced to the iPod®.
According to Statista.com, in 2017, 368 million headphones or headsets were sold worldwide. Eighty-seven percent of people use their headphones to listen to music; 49 percent use them to watch TV or movies; 36 percent to listen to the radio; 28 percent to listen to audiobooks; and 25 percent for good old-fashioned phone calls. That’s a lot of noise in your ears—what could go wrong?
Noise-induced hearing loss happens because of loud noises that damage the inner ear. Listening to music at volumes louder than 85 decibels (dB) for prolonged periods of time will cause permanent hearing loss. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) permit workers to listen to 85 dB for eight hours in a row. But for every three dB above that, the time that is considered “safe” is divided in half. That means you’re only recommended to listen at 88 dB for four hours, at 91 dB for two hours, at 94 dB for one hour, at 97 dB for 30 minutes, at 100 dB for 15 minutes, and so on. The average portable music player is played at 100 dB, and cellphones or listening devices in the U.S. can produce a maximum of 115 dB.
That said, safe hearing levels are all based on older research. We used to think that muffled hearing and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) that we experienced after a great concert or club was just temporary hearing loss from loud music. We now know that even a limited amount of noise exposure can cause permanent damage to delicate ribbons between the hair cells in our ears. The damage only becomes obvious a decade or two later when we start having trouble hearing conversations with noise in the background. Remember: Less noise = better hearing.
Ear canals have wax and bacteria in them. That’s not a problem unless it becomes infected. Earbuds trap wetness in the ear canal, which is worse if you’re hot and sweaty from a workout. Bacteria and fungi love moist, warm, dark areas like your ear canal, and studies show that earbuds can cause an 11-fold increase in the bacteria in the ear canal.1
You shouldn’t share your earbud with anyone because that can increase your exposure to new bacteria or fungi. If you store your earbuds in your bag or pocket, they can also pick up outside germs that then get transported to your ear canal when you put them back in. And if you have a scratch or cut in your ear, those new germs or bacteria can lead to a serious infection.
Remember: Make sure to clean your earbuds once a week, particularly after sweating and especially if you’ve shared them with someone else. Use a cotton ball dampened (not soaked) with rubbing alcohol, and clean off any wax or debris. Store your earbuds in a clean, dry case and not loose in your bag.
Headphones worn over or around the ear can cause pressure damage to the outside part of your ear, called the pinna. Bending or squeezing the delicate cartilage of the pinna under headphones can cause pain, and you run the risk of causing a skin abrasion that could get infected. You can also cause inflammation of the cartilage, called chondritis, which can be difficult to treat. You could even end up with a permanent deformity.
Remember: Your headphones should fit snugly but not too tight. Pain is an important indicator telling you when something is wrong. If your headphones hurt, loosen them or get another kind of headphone.
It’s great to lose yourself in your favorite music or a great podcast or audiobook, but jeopardizing one of your most important senses—hearing—as you navigate the world may not be worth it. Cycling, particularly city cycling, is dangerous. Dodging cars, open doors, potholes, pedestrians, and other obstacles while pedaling is challenging with all your senses, and even more so if you eliminate or even reduce your hearing by wearing earbuds or headphones.
A 2011 study revealed that two-thirds of cyclists who wear earbuds while cycling cannot hear sirens, automobiles honking, or cars whizzing by in traffic. However, the study did find that listening to music with a single earbud and keeping one ear free of any distracting noise did not affect a cyclist’s auditory perception.2
Remember: Don’t use earbuds or headphones while walking, biking, or driving. Enjoy your surroundings! But if you must, use only one earbud or headphone at a time. Or, you can get a bone conduction headset that sits behind your ears, so you can hear music and still be alert to all that’s around you.
1Mukhopadhyay C, Basak S, Gupta S, Chawla K, Bairy I. A comparative analysis of bacterial growth with earphone use. Online J Health Allied Scs. 2008;7(2):4
2de Waard D, Edlinger K, Brookhuis K. Effects of listening to music, and of using a handheld and handsfree telephone on cycling behavior. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, Elsevier, November 2011.