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Updated: 7 Jun 2022

Headphones and earbuds: how to protect your hearing

Poor headphone use can lead to lasting hearing loss. Are headphones or earbuds better? And can noise-cancelling headphones help? Read our expert tips on using headphones safely
Oliver Trebilcock

Leading health organisations warn that using headphones incorrectly is a serious risk to damaging your hearing, both for younger and older people. 

We provide the advice from the experts, plus recommendations on how to best enjoy your headphones and protect your hearing at the same time.

Video: Are my headphones harming my hearing?

We talk to a hearing expert and give top tips on how best to listen with headphones.

Can headphones damage your hearing?

The NHS warns that listening to headphones too loudly is ‘one of the biggest dangers to your hearing’, so it’s important to develop good listening habits.

Excess noise can lead to hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in your ears linked to hearing loss), and if exposure is particularly loud or prolonged, this can be permanent and untreatable. So it’s important to look after your ears.

The NHS recommends:

  • Listen at no more than 60% of the maximum volume on your device
  • Don’t use headphones continuously for more than an hour at a time, taking a break of at least five minutes every hour.

It can be hard to know what counts as ‘too loud’, as you won’t experience the impact immediately.

It’s best to start listening at a low volume, then raise it just enough to hear things comfortably. If you turn it up higher than the minimum recommended, even if temporarily, your ears will adapt. This means you’ll get used to the louder volume and may forget to turn it back down.

If you find yourself turning up the volume to drown out external noise, it’s probably time for a new pair of headphones. Opt for a noise-isolating or noise-cancelling set, which will help block out background noise so you can hear what you’re playing clearly at a lower volume.  

What are safe listening levels for headphones?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as keeping the volume below a certain level. Your ears can only take a certain ‘dosage’ of sound – and both the loudness and how long you listen for count towards this dosage. The lower the volume, the longer you can listen without risking damage.

Volume is measured in decibels (dB) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a safe daily limit from all sources of sound – not just headphones – of 85dB for eight hours. This volume is equivalent to the noise of a food blender or heavy traffic.

While you might think that you never play your music that loud, the WHO warns that personal audio devices can output sound as loud as 136dB. And, to complicate matters, decibels don’t rise in a linear way – for example, an 88dB sound is twice as intense as an 85dB one. At 136dB, only seconds of exposure can cause irreversible damage.

How do I know if I’m listening too loudly?

Trying to monitor your exposure in decibels is usually impractical in practice, because audio player volume controls don’t usually give this information.

Smartphone apps are available that can tell you in decibels how loud sounds are, but some are more reliable than others and they’re usually designed for sounds in your immediate environment rather than checking the decibels produced by your headphones.

Setting your smartphone’s volume limiter to 60% of the maximum to match the NHS advice is a good idea, but you can’t rely on this alone as it’s only a guide. In most cases your smartphone won’t know exactly what pair of headphones you’re using. Some headphones can sound much louder than others at the same volume on your device.

Nor can you assume that sticking to the ‘safe listening levels’ that many smartphones indicate when you’re using headphones will automatically protect your hearing – how long you listen for matters just as much as the volume.

Take extra care when using gaming headsets for video games, since it’s very easy to forget to take regular breaks or feel compelled to continue when playing competitively with friends. Many games include punchy soundtracks and powerful sound effects such as explosions that are high-exposure sounds, so it’s even more important to watch you’re taking breaks of at least five minutes every hour. Nevertheless, choosing a high-quality gaming headset will help you hear clearly at lower volumes and so help protect your hearing. See our best PS5 headsets advice to find out which gaming headsets are worth buying.

What should I do if I’m concerned that my hearing has been damaged?

There’s no silver bullet to knowing if you’re listening to your headphones too loudly. If, after exposure, your hearing is dulled or ringing, then it may have been damaged. You should take a long break away from excess noise to minimise the risk of this becoming permanent and let the sensory cells in your ears recover.

Everyone’s ears are different and some are genetically more vulnerable to hearing loss than others. Audiology expert Dr Robert C MacKinnon from Anglia Ruskin University says that until we understand more about hearing loss, advice is of a very general nature.

Our advice is to buy a good-quality set, such as the Best Buy headphones we recommend based on our tests and set the volume on your player to the minimum you find comfortable to listen to.

Are headphones or earbuds better for your hearing?

As we explain in our guide on buying the best headphones, there are several types to choose from. The type you go for can make a real difference to the risk of hearing damage.

  • Over-ear headphones are the best option for your ear health, because they’re the best at forming an acoustic seal around your ear, so you don’t need to turn the volume up as loud. The headphone speakers are also further from your ear drums – in-ear headphones sound up to 9dB louder than over-ear sets at the same device volume.
  • In-ear headphones that come with flexible eartips are the next best choice, if you don’t like the feel or bulk of over or on-ear headphones. The flexible tips form an acoustic seal round your ear canal to block outside sounds. Opt for a pair with a choice of different sized tips to suit different ear shapes.
  • Earbuds, which have hard plastic earpieces, are usually the worst option if you want to prevent hearing damage. They block external noise much less effectively, so you may be tempted to turn your music up beyond safe levels.

Can noise-cancelling headphones help prevent hearing loss?

It can help.  Active noise-cancelling technology produces opposing sound waves that cancel out background noise from your environment, so the dosage of sound that reaches your ears in the first place is lower.

This, combined with the fact that you don’t need to raise the volume of your headphones as much to drown out sounds around you, means good active noise-cancelling headphones can help you to protect your hearing.

How effective noise-cancelling technology is varies greatly from model to model, and it often isn’t cheap – the technology tends to add around £100 to the cost of higher-end pairs.

To properly test out headphones’ noise-cancelling ability, our lab simulates noisy backgrounds, such as the London Underground.

What are the best headphones for people with hearing aids?

With typical behind-the-ear hearing aids, you’ll be looking for a large over-ear pair that can fit over both your ear and the hearing aid. Finding a suitable pair can be problematic as the hearing aid microphone can create high-pitched whistling feedback.

You’ll need to try out different over-ear or on-ear headphones to find one that works with your type of hearing aid. It’s much better not to take out hearing aids when using headphones, as you risk using the headphones at very high volumes that could make your hearing loss worse.

An alternative option to consider is a Bluetooth hearing aid. These start from around £1,500 and allow you to connect the hearing aid directly to your smartphone or music device, using them just like a pair of wireless headphones themselves.  If this sounds like a better solution for you, see our hearing aid prices and providers guide.

If you’ve had surgically added cochlear implants, these should work well with any style of headphones – in-ear, on-ear or over-ear.

How some headphones can help you hear real conversations more clearly

Android and Apple smartphones both come with functionality that, paired with compatible headphones, can increase the volume of real-life conversations, so you can hear them more clearly.

Just place your device in front of the person you’re talking with and use it as a microphone. The sounds picked up by the device’s microphone will be played in your hearing aid or headphones, helping to amplify the volume of the person’s voice. It’s designed to work in noisy areas or for hearing someone speaking from across the room.

  • Apple Live Listen works with either hearing aids that claim ‘Made for iPhone’ support, or with Apple AirPods, Apple AirPods Pro or Beats Powerbeats Pro headphones. You’ll need an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch (with iOS 12 or later) – the feature is built in to your device, so simply customise the Control Centre in the Settings app.
  • On Android devices, Google’s Sound Amplifier app (free to download from the Google Play store) provides similar functionality with wired and Bluetooth headphones.

Top tips on using headphones safely

It’s not possible to cure permanent hearing loss, so it’s important to look after your hearing. If you’re worried, follow these tips for healthier listening habits:

  • Choose headphones with excellent sound clarity so you’re less likely to need to raise the volume.
  • Active noise cancelling also helps you to listen at lower volumes by removing background sounds.
  • Over-ear headphones are generally best, as they form an acoustic seal round your ears so you don’t need turn the sound up as loud to hear well. 
  • If you prefer in-ear headphones, choose a pair with flexible eartips, which are much better than earbuds at blocking outside noise.
  • Treat your device’s volume limiter as a guide, not a rule. Some people naturally have more sensitive hearing, while some headphones sound louder than others at the same device volume. 
  • Start listening at a low volume, and raise it until you can listen comfortably and no higher. Don’t turn up to drown out an irritating noise, as you may get used to the volume forget to turn it back down again.
  • How long you listen for matters as much as the volume, so take regular breaks, especially if you hear ringing or deadened sounds in your ears. 
  • Smartphone app features such as Apple’s Headphone Audio Levels monitor how long you’re listening and warn when to give your ears a rest. Android’s Sound Amplifier app enhances voice frequencies, so you can hear more clearly without needing to raise the volume.

Our lab tests assess sound quality, noise cancelling and the headphones’ acoustic seal, so you know you’re getting the best ear-friendly set for your budget. Find the ideal pair for you with our headphone reviews.

Do you need to clean your headphones?

Like any item that’s used regularly, headphones run the risk of getting a bit grubby over time – with ear wax, plus any other detritus they might pick up if they’re casually chucked in a pocket or bag, rather than in a dedicated case.

But do they risk gathering other nasties such as bacteria and germs? In March 2020, we swabbed the headphones of a number of volunteers and sent them to our lab for analysis.

Fortunately, our snapshot investigation concluded that the bacteria and other organisms that are typically found on headphones are unlikely to pose a risk to healthy individuals.

Nevertheless, a good clean every now and then will keep your headphones looking their best and do no harm if done properly. So follow our handy tips below on how to clean your headphones.

How best to clean your headphones

You should always follow your headphone manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning your headphones as all models are different and you could inadvertently damage them by doing the wrong thing.

Many manufacturers warn not to clean with alcohol (this would include some hand sanitisers, for example) as it can damage the surface of headphones. Most headphones also aren’t fully waterproof (even if they say they’re water resistant), so dunking them in the sink with your washing up might stop them working.

Focus on the parts that touch your ears

As you’d expect, the eartips and earcups are the parts of headphones that are likely to get most dirty as they’ll inevitably pick up ear wax from wearing them. So these should be your priority when cleaning.

If you’re using in-ear headphones with removable flexible eartips, you can wash them on their own in a light soapy solution. If you use Comply foam eartips, the manufacturer using only water.

For on-ear and over-ear headphones, some models allow you to remove the fabric-covered foam earpads from the earcups. If this is possible with your pair, you can carefully wipe the fabric of the earpads with a slightly damp cloth and let them to air dry. Ttake care, though, as some earcup fabric and foam underneath can be surprisingly absorbent. Try not to get them too wet and avoid any joins in the material.

Make sure they’re fully dry before you store them to prevent mould growing. In practice, it can also be tricky to re-attach the earcups to your headphones, so check how they’re attached when you remove them. You can buy replacement earcups for headphones from some manufacturers, such as Sennheiser, if yours are in a particularly poor condition.

Cleaning the headphone surfaces

Most headphones aren’t fully waterproof (even if they say they’re water resistant), so the safest cleaning method is to try a dry cloth first. However, oils from skin contact often build up which can be difficult to remove with a dry cloth.

If this is the case, dampen the cloth a little with water (or if necessary, a light, soapy solution provided the manufacturer’s instructions don’t advise against soap) and carefully clean the surfaces, avoiding sensitive areas such as the gauze over the speakers (which are very small and delicate with in-ear headphones), microphone holes, vents, joins in the material, wires, buttons and charging connectors.

For dirt caught in these areas, carefully use a toothpick to dislodge the dirt and then a dry cloth to remove it.

Cleaning around headphone holes

To get out dirt that has collected in holes in the headphones, such as the fragile gauze covering the speakers or the recess for the microphone, carefully use a toothpick or dry cotton bud and take care not to poke the dirt further into the headphones or damage the fragile gauze covering the headphone speakers. It’s important not to get these areas wet.

You’ll need to decide which implement would work best for your headphones. Toothpicks are sharp, so be careful not to scratch or dent the headphones. Cotton buds can leave strands of cotton that can be tricky to remove if they get stuck in the gauze.

If your headphones are particularly dirty, you could find that cleaning around the gauze improves the sound quality as well – just like excess earwax in your ears, wax build up in headphones can block the sound coming through clearly.

Can you get an ear infection from headphones?

It’s highly unlikely. If you’re not ill and don’t have existing health conditions that mean you have a weaker immune system, the risks are very low.

Wearing your headphones while exercising creates the type of humid conditions that can encourage the growth of bacteria, but our snapshot lab test of how dirty headphones are found that there’s little cause for concern.

This is because the headphones dry out between uses, and this dry environment doesn’t provide the right conditions for growth of the most common organisms that cause ear infections. For more on this, see our news story on whether you should share your headphones.