Types of Earplugs
The right earplug can save your hearing, reduce pain and help you sleep at night
Earplugs come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are used to block or attenuate sound from loud activities. Exposure to high decibel sounds in industrial work settings, riding or working with motorcycles, at shooting ranges and in loud music venues can irreparably damage hearing. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates, "...17% of adults aged 20-69 years (approximately 26 million) have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive exposure to noise."
Another popular use of earplugs is to improve the quality of sleep by blocking noise from snorers, loud neighbors and urban traffic. They can also help prevent swimmer's ear, an infection of the outer ear canal, by keeping water out of the ear. Specialized earplugs are popular with travelers because they can decrease ear pain from altitude changes while flying.
What to look for in an earplug depends upon why you're using them. To mute loud sounds, look for a high noise reduction rating (NRR). Motorcycle enthusiasts need earplugs that can dampen the sound of wind and engine noise, and fit well under their helmets. Musicians use earplugs that attenuate sound across all frequencies to preserve the sound of the music, while muting the loudness. Swimmers and surfers need an earplug that protects their ear canal from water and cold. Frequent flyers should find an earplug that can regulate air pressure without interfering with overhead announcements.
Earplugs are made from a variety of materials; most commonly: foam, wax, silicone or rubber. They can be disposable; semireusable (meaning they can be used a few times before disposal); or reusable. Most earplugs are one size fits all -- and sized for men -- so it's important to try a variety to find which one works best for you. Some come in sizes: small, medium and large.
Experts and users agree that a good fit is as important as an earplug's NRR, because if an earplug falls out, doesn't fit properly or is uncomfortable, it won't do its job. When looking for an earplug, pay particular attention to the reviews for individual fit, such as a user saying it fits (or not) in small or large ear canals.
Disposable earplugs generally cost from 10 to 40 cents per pair, though the price usually goes down with higher quantities. Reusable earplugs will set you back anywhere from $2 to $20 per pair, with semireusable earplugs at the bottom of this range. If you're looking at buying custom made earplugs, be prepared to spend up to $200.
To determine our best reviewed earplugs, we analyzed available medical studies and evaluated hundreds of expert and user reviews. Our criteria were performance (how well does it mute sound?), comfort and fit, and overall value. The result is our recommendations for the best earplugs for muting loud sounds, sleeping, swimming and travel.