The right earplugs can save your hearing, reduce pain and help you sleep at night
In the modern world, noise is all around. Working with power tools, riding a motorcycle or a snowmobile, firing a gun at a shooting range, or even listening to loud music at concerts and clubs can expose you to noise levels high enough to cause permanent hearing damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 12.5 percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 19 years old, and 17 percent of adults between 20 and 69 years old – more than 31 million people in total – have suffered irreparable damage to their hearing as a result of excessive exposure to noise.
The solution can be as simple as donning earplugs -- small cylinders made of materials like foam, plastic, silicone, or wax -- whenever you're in a noisy environment. Earplugs also come in handy for blocking out general noise from traffic or neighbors, so you can sleep or study; a few reviewers even quip that earplugs have saved their marriages by drowning out their mates' loud snoring.
Earplugs have other uses, as well. For instance, swimmers and surfers can wear them to keep water from getting into their ear canals, where it can cause bacterial or fungal infections known as "swimmer's ear." In addition, they're useful for air travel, helping to relieve the discomfort caused by changes in air pressure.
Earplugs can be disposable, semi-reusable (meaning they should be thrown out after a few uses), or entirely reusable. Disposable earplugs generally cost anywhere from 10 to 40 cents per pair, though the price typically goes down if you buy in bulk. Reusable earplugs will set you back anywhere from $1 to $20 per pair, with semi-reusable earplugs at the bottom of this range.
Other options include custom earplugs, which are molded specifically to the shape of your ears, and electronic earplugs, which actually contain tiny microphones and amplifiers to pick up ambient sound and automatically adjust the level that gets transmitted to your ears. These types, which can cost anywhere from $130 to $300, aren't covered in this report.
All noise-blocking earplugs carry a noise reduction rating (NRR) — a measure of how many decibels (dB) sound is reduced when you're wearing them. Decibels are logarithmic units used to measure sound, which means that every increase of 10 dB represents a tenfold increase in the sound volume. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a whisper is about 30 dB, normal conversation is 60 dB, and an ambulance siren is 120 dB. Sounds over 120 dB are loud enough to cause pain, but any sound over 85 dB can cause hearing loss with prolonged exposure. So the higher the NRR of your earplugs, the better it can shield you from hearing damage.
However, NRR isn't the only factor to consider when choosing earplugs. Experts and users agree that a good fit is just as important, because an earplug can't do its job if it falls out, doesn't seal properly, or is so uncomfortable you can't wear it. 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 brands come in small sizes to provide a better fit for children and adults with smaller ear canals.
In addition to NRR and fit, you should consider how well the earplugs are suited to the activity you have in mind. For instance, motorcycle enthusiasts need earplugs that can fit well under their helmets, as well as dampen the sound of wind and engine noise. Musicians require earplugs that attenuate sound across all frequencies to preserve the sound of the music, while muting the loudness. Swimmers and surfers need water-blocking earplugs, and frequent flyers need earplugs that can regulate air pressure without interfering with overhead announcements.
Finding the best earplugs
To some extent, which earplugs are best for you depends on your personal needs and preferences. However, everyone needs earplugs that can do a good job of muting sound (or blocking water, if they're used for swimming), fit comfortably, and provide good overall value. We've analyzed available medical studies, professional comparison tests, and hundreds of user reviews to find the earplugs that are your best bets for quiet and comfort.