If you spend a lot of time in the water, waterproof earplugs can help you avoid the discomfort of water trapped in your ear canal or, worse, "swimmer's ear" -- an infection that's often caused by water lingering in your ears.
Waterproof earplugs are usually made of silicone, and come in three types: moldable, pre-molded and custom molded. Moldable earplugs form a seal over the outer ear opening, whereas custom- and pre-molded earplugs sit inside the ear canal. Custom-molded earplugs can cost well over $100 and are usually purchased from a professional laboratory, based on a mold of your ear canal done either in an audiologist's office or at home, using a kit.
When it comes to moldable and pre-molded water-blocking earplugs, Mack's is the clear leader in both categories. In a couple of clinical trials, Mack's Pillow Soft silicone earplugs (Est. $3.50 for 2 pairs) were the best at keeping water out of the ear. Users agree and say that these moldable silicone earplugs are particularly comfortable because they sit outside your ear canal, like a cover, rather than inside it.
Mack's Pillow Soft earplugs have a noise reduction rating of 22 decibels, which some reviewers say is enough for ignoring a spouse's snoring or for sleeping on an airplane. They also come in a children's version, which can be used by adults with small ears as well. Some reviewers with small ears say they just tear the larger Pillow Soft earplugs in half, effectively giving themselves twice as many earplugs for the same price.
Another silicone earplug from Mack's, the AquaBlock (Est. $4 for 2 pairs), is made only for blocking water. Because of this, they aren't assigned a noise reduction rating. Quite a few reviewers like the triple-flanged design for blocking water, though; they say it offers good flexibility in fit and provides multiple barriers to water.
"I surf 150 to 180 days a year and these plugs work great. They are small enough to get in there and stay, and won't come out even during a good fall or after taking several waves on the head," writes one user at Drugstore.com.
Users find Mack's AquaBlock earplugs to be soft and easy to insert, but because they sit in the ear canal they should not be used by children under age 7, anyone with ear tubes or anyone who has had recent ear surgery, so they are not as versatile as the Pillow Soft earplugs.
While Mack's Pillow Soft are best for swimming and bathing, AquaBlock are a better choice for other outdoor activities in cold, wet environments, such as surfing and kayaking, where you need protection from the elements but still need to be able to hear well.
If you'd rather avoid silicone entirely, you can use Boules Quies, which are made of natural wax. They work similarly to Mack's Pillow Soft; just roll the wax between your hands to warm it, then place it in your outer ear to cover the ear canal. These earplugs have an NRR of 27 decibels and users say they're very comfortable, although AudioCheck.net warns that they seal tighter -- and can exert more pressure -- than foam or silicone earplugs.
For scuba divers, regular swimming earplugs are not recommended. Instead, look for earplugs that can stay in place during the increasing pressure of a descent. The manufacturers of Doc's Proplugs (Est. $15 for 1 pair) say their vented earplug "helps ears equalize under water." Reviewers agree, saying they are very helpful for easing ear decompression and keeping cold water from flooding into the ear.
Young swimmers might like Putty Buddies Floating Ear Plugs, moldable silicone in bright neon colors designed especially for kids. They are well reviewed by users for ease of use and excellent water-blocking capabilities.