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. Earplugs can also help prevent a more serious condition called "surfer's ear," abnormal bone growth in the ear canal caused by irritation from cold wind and water.
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.
Mack's is the clear top choice among swimmers for both moldable and pre-molded water-blocking earplugs. In a couple of clinical trials, Mack's Pillow Soft (Est. $4 for 6 pairs) silicone earplugs were the best at keeping water out of the ear. They're also one of the top-rated brands at retail sites, including SwimOutlet.com, which specializes in swimwear and underwater gear.
Users agree that these moldable silicone earplugs are particularly comfortable for swimming because they fit over your ear canal like a cover, rather than inside it. However, some users find it tricky to apply them so that they form a water-tight seal. A couple of users say it helps to make sure your ears are completely dry before you apply the plugs. Mack's also stresses that the earplugs should be pressed into the outer ear only and never inserted into the ear canal. The earplugs can be used five or six times before they need to be discarded.
Along with their water-blocking abilities, Mack's Pillow Soft earplugs have a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 22 decibels, which some reviewers say is enough for ignoring a spouse's snoring or for sleeping on an airplane. However, many owners say this type of earplug is not comfortable for overnight use.
Several users say that they had say that they like to adjust the size of these moldable silicone earplugs, either tearing them in half to fit a smaller ear or tearing off a piece and molding it onto a larger plug to fit a larger ear. However, Mack's recommends against doing this, warning that breaking the earplugs into smaller pieces can cause them to get stuck inside the ear canal. For children under six, Mack's recommends using its smaller Kid Size Silicone Earplugs (Est. $5 for 6 pairs) instead.
Another option for smaller swimmers is Ear Band-It Floating Putty Buddies (Est. $7 for 3 pairs). These moldable silicone plugs work much the same as the Pillow Soft earplugs, but they come in smaller sizes and bright colors to appeal to kids. Another perk is that the silicone plugs float, so if one pops out during a swim, it's easy to retrieve it. However, most parents say this seldom happens, as the plugs usually fit securely and do a good job of keeping water out. Although most parents say Putty Buddies are easy to insert, there are several complaints that the sticky plugs make a mess and tend to catch on the hair. Also, some kids have trouble removing them, leaving behind putty residue that builds up inside the ears.
Those who dislike fiddling with balls of silicone may prefer Mack's AquaBlock (Est. $6 for 2 pairs). These reusable, pre-molded silicone rubber earplugs are shaped like small, tiered mushrooms that "screw" into the ear canal. Because they're made specifically for blocking water, they don't have a noise reduction rating. This makes them suitable for water sports such as surfing and kayaking, where you need protection from the elements but still need to be able to hear well. However, they aren't as versatile as the Pillow Soft earplugs. They're too large for children to use, and because they sit inside the ear canal, they aren't safe for anyone with ear tubes or anyone who has had recent ear surgery.
Reviewers like the AquaBlock earplugs' triple-flanged design for blocking water. They say these earplugs form a good seal, and they're easy to insert and remove. However, while most users find they stay put during swimming, several complain that they fall out if they're not positioned exactly right. Also, while the earplugs are comfortable for most swimmers, some report that they cause ear pain.
Another Mack's product that many users like is Mack's Ear Seals (Est. $3 per pair). These reusable molded earplugs block out both water and noise, with an NRR of 27 dB. They have a flanged design similar to the AquaBlock earplugs, but they're made of molded plastic rather than silicone. Users at Amazon.com say this shape provides a good fit for ears of all types — large, small, and oddly shaped. Users agree that the earplugs do a good job keeping out water and fit comfortably— better than foam earplugs, according to many users. Most owners also find them easy to insert and remove. Users' main quibble with them is that they stick out too far, making them uncomfortable for sleeping.