Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 07, 2021

When you think about possible sources of hearing loss, perhaps you think about accidents, loud noises, or explosives. However, the most common cause of hearing loss is headphone use. There are ways that you can protect your ears from headphone damage, though. 

What Are the Risks of Headphones?

In-ear headphones are much louder than any sound that would naturally occur so close to the inner-workings of your ear. The sound waves emitted by the earbuds cause your eardrum to vibrate. The waves of vibration can travel through a series of small bones and permeate to a part of the ear called the cochlea

The cochlea is a chamber in the ear that is filled with fluid and has hairs on the outside of it. The headphones vibrate the liquid and move the hairs. The louder your music is, the more vigorous the vibrations will be. The stronger the vibrations are, the more your hairs will move. 

If you listen to loud sounds too often or for too long, the hairs of the cochlea lose their sensitivity to vibrations. Some noises may even make your cells change shape and fold over. Sometimes it takes your ears time to recover. If you have ever been to a deafening concert and had temporary hearing loss, this is the cause. 

Sometimes, though, your ears do not recover. This is called lasting hearing loss, and there is no cure. 

Headphones do damage in almost the same way that loud noises do. However, their impact is felt more gradually over a long period of time. If you listen to loud music every day, the hairs on your cochlea will start to fold and cause hearing loss. Often, the hairs will bend so severely that the damage can become permanent. 

While loud noises through your headphones are certainly not great for your hearing, listening to headphones at an average level over a long period of time can also damage your hearing. This is true of all sounds that can cause hearing loss: duration matters just as much as loudness. 

How Do I Use Headphones Safely?

You will damage your ears faster if you regularly listen to louder sounds for long periods. The first thing you can do to decrease the chances of hearing loss is listen to your headphones at lower volume. This can be done either by turning the volume down on the devices themselves or the device you are listening to them with. 

Additionally, here are some other ways you can help protect your ears:

  • Buy Over-the-ear Headphones. Over-the-ear headphones give your earbuds an extra little bit of distance from the noise source. Scientists say that this distance is crucial in reducing hearing damage. 
  • Noise-Canceling Headphones. Often you use your headphones at a high volume to drown out other noises. Noise-canceling headphones lower the volume of all external sounds and allow you to listen to your music at a lower level without ambient noise overpowering it.
  • Reducing the time you listen on headphones. This is another good way to help your ears. If you notice yourself listening to your headphones for most of the day, try reducing it little by little. A good rule is to not listen to anything louder than 60% of its potential volume for longer than 60 minutes: the 60-60 rule. 

‌Avoid using earbuds if you are trying to prevent permanent hearing loss. Using earbuds is like putting tiny speakers in your ear and is the least safe way to listen to music.

In Summary

Just because you listen to music on your headphones does not mean that you will get hearing loss. However, it is more common than you may think. By following a few simple guidelines, you can help reduce the potential for lifelong hearing loss. 

Remember to listen to your headphones on a moderate to low volume, use over-the-ear and noise-canceling headphones, and try to reduce the amount of time that you listen to your headphones.

If you think you may have damage to your hearing from headphones, be sure to see your doctor or a qualified specialist as soon as possible. While the damage may be permanent, you can always get hearing aids.

Show Sources

Hearing Health Foundation: “Earbuds vs. Over-the-Ear Headphones: Which Should You Use?”

Oklahoma Hearing Center: “Do Headphones Increase your Risk of Hearing Loss? Facts You Should Know.”

TeensHealth from Nemours: "Earbuds."

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