Do earphones or headphones damage ears or cause hearing loss?

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There is nothing better than listening to a favorite piece of music through either earphones or headphones. In fact, if you are watching a movie and use headphones, you will be able to pick up much more, as every syllable of the actors is crystal-clear. Moreover, using headphones is actually an act of courtesy if you are in a room where there are others trying to do something else.

However, I am sure that you have wondered at least once, some time or the other, do earphones or headphones damage ears or cause hearing loss? There is no single answer to this, so here we will take a closer look at this issue and try to understand the possibility of hearing loss or damage to ears from these listening devices that have become so popular in our daily life.

Structure of the Human Ear

ear anatomy
Ear Anatomy

Let’s consider the construction of the human earOur ear consists of three basic parts – the outer, middle and inner ear. The outer ear is not so sensitive and is only responsible for collecting sound waves, and the middle ear is just a channel for those sound waves, to transmit them to the inner ear. However, it is the inner ear that contains the most sensitive parts and one of the most sensitive of those and most susceptible to damage is the tympanic membrane or eardrum.

The eardrum is a thin membrane of skin stretched over the opening to the middle ear, rather like a speaker cone. This vibrates in sympathy to the sound waves it receives. Now, if the eardrum is exposed to excessive noise, it can get torn due to excessive vibration or it can get over-stretched, which results in loss of hearing.

Basic Sound Measurement and Permissible Limits

Sound is measured in decibels (dB). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the maximum number of decibels (opens PDF) that a person can be safely exposed to continuously is 85 decibels.

So, the louder the sound the more chances are to get ear damage. For example, the sound of an idling bulldozer is about 85 decibels. However, it would take up to 8 hours of continuous listening for your ears to be permanently harmed.

Conversely if you use stock earphones to listen to an MP3 player with maximum volume, it is possible that your ears will be exposed to 100 decibels or more during which could damage your ears in as little as 15 minutes!

Headphones vs Earphones

So, which is the better of the two headphones or earphones? Neither really. While there is some evidence that earbuds (or “canalphones”) that plug the ear canal can be more dangerous that over-ear headphones since they deliver the sound directly to your ear canal, the risk also lies in the volume level you are using and the duration of listening.

If for instance you are using earphones which fit tightly into your ear canal but at low volume, it’s possible you could be expose to less noise that someone listening to large over-ear headphones at max volume.  Another consideration is the surrounding environment-when exposed to high level of external noise traffic, most people generally tend to jack up the volume which is more likely to cause ear damage. You may be in a quiet room listening to earbuds at a much lower volume. These are just a few simple examples to illustrate that there is no clear answer to the question.

See our article on choosing safe headphones vs earbuds for kids. 

If you are a parent, you may also want to check out these safe-listening earbuds for kids that include a volume limiting feature to keep the sound below 85 db.

How to know if earphones or headphones are too loud?

You can follow this general rule of thumb if you are able to hear the music of a person using headphones, then the music is too loud. Or, the Mayo Clinic 60/60 rule can be applied. Listen to music for a maximum of 60 minutes per day at 60% of the maximum volume.

Tips on how to Prevent Hearing Loss through Listening Devices

  • Use good quality listening devices, preferably branded ones. 
  • The maximum volume of music players should be not more than 60%
  • Use headphones or earphones for listening to music for no more than 60 minutes a day.
  • Take a break from your music listening from time to time.
  • Use noise cancelling headphones.
  • Do NOT use headphones in a very noisy environment as you’ll need to increase volume to hear music.
  • Use over the ear headphones also known as supra-aural headphones which don’t transmit vibrations directly into the ear.
  • If you find difficulty in hearing people that are talking to you, consult an ear specialist immediately.

How to Choose Suitable Earphones or Headphones

Headphones and earphones are two different styles of listening devices so, your choice may depend on where you use them and the sort of music that you are going to be listening to. Here are a few types of listening devices that you can choose from:


These listening devices fit inside the ear canal and have the advantage of isolating a fair degree of external noise. However, everyone is not comfortable in inserting earbuds in the ear and if used for extended periods, it can result in earache

Ear Pad Headphones

Ear pad headphones were very popular before the iPod came into existence. Although these devices are comfortable to the ears they tend to let in outside noise which is particularly handy if you are going on a run and you want to listen to music as you jog, but also want to be aware of what is going on around you.

Full-Size Headphones

These devices have ear cups that surround the ears completely. Although they provide a great bass response, they are cumbersome due to their size. You can get the best quality of sound by listening to music through these listening devices.

So ultimately a lot of your choice will depend on personal preferences, where you are going to use the earphones or headphones and your pattern of music listening. However generally speaking, you would like to look at things like durability and warranty, comfort of use, and of course quality of sound.

If you follow these tips for choosing a pair of headphones or earphones you should be able to get a pair that suits your personal preferences and one that is not too harsh on your ears.

A Final Word

Hence, we see that the risk of hearing loss doesn’t depend just on whether you use headphones or earphones. Coming back to our original question, do earphones or headphones damage ears or cause hearing loss, the answer is yes and no.

Either of these listening devices can cause damage to your ears if not used in the recommended fashion. However, with the right kind of awareness on the subject and if you follow the tips outlined in this article, you can use them for years with no risk to your hearing.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. If so, please feel free to post your comments, questions and valuable feedback and we will be glad to get back to you.

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