Four Safe Practices for Earbud Usage

With many gyms across the country still closed, you may be finding yourself walking or running through your neighborhood for exercise more often, listening to your favorite workout mix along the way. So, the question is—if you blast your music to stay in the zone, or if you turn up the volume to drown out traffic noise, could you be impacting your hearing?

We talked to several experts, who recommend listening to music, podcasts, and other sounds no louder than 85 decibels for extended periods of time. In-ear listening devices (earbuds) and external earphones both can be safe.

“If you’re at 85 or below, I’m sure that you’re going to be just fine, whether you’re exercising for 15 minutes or 8 hours,” says research audiologist Rebecca Lewis, AuD, PhD, a member of the editorial committee for the Hearing Health Foundation’s Hearing Health magazine.

85 decibels is equivalent to the noise from a full cafeteria or busy traffic, but it’s difficult to determine just how loud the output from your earbuds or earphones may be. “The best way would really be to visit an audiologist or someone who has that capability to actually measure the output of your device,” Lewis says, “but it’s not something that’s commonly offered.”

There are no universal volume levels on smartphones or earbuds and every manufacturer uses its own scale. Some devices and headphones can emit sounds over 100 decibels, which may cause noise-induced hearing loss after 15 minutes. For this reason, don’t turn up the volume to the maximum level. “Once you start creeping above the 50 percent volume mark on your smartphone, you probably should pay a little closer attention to where your volume is,” Lewis says.

You can check to see if your earbud volume output is too loud by asking someone standing nearby if they can hear your music, or by standing a few feet away from your own earbuds while music plays. These approaches may give you insights into your listening habits. “If you can hear your music very clearly,” Lewis says, “I would say you should probably turn it down.”

By listening at a lower volume you’ll not only help to preserve your hearing, but you’ll hear traffic driving by, which will make it less likely that you’ll step into the street when a car is coming.

Read on to learn more tips on how to listen with earbuds while keeping your eardrums and hearing intact: 

Adjust the volume once. Before you go out for your walk or run, turn on your music and choose an acceptable volume level while you’re still inside. Then keep it at that level the entire time you’re out.

“You’re trying to get to the comfortable loudness level, but you can only do it in quiet,” says Alan Oshinsky, MD, chief of the division of otolaryngology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Make it as loud as you like it, where it’s tolerable and doesn’t seem to be hurting your ears. [The] loudness should not change when you go into more sound, because if you do… you’re just making it louder in your ear to compensate for the outside noise.”

Test your environment’s sound level. If you run along a busy road, you may wonder whether you’ve been making your music too loud so that you could hear your songs over the traffic din. Try the app  Decibel X, which can accurately measure the decibel levels of noises around you.

“If you don’t have noise-canceling headphones, then you probably end up listening to that road noise—let’s say that’s 75,” Lewis says. “If you’re the person who wants to turn it up beyond the road noise, then you’ll know, ‘Well hey, if I’m already at 75 with this road noise, I kind of have this narrow window to work with.’”

Listen to familiar music. When you know that you’ll hear traffic while you’re walking or running, choosing music that you’re intimately familiar with, rather than listening to something new, should help you keep the volume lower.

“If you’re really familiar with a certain album [or] you have this certain playlist that you always listen to when you’re running, your brain does a really good job of filling in any gaps that you might not actually hear,” Lewis says. “[But] if you’re listening to something new, you need more of that auditory information to actually make sense of what you’re listening to. [With familiar music], you might just have a quieter listening experience, where your brain is actually filling in those gaps.”

Wear both earbuds. Some people wear only one earbud, so that they can hear music in one ear and traffic noises in the other. But using one ear to hear external noises may make it harder to locate where a sound is coming from, Lewis says, which may make it harder to get out of the way of a car quickly. Wearing both earbuds lets you listen at a lower volume, so you should be able to hear traffic over the music in both ears.

“If I were to choose how people were to listen, I would keep it at a lower volume and [wear] both ears together,” Lewis says. “When you listen to sound with both ears… basically, your brain adds up the volume from both ears. It doesn’t actually affect your inner ear or those structures that we usually think about when we think about hearing damage, because you can keep it just a little bit lower.”

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