Are Headphones Hurting Your Hearing?

Most of us have learned to love headphones and earphones (aka earbuds), especially in this era of Zoom calls, podcasts, and playlists. They connect us to conversations and let us listen to our favorite content in private.

But every time we increase the volume a notch or two to hear better, that worry creeps up: Could these devices cause hearing loss?

What does the research say about headphones and hearing loss?

One study, published in Noise and Health, explored headphone listening habits and hearing thresholds in Swedish adolescents. Results indicated that listening at louder volumes, or more frequently, was associated with “poorer hearing thresholds and more self-reported hearing problems.” Another study found that university students who used earphones more frequently had worse hearing than those who didn’t. Both studies correlated longer lifetime exposure with poorer hearing.

To put the risk in perspective, also consider that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a shocking 1.1 billion young people worldwide—or 50 percent of those ages 12 to 35—could be at risk of developing future noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) due to unsafe listening practices. 

How do headphones cause hearing loss?

Hearing loss caused by headphones and earbuds is an example of NIHL. To understand NIHL, it’s important to know how our ears work. The cochlea is a spiral-shaped organ found within the inner ear that contains delicate hearing cells called hair cells. When vibrations from soundwaves move through the inner ear, the hair cells capture those signals and then send them to our brain to be processed as sound. 

Exposure to loud sound increases the force of these vibrations, and if they are too intense, or last too long, the hair cells weaken. Repeated exposure to loud noise can cause the hair cells to be damaged beyond repair, which results in NIHL.

Damaged inner ear hair cells

Damaged hair cells inside the cochlea of the inner ear.

Unfortunately, once the hair cells in your inner ear are destroyed, there is no way to restore them. (Though you cannot cure hearing loss, you can improve your ability to hear using hearing aids or implants.)

Headphones and earbuds pose a particular risk because people have a tendency to turn up the volume, and listen for long periods of time. If you wear head- or earphones and turn up the volume to drown out background noise, you’re probably doing more damage than you realize.

How do I use my headphones safely?

It’s possible to reduce the risk of hearing loss from headphones and earbuds. The WHO took a closer look at hearing loss due to recreational exposure to loud sounds. This investigation identified the following as key factors in NIHL: sound intensity (volume), duration of exposure, and distance from the sound source.

Here’s how to protect your ears by taking control of these variables when wearing headphones or earbuds:

  • Lower the volume. This simple move is the most effective thing you can do to protect your hearing. The recommended safe volume level is below 85 dB. For iPhone users, apps and settings can be used to help track volume levels on personal audio devices.
  • Take regular breaks: Sound intensity doubles with every 3dB increase. So each time the volume increases by even a little bit, hearing damage can occur in roughly half the time it otherwise would. And the difference between temporary and permanent damage to your hearing can be just a matter of minutes.
  • Opt for noise-reduction headphones. Wearing earbuds or headphones with good noise-cancellation can help buffer external noise. By minimizing or filtering out external sounds, these devices allow you to hear just as well at a lower volume.
  • Apply the 80-90 rule. The 80-90 rule means listening at 80 percent of your device's maximum volume for no longer than 90 minutes and per day. If you turn it down, you can listen for more time.  If you turn it up, you get less time.  At 60% of the maximum volume, you could listen all day, every day, safely. 

Focusing on a safer future for our ears

Following the tips above is important, but there are other solutions in the works. In 2019, the WHO, along with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), published guidelines for a new generation of headsets that will minimize the possibility of hearing loss. The standards were developed under WHO’s Make Listening Safe initiative, which seeks to improve listening practices, especially among young people as they stream music through their personal audio devices. Hopefully, these specifications (which are currently voluntary) will be widely adopted, making headphone use safer for all in the years ahead.

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested wearing headphones instead of earbuds, but it has come to our attention that the academic literature does not support this advice. In fact, studies show that preferred listening levels do not differ substantially whether you are using earbuds or headphones. We have also updated the outdated 60/60 rule in favor of the more contemporary 80-90 rule.