I’ve been using earplugs at night off and on for many years now. The sound of a dripping tap in the bathroom is enough to keep me awake, so if I can hear snoring or traffic, I’m doomed to a sleepless night without earplugs.
In 2017, I did an extensive review of the best sleep earplugs, and in doing so discovered that there are some important points to bear in mind, both when choosing them and using them properly.
So in this article, I’ll be answering the key questions that arose. Hopefully it will help you understand which type to choose, how well you can expect them to reduce noise, and how to use them safely.
- How much noise can earplugs reduce?
- Is it safe to use earplugs for sleep?
- Tips for using earplugs safely.
- Which type of earplug to use?
- Advice for inserting and removing foam earplugs.
- Alternatives to earplugs
1. How much noise can earplugs reduce?
How good a new set of earplugs will be at reducing noise is impossible to accurately predict, as it depends on several factors:
- The official noise reduction rating of the earplug.
- The type and volume of noise.
- How close you are to the noise source.
- Your hearing.
- How effectively you manage to fit the earplug.
What do noise reduction ratings mean?
One of the ways to predict how well earplugs might work is to check their official noise reduction rating (NRR). And understanding how those ratings work can get quite technical if you explore them in depth!
The short explanation
The noise reduction rating is the average amount of noise that the earplugs might be able to reduce.
For example, if the volume of your partner’s snoring is around 60 decibels, and the NRR of the earplugs is 29 decibels, then you might only hear 31 decibels.
So when choosing earplugs, it makes sense that those with the maximum NRR of 33 dB are more likely to do better than those with a lower rating of 20 dB.
Sadly, it’s not as simple as that though as there’s a lot of variation in how well earplugs work. But the main point to remember is that a higher NRR could mean better sound reduction than lower ratings.
The long explanation
The NRR is a unit of measurement which determines how well hearing protection devices can decrease the amount of noise you hear in decibels (dB).
The score reflects their average sound reduction (also referred to as attenuation) in laboratory tests. As the earplug manufacturer 3M states in an education article, this score is the average of 10 people who are all have the protection device or earplugs fitted by an expert.
An example NRR
10 people are tested with the same earplugs in the laboratory. The range of noise reduction they experience is from 15 to 30 dB. But the average works out at 28 dB.
As long as the testing is approved by the country’s standards board, the manufacturer can put 28 dB on their packaging. But if you check the information leaflet carefully, you might find they give a possible range as well.
What does that NRR mean for you?
Say you buy the earplugs with a NRR of 29 dB, and you sleep with a snorer who for the sake of example snores at an average sound level of 60 dB.
Logically, you’d imagine that all you need to do is subtract 29 from 60, with the result being that you only hear 31 dB of noise.
However, there are two problems with that calculation!
Firstly, you might get more or less than 29 dB, depending on other factors like the shape of your ear canal and how well you insert the earplug; it’s just an average.
Secondly, and more importantly, when you check the advice provided by manufacturers of ear protection equipment, they state that the NRR isn’t in fact the amount of dB you can subtract from the environmental noise.
Both the 3M and Cooper websites suggest doing the following calculation: take the NRR, subtract 7 and then divide by 2. Finally, you can take that off the environmental noise.
So in my above example, 29 dB minus 7 = 22. 22 divided by 2 = 11. Take 11 from your snoring partner’s 60 dB, and you have 49 dB of their snoring still getting through.
Sounds a bit disappointing, right?
Managing your expectations
When you understand how noise reduction ratings work, it helps explain why earplugs are sometimes disappointing. So I think it’s important to take two key points away from this:
- Remember that the NRR is just an average, and that you personally could get more or less noise reduction.
- Be aware that you can’t expect to completely block loud noise. The best you can hope for is to reduce it to a level that you can hopefully tolerate.
Average noise levels
The highest NRR score I’ve seen for earplugs is 33. The rating system in Europe is different so you might see SNR scores instead of NRR, and I’ve seen these up to 36 dB. But when I compared them to the US system, they were less than 33 dB.
Now, remembering that in reality you’ll get less than 33 dB anyway, when you look at the average noises below, you can understand why earplugs will struggle to completely block most noise!
|Quiet office or residential area, library||40|
|Large office, quiet washing machine||50|
|Loud alarm clock, sewing machine, vacuum cleaner||60 - 80|
|Doorbell, ringing telephone, loud snoring||80|
|Shouting, truck, blender, tractor||90|
How much noise can you really block then?
You’ll never know the exact amount, of course, but it’s helpful to remember these points about variation and sound reduction to avoid disappointment.
My experience has been that good earplugs can almost completely block out low volume environmental noise. But loud noise that’s close by, like loud snoring, music or televison is usually reduced rather than blocked 100%.
2. Is it safe to use earplugs for sleep?
There doesn’t appear to be a black or white answer to the question of earplug safety. Using earplugs themselves isn’t thought to be inherently dangerous – as long as you follow the instructions properly and adhere to the general safety advice below.
The first worry is not being able to remove them, which is one reason I’m not a fan of wax or silicon (or very small earplugs).
Even though they aren’t supposed to go in as deep as foam earplugs, the fact that wax and silicon don’t reduce as much noise means I’m tempted to push them in a bit further to get a better seal.
Then when they then warm up and become flexible, it can be harder to dig them out in the morning with my finger tip.
And although most sources say it’s fine to use earplugs for sleep, tabloid horror stories like the one reported in the Daily Mail might make you think twice about using them.
Discomfort and too much pressure
If you’ve tried different earplugs in the past, you’re probably aware that the level of comfort can vary a lot depending on the specific earplug type, size and the way you insert or remove it.
A badly fitted earplug can be uncomfortable, and you do need to be careful to avoid problems created by the pressure created behind the earplug.
To avoid discomfort, avoid hard earplugs or those that feel too big for your ear canal. Never push them in too far, and remove them slowly – especially foam earplugs. You can find foam earplugs made from softer foam if you find them uncomfortable. And silicon can either form a seal rather than go into your ear canal, or even be custom molded.
Your ears are actually self-cleaning, thanks to Cerumen – known more commonly as earwax. Your ears produce the wax naturally to protect you from things like dirt, dust, insects and water as well as helping prevent bacteria and provide lubrication.
Your body then naturally pushes the earwax and the substances trapped in it out of the ear canal, where it’s washed away when you clean yourself.
Using earplugs incorrectly, or too much, can block that self-cleaning process and lead to the compaction of earwax. And that might result in problems such as pain, discomfort, worse hearing or tinnitus.
Your ear canals are warm and moist places where bacteria will happily grow given the chance. By using old or dirty earplugs, there’s an increased risk of ear infections from bacteria or fungal growth. Foam earplugs are thought to carry a higher risk, which is why it’s essential to discard them as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
I know from personal experience that it’s tempting to keep using them when they don’t visibly look dirty, or give them a wash and keep them alive a little longer. Considering their low cost though, there’s no real need to do this.
3. Tips for using earplugs safely
- Try not to use earplugs every night – give your ears a break.
- Wash and dry your hands before inserting them.
- Never push them in too deeply.
- Remove foam earplugs slowly and with a twisting motion.
- Find the right size and comfort for your ears. If large earplugs feel uncomfortable, try a smaller size. Try to find the softest foam possible that still reduces enough noise.
- If they are reusable, follow the cleaning instructions carefully.
- remember that all foam earplugs have limited uses.
- When using silicon or wax, follow the instructions for insertion carefully – they don’t go in deeply like foam do.
- Don’t use them for longer than the manufacturer states. If foam are one use only, or until visibly dirty, then don’t be tempted to keep using them.
- Store the earplugs in a cool, dry environment.
- Although you can get small packs of just a few pairs, it’s perhaps worth buying larger packs of 50-200 so you don’t feel you need to make them last.
- Test you can hear alarms, smoke detectors or your small children crying when you get new earplugs.
Practice good ear hygiene
Most people don’t tend to think much about their ear health until they encounter a problem. But it’s a positive habit to develop, and important if you’re a regular earplug user.
There’s a useful article about proper ear care on the website of the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Here are some of the key actions they recommend:
- Only clean your outer ears with a wash cloth to remove wax.
- Don’t insert anything into your ears to clean them – avoid cotton tipped swabs which can compact wax further and damage your ear drum.
- Don’t use ear candles.
- Have regular check-ups if you’re prone to ear wax compaction.
In addition, it’s useful to get regular check-ups with a doctor or hearing specialist. If you’re in the UK, Specsavers now offer hearing tests and checkups.
4. Which type of earplug to use?
The most commonly used type of earplug when sleeping is foam. But there are other types available for those that can’t, or don’t want, to use foam. Let’s take a look at what each type offers.
The vast majority of earplugs made specifically for sleep are foam, and they are always disposable. Some manufacturers advise discarding them after one use, and others after 2 or 3 uses or when they look dirty.
Foam earplugs usually have higher noise reduction ratings than other types. And in my experience the best foam earplugs definitely do a much better job at reducing sound than wax, silicon or plastic.
The main problem is that they do sit deeper in the ear canal than wax or silicon and can feel uncomfortable, so the safety advice I talk about in this article is important to remember.
If you use foam earplugs, you might find you need to try different ones until you find the right size and comfort level. This can take a bit of time, but is definitely worth doing in my experience.
Silicon moldable earplugs
Some earplugs are made from a malleable silicon putty, lasting for a few nights usually. The main plus is that they don’t go into the ear canal, only forming a seal over the ear opening.
So if you don’t like the feeling of foam expanding in your ear, they are worth considering. It also means they can be molded to fit any ear size.
However, by covering the ear rather than filling it with a muffling foam, the level of noise reduction tends to much less. For example, a popular brand is Mack’s Pillow Soft, which have a NRR of 22 decibels. Compare that to foam ones with 30-33 decibels, and there’s a big difference.
And that’s exactly what I found when I did my earplug review. Although very comfortable to use, they won’t help much if you have loud snoring right next to your head!
Natural wax earplugs are another option for those that don’t like using foam. The NRR tends to be a little higher than silicon, for example 23 for Ohropax and 27 for Quies. But again, still not as high as most foam earplugs.
Like the silicon earplugs, they don’t go in as deep as foam earplugs, though they can end up warming up and going in further than you intend. I personally find them sticky and a bit messy to use. They warm up in the ear and then become a little tricky to remove in the morning.
Soft plastic reusable earplugs
There are reusable earplugs made from soft plastic that can be cleaned and used many times.
The Alpine SleepSoft, for example, only provide one set in a box, along with a little cleaning tool.
Personally, I haven’t been very impressed by any of the plastic earplugs I’ve tried. I think they are perhaps more useful for sporting and entertainment events than sleep.
Custom molded earplugs
You can get custom molded earplug kits or have them made for you by a hearing specialist or earplug company specializing in this type.
Some of the home kits give you different options, such as the Decibullz, which provide different sized silicon tips and the thermoplastic mold can be reshaped more than once if you don’t get it right.
And you also have an option to add or remove an extra plug, depending on how much you want to be able to hear.
They are more expensive than disposible earplugs, but then last much longer. And despite that initial expense, and even with a professional fit, they still don’t usually provide as much sound reduction as foam.
Again, my feeling is that these are better for daily activities rather than sleep. In my experience, you feel them more in the ear, especially when sleeping on your side, and they tend to fall out more easily.
Industrial or sleep earplugs?
One thing worth noting is the difference between earplugs made specifically for sleep and those made for industrial or entertainment purposes.
Some of the best foam earplugs – like the 3M 1100, Howard Leights and Moldex – are made primarily with construction workers in mind. They are excellent at reducing sound, but aren’t always as soft as some made for sleep, such as the Mack’s ultrasoft.
I personally invest in giant boxes of 200 earplugs meant for the building site, as it saves money and I’m happy to have a slightly denser foam as long as it cuts out noise and helps me sleep.
But if you have sensitive ears, you might need to sacrifice a bit of noise reduction to ensure you get the right level of comfort.
5. Advice for inserting and removing foam earplugs
Most earplugs come with instructions for insertion. Here are some detailed instructions I’ve combined from the 3M, Mack’s and Moldex information leaflets:
- Check if the earplug is torn or damaged, and discard if it is.
- Wash and rinse your hands before inserting.
- Roll between your fingers into a tight, crease free cylinder until fully compressed.
- Reach over your head with the opposite hand and pull the top of your ear to open the ear canal.
- Insert the rolled earplug slowly and firmly into your ear. If it’s one that expands very quickly, you might need to insert it a little faster.
- keep it in place in your ear with a finger tip until it expands and noise reduces.
The thing you need to remember when removing foam earplugs is to do it slowly and with a twisting motion. Here are two important reminders from earplug manufacturers:
Mack’s: ‘remove earplug slowly with a twisting motion to gradually break the seal. Rapid removal may damage eardrum.’
Moldex: ‘sudden or fast removal of the ear plugs out of the ear canal may damage the eardrum.’
6. Alternatives to earplugs
If you have serious noise problems at night, there are other options you can explore. If the noise is coming from outside the bedroom, a white noise machine can help to mask the sound. They aren’t so effective against a partner’s snoring, but can work well for other noise.
Another good option is to listen to music. If you can afford it, using high quality noise cancelling headphones can make a big difference. There are also fabric headphones for sleeping you might like to try.
And finally, for even more tips on dealing with noise, you might find some of the ideas useful in my article about reducing noise in the bedroom.
Your questions and thoughts
If you have any questions about using earplugs, I’m happy to help out in the comments below. And if there’s a specific one you’ve seen me write about in my earplug review, feel free to ask here too.
Finally, if you have any thoughts you’d like to add about using earplugs in general, or which work type best for you, I’d love to hear from you.