What Are Earplugs: Everything You Need to Know

Earplugs can help you cope in noisy environments (From: Pixabay)
Earplugs can help you cope in noisy environments (From: Pixabay)

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Block out the noise and get the peace you deserve as we delve into everything you need to know about earplugs.

Earplugs are devices inserted into the ear canal to safeguard your ears from loud noises, water intrusion, dust, or other foreign bodies.

But while that sounds simple enough, not all earplugs are made the same. With several earplug variants and potential risks, making the right pick might be overwhelming.

Good news! This guide answers your questions about earplugs by providing background on how they work and an overview of their different types. Read on!

What Are Earplugs?

Earplugs are devices worn to protect against noise or foreign bodies (such as dust and water) finding their way into the ear.

However, earplugs are primarily utilized to mitigate loud noises that can cause hearing damage.

The CDC qualifies loud noise as sounds above 70 decibels (dB).

Properly fitted earplugs can dampen sounds by 15-30 dB. This value is determined using the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) — a metric gauging how much sound hearing protection devices, such as earplugs, can block in dB.

That said, earplugs aren’t the only hearing protection devices in the world. Earmuffs are also noise-protection tools, and it’s common for people to confuse them with the former.

The most significant difference between both is that earplugs are small tubular devices inserted inside the ear canal, while earmuffs feature a headband design worn around the outside of your ear.

The first earplugs were invented by Ohropax in 1907 to help people cope with the noise pollution prevalent during the late 19th century. These earplugs consisted mainly of wax, and it wasn’t until 1960 that silicone earplugs found their way to the market.

Types of Earplugs

Diverse types of earplugs exist, each made with distinct materials for specific purposes. To help you choose the best hearing protection device for your needs, we’ve outlined the different kinds of earplugs below:

Foam earplugs

Close look at the Mack's Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs (From: Amazon)
Close look at the Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs (From: Amazon)

Foam earplugs consist of soft foam materials (mostly polyurethane) that you can roll into a compressed cylinder and insert in your ear.

These earplugs expand to fit your ear canal, providing excellent hearing protection in noisy workplaces and neighborhoods.

However, while foam earplugs are excellent at noise reduction, they get dirty easily and can be a breeding ground for bacteria. As such, you should only use them once before discarding them.

If you think foam earplugs are for you, we’d recommend the Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs with 33 dB NRR (the highest NRR for earplugs so far) or Flents Quiet Please Foam Ear Plugs with 29 dB NRR.

Pre-molded earplugs

Close look at the Tasco 9010 Tri-Grip Pre-Molded Earplugs (From: Amazon)
Close look at the Tasco 9010 Tri-Grip Pre-Molded Earplugs (From: Amazon)

Pre-molded earplugs are often designed from silicone, rubber, or plastic materials. They typically feature a stem and 3-4 soft flanges attached to it, or they can come in a rubbery cone design.

The unique designs of pre-molded earplugs are why they’re usually manufactured as one-size-fits-most or in various sizes for small, medium, or large ear canals.

Unfortunately, this approach may not be for everyone. Some individuals may require different sizes for each ear to ensure the earplugs fit without causing discomfort. You may need a professional fitting to determine which size works best for your ear canal.

A crucial benefit of pre-molded earplugs is that they’re washable and reusable, offering slightly longer lifespans than foam earplugs. If fitted properly, these earplugs also feature watertight seals, which makes them ideal for swimming.

Our top picks for pre-molded earplugs are 3M Corded Reusable Earplugs and Loop Quiet Ear Plugs for Noise Reduction, with NRRs of 25 dB and 27 dB, respectively.

Moldable earplugs

Vegpoet Reusable Moldable Silicone Earplugs
Vegpoet Reusable Moldable Silicone Earplugs (From: Amazon)

Moldable earplugs are made of either wax or silicone putty and conform to any ear’s shape due to their unique designs. Fitted over the ear canal instead of inside it, moldable earplugs rank among the most comfortable earplug variants.

These earplugs not only shield you from loud noises but also efficiently keep water out of your ear canal, making them an excellent swimming safety accessory.

We’d recommend Alpine SoftSilicone Moldable Silicone Putty Ear Plugs (21 dB NRR) and Decibullz – Custom Molded Earplugs (31 dB NRR) as our top choices for moldable earplugs.

Acoustic-filtered earplugs

Close look at Alpine MusicSafe Pro (From: Amazon)
Close look at Alpine MusicSafe Pro (From: Amazon)

Acoustic-filtered earplugs don’t offer complete noise reduction like other earplugs.

These earplugs use acoustic filters to reduce loud noise to a healthy level while still allowing you to communicate.

These filters work similarly to a funnel. They reduce the volume entering your ears without really filtering off any particular frequencies. Typically, it causes an even, uniform attenuation across all frequencies, with little to no muffling.

For musicians and concert lovers, these filters ensure they still hear the ambient music clearly, but the volume is limited to a safer level.

Our recommended acoustic-filtered earplugs are Vibes High-Fidelity Earplugs (15 dB NRR) and Alpine MusicSafe Pro High-Fidelity Music Earplugs (22 dB NRR).

Electronic earplugs

Close look at Walker’s Silencer BT 2.0 (From: Amazon)
Close look at Walker’s Silencer BT 2.0 (From: Amazon)

Electronic earplugs have electronic circuits that allow them to listen to your surroundings in real time and let safe sounds (like conversations) pass through unhindered, while protecting your hearing.

Likewise, some electronic earplugs offer sound amplification — an attribute that increases low-level sounds.

This feature works when the earplugs’ strategically positioned microphones detect background sounds you can’t hear with an uncovered ear. Afterward, it amplifies these noises, playing them via earmuffs-positioned speakers.

This works great for hunting, as you’ll be able to hear the rustle of leaves or any sound your target may make.

Despite these, the electronic earplugs’ main purpose is still to protect your hearing.

Once electronic earplugs detect sounds reaching dangerous levels, they’ll automatically disable amplification and resort to passive protection for noise mitigation. Amplification restarts immediately after the loud noise ends.

The timeline between electronic earplugs disabling amplification and blocking high-volume sounds is called the attack time. The faster the attack time, the better. If slow, the probability of loud noises reaching your ears before getting shut out increases.

Due to their unique noise-canceling qualities, electronic earplugs work well to provide hearing protection during shooting practices and hunting.

If you’re a hunting enthusiast, ACT FIRE Shooting Ear Protection (22 dB NRR) and Earmor Electronic Shooting Ear Protection (26 dB NRR) can guarantee auditory safety while in the woods with your buddies.

Risks and Benefits of Using Earplugs

The merits of earplugs as hearing protection devices are numerous. However, instances also exist where they can cause harm. Let’s take a look at the advantages and side effects of wearing earplugs.

Benefits of wearing earplugs

Improved sleep

Constant sleep disruptions extend the timeline your body requires to enter deep sleep, which is essential after a hectic workday.

If you’re a light sleeper or live in a noisy neighborhood, sleeping with earplugs is an effective way to escape the rowdy disturbances threatening your night-time rest.

That way, you’ll enjoy improved sleep and its associated benefits, including sharper cognitive functions, safer blood sugar, and weight control.

Protection from noise-induced hearing loss

Noise-induced hearing loss causes damage to the nerve fibers in the inner ear due to consistent exposure to extremely loud sounds.

Medical data highlights the fact that about 10 million adults below 70 in the US have hearing loss in one or both ears due to high-pitched sounds.

With that said, the average NRR on earplugs is between 15-30 dB.

For example, if you’re using a gas-powered lawn mower with 85 dB noise, Alpine SoftSilicone Earplugs (21 dB NRR) can lower the noise to 64 dB.

With noise levels under 70 dB considered safe, these earplugs offer adequate protection from noise-induced hearing loss.

Risks of using earplugs

Ear infection

One of the many misconceptions surrounding earplugs is that they can cause ear infections. Yet it’s your usage and maintenance that causes infections, not the earplugs themselves.

For instance, there have been cases of people experiencing ear infections due to extreme wax buildup in the ear canal.

This happens because, ideally, the wax in our ears should filter out the ear canal without any help. However, using earplugs too frequently prevents earwax from draining out.

Constantly wearing earplugs also leads to humidity and moisture buildup in your ear canal, making the ear a breeding ground for bacteria and possible infection.

Furthermore, dirty earplugs contribute to bacterial growth in the ear. Earwax primarily helps trap bacteria and other germs, preventing them from damaging the eardrum. Whenever we use earplugs, they come in contact with earwax and these microbes.

With time, our earplugs’ surfaces become ridden with earwax and the accompanying bacteria.

Every time we insert such earplugs into our ears, we reintroduce bacteria into their canal, increasing the risk of infection.

Washing your earplugs regularly is a recommended practice to limit the buildup of wax and bacteria on their surfaces.


Similar to ear infections, earplugs do not cause vertigo directly; it again depends on usage.

As mentioned earlier, using earplugs too often can lead to excessive wax buildup.

Earplugs can push impacted wax against your eardrum, causing vertigo symptoms like dizziness and nausea.

Impacted earwax can also lead to ear infections, with vertigo being a common sign of these conditions. Some individuals have also cited cases where using specific types of earplugs led to ear infections and vertigo.

Hearing loss

Hearing loss from using earplugs typically occurs due to extreme wax buildup. As you use your earplugs constantly and earwax builds up over time, you may experience muffled hearing or temporary hearing loss.

Ear infections and damage to some parts of the ear (such as the eardrum) due to excessive or inappropriate use of earplugs can also affect your hearing.

When Should You Wear Earplugs?

Wearing earplugs is recommended for environments characterized by loud noise levels. Therefore, you must wear one when around gunfire, aircraft, explosives, motorcycles, loud workplaces (like construction sites), or loud music.

The CDC states that sounds above 70 dB can damage your hearing after a prolonged period, and loud noise over 120 dB causes instant harm to your ears. That’s why, if you are constantly exposed to such loud noises, wearing earplugs is a must.

For context, high-pitched sounds can damage the hair cells and auditory nerves in your ears, resulting in hearing defects.

Aside from hearing loss, research states that noise can cause stress and affect our health. Constant noise exposure disrupts sleep, raising stress levels over time.

Increased stress is directly linked with high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.

Reports show that 1.5 million people die annually in Western Europe due to consistent exposure to traffic noise.

With the drawbacks associated with loud noises, earplugs are essential. However, ensure your chosen variant has the NRR required to mitigate hazardous sounds and protect your hearing.


Earplugs are one of the most effective methods to protect our ears from the dangers of loud noise.

However, despite their benefits, there are risks associated with using them too often. As such, it’s best to ensure you use them properly with adequate maintenance.

Got any tips about wearing or choosing earplugs? Or, do you have any earplugs-related stories you’d like to tell? Let us know in the comments below!

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