An ear plug or hearing protector is a device that can be inserted into the ear canal to protect the wearer against noise, water, dust, wind and other materials that can enter the ear canal.
Protection against noise
Some ear plugs or hearing protectors are specially designed to protect the user against loud sounds and noise. They are used in situations such as working in noisy environments, pop concerts, festivals, or for hobbies including riding a motor bike or DIY.
Protection against water
Ear plugs and hearing protectors are available that are specially designed to keep water out of the ear canal, mainly during swimming or other water sports. The latest trend in the field of hearing protection or ear plugs against water is reusable silicone hearing protectors. The main reason for protecting your hearing against water is hygiene.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau (the French explorer, film-maker and captain) warned about the risk involved in divers, especially deep sea divers, using earplugs. Deep sea divers breathe using oxygen that comes from pressurised tanks, which contain oxygen that is at the same pressure as the environment surrounding the diver — the water pressure. This level of pressure also applies to the ear, but not to the space between the hearing protector and the eardrum. This creates pressure behind the eardrum that is many times greater than the pressure between the hearing protector and the eardrum, which results in the eardrum giving way under the pressure. Divers who don’t use oxygen tanks when diving are not affected by this risk, as the level of pressure in the body stays the same as the air pressure between the earplug and the eardrum.
Generally speaking, there are two types of hearing protection:
- Disposable hearing protection or ear plugs, intended to be used once only, usually made of foam. They are compressed before being inserted into the ear canal, where they expand to seal it off.
- Reusable hearing protection or ear plugs, intended for repeated use, often made of silicone and also available in a flanged design. Elacin refers to these ear plugs as Universal hearing protection. Reusable hearing protection also includes custom-made hearing protection; this type of hearing protector or ear plug is made specially to suit the user.
Hearing protection and ear plugs for musicians
Most performers and musicians wear earplugs to protect themselves from their own noise — as do DJs. Ear plugs for musicians are designed to attenuate the incoming sound evenly and proportionally; in other words, the attenuation does not affect the ability to distinguish between high, low and middle tones. This is also referred to as flat attenuation.
If used properly, reusable and disposable ear plugs (with the exception of custom-made hearing protection) provide an average attenuation of around 40 dB and are not intended for subtle attenuation.
Custom-made hearing protection and ear plugs for musicians are designed to have a precise fit with the user’s hearing. An audiologist makes an impression of the ear and sends it to the laboratory for processing. Companies like Elacin then use these impressions to create custom-made hearing protectors that allow various filters to be inserted, depending on the attenuation requirements. This type of hearing protector gives the flattest attenuation and the best protection against external noise. This type of earplug is particularly popular with musicians, Djs, sound engineers and professionals in the music industry.
Motor bike riders as well as yachtsmen and skiers can benefit from using hearing protection as they spend long periods exposed to loud noises like engine noise, or the wind booming against their helmet.
Electronic hearing protection
The sound-reducing characteristics of passive ear plugs (without added electronics) attenuate both the loud and quiet sounds equally, which may result in difficulty hearing quiet sounds. Active hearing protection provides a solution to this situation. These ear plugs can attenuate loud sounds whilst letting quiet sounds pass through unimpeded, and may even amplify them slightly. This can be done by expanding passive hearing protectors with a microphone and speaker combination, with the microphone on the outside and the speaker inside the ear plug. This provides slight amplification for quiet sounds, but the microphone will not trigger if the ambient noise is too loud. This type of hearing protection can be useful for hunters, for example — allowing them to perceive even the softest rustling in the undergrowth but protecting them against the noise of a gunshot.
Hearing protection for sleeping
Ear plugs that are meant to be worn while sleeping have to fit comfortably while still offering effective noise attenuation. This type of earplug attenuates the noise from a snoring partner, but still lets you hear your alarm properly.
The pressure on your ear when you place your head on the pillow can cause pain and even the smallest movement of your jaw or neck can result in deformation of the ear canal, meaning you can feel where the ear plugs are inserted and can no longer sleep. Producing effective earplugs to wear while sleeping is an enormous challenge because of the high level of comfort that is required.
Generally speaking, hearing protection and ear plugs are safe to use but there are some precautions that you can take to ensure this:
- Inserting hearing protectors can cause an increase in air pressure in the ear, because it cannot escape — this can cause pain. You can also experience this pain if you place your head on a pillow, for example, or if disposable foam ear plugs are pushed too far into the ear canal. The best way to avoid this risk is to compress the foam ear plugs when you insert them. Conversely, the pressure difference can occur when you want to remove the ear plugs. You can avoid this negative pressure by removing the ear plugs using a rotating motion, instead of simply pulling them out. This health risk does not apply to custom-made hearing protection, as they are designed so they cannot be inserted too far into the ear canal. The filters are usually ventilated, which prevents a pressure difference from building up.
- If you push ear plugs too far into the ear canal, you may press earwax and other dirt against the eardrum. To stop this from happening, you should only push ear plugs in as far as necessary, so you can remove them again. This risk does not apply to custom-made hearing protection — these ear plugs are designed to fit precisely into the ear canal, so they can never be inserted too deeply.
- It is possible for an allergic reaction to occur when using ear plugs. This is very rare, however, because hearing protection and ear plugs are made from non-allergenic materials, or are processed with it in some other manner.
Use over longer periods
We recommend custom-made hearing protection for long-term use. This type of ear plug is most comfortable and gentlest on the skin — and it can also not be inserted too far into the ear canal.