A guide to different types of earplugs to help you choose ones which are right for you.
Wearing earplugs in a noisy place or when doing a task which makes a loud sound, can help to protect your hearing. There are lots of different types of earplugs available. Some block out sound completely, others can enhance what you hear.
Whatever the earplug, you need to make sure you fit them correctly. Read the instructions first and if you need extra help, you should find help on YouTube.
Here’s some information about different sorts of earplugs. What you need will depend on the situation you are using them for (see our guide to how loud is loud to see some examples of sound levels for every day tasks). For each type of earplug, we have covered the good things about them (the pros) and the downsides (the cons). We’ve also included an estimate of cost and where you can get them.
Effectiveness and protection
The effectiveness of an ear plug is measured by attenuation. This is a measurement of the loss in intensity or how much the sound is ‘turned down by the ear plug’. The figure measures the potential loss of sound in decibels and is usually shown on the packaging of the ear plug.
To ensure that you are listening safely, an ear plug should reduce the volume of the sound to a safe level. A volume of 85dB is considered the limit for safe listening. So, as a basic guide you should think about the volume of the sound in the environment you are in and the advertised effectiveness of the ear plug. If the ear plug reduces the sound level to below 85dB, this is considered safe. For example:
A nightclub may be 106dB. With disposable ear plugs used correctly, the attenuation is 30db. So, 106dB – 30dB = 76dB so they are safe to use.
Here’s how to work it out – sound you hear – attenuation = 85dB or less
Pros: Disposable earplugs are widely available. They are usually made from foam, wax or silicone. They are cheap and fit everyone. They are reasonably comfortable and provide good attenuation if put in properly – up to 30dB. With care, and if kept clean, they can be re-used, but they should be thrown away if they are dirty or distorted.
Cons: These plugs work by blocking your ears so sound cannot get through. This means that overall volume will be reduced so they may not be the right plug to choose if you want to listen to music or hear people speak in noisy environments. They also give a loss of sound clarity in mid and high frequencies.
Cost and where to get them: Basic plugs made from foam, wax or silicone can be bought online, in high street chemists or supermarkets. Prices start from around £1 per pair if bought individually.
Universal fit – high fidelity attenuating earplugs
These earplugs are better for listening to music, for example at a concert or nightclub. They decrease the decibel level but maintain the clarity of the sound so you can hear the music and protect your ears from damage at the same time.
Pros: Universal fit earplugs are affordable and offer reasonable frequency response and clarity for listening to music. They are a good entry level attenuating earplug.
Cons: There only give a small choice of attenuation levels, although some have interchangeable filters with different levels. The strength of protection cannot be guaranteed as the fit is one-sized. This means that they might not perfectly fit your ear canal, which will reduce the protection given.
Cost and where to get them: These ear plugs can be bought online, in larger high street chemists and in music shops. The cheapest start at under £15, ones with more features range to around £30.
Custom moulded earplugs
If you regularly need to wear earplugs it might be worth having some made for you. They will be more comfortable and will have a perfect fit and seal to give the best possible protection.
Pros: With a perfect fit and seal, specific attenuation is assured. A range of attenuating high-fidelity filters are available, some with near flat frequency response, for different musical or environmental situations. The earplugs will have high fidelity sound quality which means they are the best for listening to music. They are available in fashionable colours and come with neck cords to reduce the chance of loss.
Cons: These are much more expensive than universal fit earplugs. You will need to regularly replace them as your ears change shape as you grow older. It is recommended that you do this every four years.
Cost and where to get them: Custom moulded earplugs start at around £140 per pair. They are available from high street hearing centres. The centre staff will take moulds of your ear canal and send them away to the earplug manufacturer for your ear plugs to be made.
In-ear monitors (IEMs)
In-ear monitors (IEMs) are high specification earphones used by musicians or DJs to hear their specific ‘monitor mix’ on stage and control their sound levels accordingly.
Pros: Out of all the earplugs available, these are the only ones that allow you to have control of your sound levels on stage. They give better high-fidelity sound quality. They can be custom moulded to provide comfort and the best level of isolation to the ear so that the sound quality and level can be accurately controlled. They are available in a range of audio specifications.
Cons: High specification custom moulded IEMs can be expensive. Some singers find it hard to work with IEMs. They require a very good sound / monitor engineer to gain the best benefit.
Cost and where to get them: The very best quality IEMs can be thousands of pounds but good quality universal fit IEMs start at around £150, and custom moulded start around £300. They are available from high street hearing centres. For a custom fit set, a healthcare professional will take moulds of your ear canal and send them away to the earplug manufacturer for your IEMs to be made.
Earmuffs consist of two cups to cover the external part of the ears with comfortable padding on the inside. The cups are connected by a band which fits over or behind the head to hold the cups in place. Earmuffs hearing protection devices that are worn over the head, like headphones.
Pros: Earmuffs provide more consistent protection than ear plugs. One size fits most heads. They are easy to put on and take off, which makes them good for short jobs.
Cons: Earmuffs are heavier than ear plugs and may be uncomfortable in hot environments. Glasses wearers may not get a good seal. Earmuffs may be more expensive than ear plugs. Earmuffs can also resonate (vibrate) at lower sound frequencies (<400 Hz)
Cost and where to get them: Earmuffs can be bought online, in DIY stores and builders merchants. The cheapest start at under £15, ones with more features range to around £90.