Headphones, both in-ear and over-the-ear, have become integral aspects of most people’s lives, especially since Apple introduced AirPods to the market in 2016. Since then, Apple has continued to release new generations of AirPods and sales have continued to grow. In fact, in the holiday quarter of 2021, Apple reported to have sold 90 million units of AirPods.
Headphones allow us to listen to music and videos, and have personal conversations easily, but are these pieces of technology harming our ears?
Dr. Sherlyn Benois-Green, professor of audiology, said that both in-ear and over-the-ear headphones can lead to hearing loss when users go beyond a safe volume and duration.
“Anything you use on your ears can potentially harm your ears, but it is more so time-weighted,” Benois-Green said. “Regardless of if you are using headphones or earbuds, it is the amount of time that you are using it and the volume it is set at that is going to take precedence. They both have the potential of creating damage.”
Noise-induced ear damage results when loud or excessive noise damages outer and inner hair cells in the ear. Everyone is born with a certain number of hair cells, and these cells are essential in conducting sound through the ear system. While these hair cells naturally deteriorate with age, this deterioration can occur more rapidly due to acoustic trauma, which can stem from the use of headphones and earbuds.
Although Benois-Green stressed that time and volume are the most important factors in determining the potential for hearing loss, in-ear headphones can have greater potential to harm the ear because of the proximity of the headphone to the eardrum.
“Potentially, anything in the ear is going to enhance sound probably louder than something over the ear, so if you had to choose one that is more potentially harmful, it is in the ear that can sometimes augment the volume because it is seated deep inside the ear next to the eardrum,” Benois-Green said.
Benois-Green warned that ordinary headphones damage hearing when the volume level exceeds 80-85 decibels. In situations where someone experiences intense volume, ear damage can occur quickly.
“Ideally, as a general rule, if somebody next to you knows what you are listening to, it is too loud,” Benois-Green said.
In-ear headphones can also contribute to other ear issues such as ear infections when not sanitized between uses, although other factors such as susceptibility to ear infections play major roles as well.
“Wearing headphones for long periods of time can cause humidity which can attract bacteria,” said Klarissa Valdez, senior communication sciences and disorders major. “This can lead to an ear infection, which can cause damage to the ear.”
Hearing loss is often accompanied by signs such as tinnitus, a condition characterized by ringing or buzzing in the ear. Benois-Green said it is important to prioritize preserving the hearing capabilities someone has after hearing loss has occurred because it is often permanent.
Benois-Green said that presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, used to be the main cause of hearing loss. However, there has been a shift in the cause of most cases of hearing loss.
“Presbycusis is not the number one cause of hearing loss anymore,” Benois-Green said. “The No. 1 cause of hearing loss now is noise exposure. It is not uncommon anymore to see someone who is 30 or 40 who needs hearing aids. It is typically what we are doing recreationally or occupationally.”
In fact, a 2017 study found on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, found a correlation between listening habits and poorer hearing capabilities in young people.
“The results indicated that longer lifetime exposure in years and increased listening frequency were associated with poorer hearing thresholds and more self-reported hearing problems,” the study said. “A tendency was found for listening to louder volumes and poorer hearing thresholds.”
To prevent hearing loss, Benois-Green suggests keeping headphone volume under 50-60 decibels and taking breaks from wearing headphones when using them for long periods of time. Valdez also recommends using noise-canceling headphones to avoid the need to raise the volume to drown outside noises. Apple also offers a feature in the Health app that tracks headphone audio levels so iPhone users can ensure they are using headphones at healthy volume levels.