Skip to main content

Do Headphones Cause Hearing Loss? What the Science Says (2022)

Last updated: 3 weeks ago
7 min read

When misused, headphones can cause hearing loss. Something primarily youngsters should keep an eye on.

Learn everything about:

  • How common is hearing loss from headphones
  • What are the most common causes of hearing loss
  • How long is it safe to wear headphones

And other interesting information about hearing loss and headphone use in general.

Apple AirPods Max transparency mode

Do Headphones Cause Hearing Loss?

Contents:

Key Headphones and Hearing Loss Stats

  • 50% of young people risk hearing damage, with 1.1 billion of them due to listening to loud music.
  • 20% of teenagers will experience hearing loss due to listening to loud music via headphones.
  • 48 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, with 11 million of them considered deaf or seriously hard-hearing.
  • 11% of Americans suffer from tinnitus, while 5.9% complain about hypersensitivity to specific sounds.

Do Headphones Cause Hearing Loss?

Multiple studies have confirmed the link between hearing loss and long-term headphone use (NCBI).

You know when you’re listening to music, and all of a sudden, your favorite track starts playing? Admit it; you probably increase the volume. Don’t worry; we’ve all done it.

Short periods of loud music aren’t problematic. However, we tend to forget we raised to volume since our ears quickly adjust to the loudness. And once you increase the volume, it usually stays that way until we stop listening.

Youngsters who grew up with headphones and portable audio players are at the highest risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

Around 1.1 billion people 12 to 35 years old might have problems hearing later in life due to listening to loud music over headphones (WHO).

Around 1.1 billion people 12 to 35 years old might have problems with hearing due to listening to loud headphones

Based on the loudness graph below, you can see how quickly your hearing gets damaged and at what volume.

Humans already live in an unusually loud world (noisy workplace, loud power tools), and with improper headphone use, we’re making it even worse.

That is why 50% of young people risk hearing damage due to repeated exposure to loud sounds (WHO).

Are noise cancelling headphones bad for your hearing?

Noise cancelling headphones are actually good for protecting your hearing.

Loud ambient noise masks your music. Consequently, it forces you to crank up the headphone’s volume.

ANC technology reduces the ambient noise, which is why you don’t feel the need to blast your headphones to overpower the background noise.

How common is hearing loss from headphones?

Hearing loss from headphones is most common in the younger demographic under the age of 35.

Hearing loss from headphones is most common in younger people under the age of 35

That’s the same demographic that primarily uses portable gadgets and headphones to listen to music (Regain Hearing).

It’s estimated that 20% of teens will have some form of hearing loss due to listening to loud music. That’s 30% more compared to 20 years ago (Osteopathic Association).

Further research is needed to fully understand how dangerous are headphones to our hearing.

However, studies so far suggest that people who listen to headphones for more than 3 hours per day report having hearing problems (NCBI).

Is it bad to wear headphones all day?

While not recommended, it’s theoretically okay to wear headphones all day if you keep the volume below 60dB.

We already covered everything about recommended music loudness in our article about safe headphone volume.

However, ears (or, more accurately, brains) can get used to the loudness, which makes you want to raise the volume.

  • Therefore, if you feel like you have to raise the volume to hear the music better, take a break to recover your ears instead.

How long is it safe to wear headphones?

Hearing damage occurs at higher volumes and different speeds (or exposure times). The louder the volume, the faster your hearing gets damaged.

Loudness can quickly reaches unsafe levels, especially when jamming to your favorite songs. While you don’t think about, hearing damage can occur very quickly.

Listening to loud music via headphones can cause damage in 50 or merely 15 minutes. Concerts, which are usually louder (up to 120dB), can cause hearing damage in just a few minutes.

The graph below shows how fast the damage occurs at specific loudness. Knowing these facts and how you can compare them to other sounds around you should help you maintain healthier listening habits.

How loud is too loud?

Here’s a table of examples of noise loudness and max exposure:

LoudnessExampleExposure until damage
10dBBreathing/
20dBMosquitos/
30dBWhisper/
40dBQuiet room/
50dBModerate rainfall/
60dBNormal conversation/
70-80dBPassing trafficAround 8 hours
80-85dBPassing motorcycleAround 2 hours
90-95dBHairdryerAround 50 minutes
100dBChainsawAround 15 minutes
105dBLawnmowerAround 5 minutes
110dBTromboneAround 2 minutes
120dBPolice sirenAround 1 minute
130-150dBFireworksInstant damage
(CDC 3) (Harvard Health)

(CDC 3) (Harvard Health)

Can you go deaf from headphones?

You don’t go deaf by simply listening to headphones, but you will gradually damage your hearing.

People who regularly listen to headphones above recommended loudness (60dB and up) experience a slow but steady decline in hearing abilities.

Those who really blast their music at loud first experience tinnitus: constant ringing or buzzing in your ears.

On the other hand, those who are a bit more modest on the volume yet still listen above the recommended loudness gradually experience problems like:

  • Difficulties picking up other people’s speech in a noisy room
  • Having to raise the volume on a TV higher than before
  • Having to ask others to repeat what they just said

These are all the first warning signs that your hearing is getting worse, and it has something to do with how you use your headphones.

Afterward, if you don’t change your listening habits and continue raising the volume, your hearing problems will just get worse and worse.

Are headphones bad for your brain?

Listening to music over headphones doesn’t affect the brain, regardless of the volume or type of headphones.

There are no links to suggest headphones and loud music would cause brain damage.

On the other hand, loud music can cause nerve damage in your inner ear, which then leads to hearing loss.

Consequently, your inner ear fails to send signals to your brain. The fewer signals your brain receives, the less you hear.

If we’re truly nitpicking, headphones can indirectly hurt your brain. Hearing loss (also due to headphones abuse) worsens your quality of life, which consequently affects your mental health (HLAA).

Are earbuds bad for you?

In-ear headphones are generally worse when it comes to safe listening volume.

They can sound harsher than over-ear siblings since they play directly into your ear canal.

By bypassing the pinna (or earlobe), the sound doesn’t have the chance to disperse and soften. That’s why in-ear monitors sound a bit cleaner than over-ear headphones but also slightly more piercing.

Besides, earbuds prevent natural cleaning of your ears (see how to clean your earbuds). That leads to earwax build-ups and bacterial infections, which can also cause hearing loss if the condition worsens.

How to use earphones without damaging your ears?

You can safely listen to earphones if you use them in moderation and follow a few basic rules.

How to use earphones without damaging your ears?
  1. Try to keep the volume at or below 60dB.

You should try keeping the volume to match the loudness of a passing car. The average loudness of the passing car from a distance of 10 meters (or 32 feet) is around 60 to 67dB (National Academies).

  1. Try to follow the “60/60” rule.

Since every audio device outputs at different loudness, World Health Organization recommends following the 60/60 rule. It means playing music at 60% for 60 minutes and then taking a short break for your ears to recover.

  1. Take listening breaks.

Ears can get used to the loudness, which is why you feel like you want to raise the volume. By taking breaks, you give your ears some time to recover.

  1. Preferably, use active noise cancelling earbuds when listening to music in noisy places.

Much like you have to yell for others to hear you during a concert, you want to raise the music’s volume to overpower the background noise. ANC reduces a large portion of the loud noises, so you don’t have to raise the volume.

  1. Clean your earbuds and your ears regularly to avoid infections.

Unlike full-sized headphones, earbuds and in-ears seal your ear canal, and prevent it from cleaning itself. Clogged-up earwax can become a perfect spot for bacteria to grow and cause infections.

Can listening to loud music cause hearing loss?

Extended exposure to loud noise is known to cause hearing loss, and loud music is no different.

In the 2017 study, youngsters (around 17 years old) who listened to headphones daily and at higher volumes reported more listening problems, such as:

  • Poorer hearing
  • Tinnitus
  • Noise sensitivity
  • Noise fatigue

(NCBI)

Usually, people lose hearing gradually with age. However, seeing such results in teenagers shows a link between listening to loud music and hearing loss.

Young people that often listen to music might have the same difficulties hearing in their mid-40s as their grandparents in their 70s and 80s.

And that’s primarily due to heavy usage of portable music devices and headphones, as well as attending loud live performances (Healthline).

Even more, 53% of US adults with hearing damage (between ages 20-69) didn’t work in a noisy workplace. Indicating that the excessive noise came from recreational activities, such as:

  • Listening to music
  • Attending events
  • Using loud power tools

(CDC 2)

Most common causes of hearing loss

The world around us is increasingly noisier. That’s problematic since our ears aren’t designed to withstand constant exposure to loud sounds.

Here are all the things that harm your hearing (separated in 3 groups):

Everyday activities:Events:Tools:
Listening to loud musicAttending live concertsUsing loud power tools
Children toysAttending sporting eventsHearing sirens
Fitness classesAttending motorized eventsUsing firearms
Working & living in a loud environmentAttending movie theatersThrowing firecrackers
(CDC 3)

(CDC 3)

How many Americans are deaf?

Around 11 million US citizens (or 3.6% of the US population) are considered deaf (RIT Libraries).

Of course, not all people are deaf because of exposure to loud sounds or listening to music. Some are also born deaf or became deaf due to an accident or medical condition.

How many Americans have hearing loss?

Around 48 million Americans suffer from various degrees of hearing loss (HLAA).

Around 48 million Americans suffer from various degrees of hearing loss

However, sometimes you don’t even know your hearing is damaged.

Here’s why.

Your brain works hard to mask things that would otherwise annoy you, like hearing your blood flow. That’s also why you can focus on someone speaking in a noisy room.

However, that can be deceiving. 24% of US adults aged 20-69 who claim they hear excellently already suffer from hearing loss (CDC 2).

We associate hearing loss with the sensation of actually hearing less. However, that’s already its advanced stage. You can recognize hearing loss much earlier if you pay attention to early signs.

Which leads us to the next question.

What are the signs of hearing loss?

Hearing loss occurs gradually, so you should pay attention to these 10 signs.

  • Speech seems muffled
  • High-pitched sounds are hard to hear
  • Disability to understand conversation in louder places
  • Disability to understand people during a phone call
  • Difficulties differentiating between “s” and “f,” “p” and “t,” and “sh” and “th.”
  • Want others to speak more slowly and clearly
  • Wanting others to speak louder or constantly asking them to repeat themselves
  • Raising the volume of your TV higher than usual to understand words
  • Constant ringing or buzzing in your ears (tinnitus)
  • Unusual sensitivity to specific sounds and frequencies (hyperacusis)

(CDC 4)

Sources: Healthline, CDC, CDC 2, CDC 3, CDC 4, NIDCD, NCBI, WHO, Jamanetwork, Osteopathic Association, Regain Hearing, Harvard Health, RIT Libraries, National Academies

Conclusion

While hearing loss of mostly higher frequencies occurs naturally with age, exposing yourself to very loud noise can further worsen your hearing abilities. Listening to music over headphones included.

Hopefully, this article gave you some insight into what are the causes of hearing loss, how to identify it, and most importantly, how to prevent it.

Let us know if we forgot anything down in the comments.

2 Comments
  1. Thank you for drawing attention to this rapidly growing risk to our hearing and that of our children.
    I am the Digital Lead for the World Health Organisation (WHO) Make Listening Safe Campaign and our focus is to reduce these risks.
    Since you conducted the research for this article the WHO have issued a new safety standard for headphones (H.870 v2) which puts the headphone user in charge by giving them easy to understand information about their sound exposure levels and enables them to protect their children.
    We have now started lobbying the headphone manufacturers to encourage them to adopt this safety standard and start safeguarding the hearing of their users, anything you can do to help would be very much appreciated.
    Stephen Wheatley | Digital Campaign Lead | Make Listening Safe Campaign

    Reply

    1. Thank you for the update Stephen. It is our hope that people recognize the unhealthy ways of using headphones and practice safe listening. If you have any new data on headphones and hearing loss, we’re all ears.

      Reply

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.