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Safety Guide: Are Headphones and Earbuds Safe?

Last updated: 22 hours ago
9 min read

Headphones can be dangerous.

If you crank up the volume to unhealthy levels, you can hurt your hearing with long-term consequences.

Learn how to protect from dangers like:

  • A loud volume that leads to hearing loss and tinnitus
  • Wireless technology radiation
  • Ear infections and pain in the ear
  • Side-effects of active noise cancellation (ANC)
Person listening to Beats headphones
Contents (click to show more)

    The Dangers of Headphones

    The main dangers of headphones are:

    • Listening to headphones at high volume can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss
    • Prolonged use of headphones can lead to irritated skin, headaches, and an increased risk of hearing loss.
    • Prolonged use of earbuds can lead to an irritated ear canal, build-up of ear wax, ear infections, and pain, plus an increased risk of hearing loss.
    • Wireless Bluetooth headphones and earbuds emit tiny amounts of radiation but are not harmful long term
    • Active noise cancellation in headphones is harmless for health. Still, it can induce side effects like headaches and motion sickness in some people.

    Long exposure to loud headphones can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus

    According to NIOSH – CDC (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), a 100 dBA max exposure is only 15 minutes. At a healthier volume level of 85 dBA, you can listen for 8 hours per day.

    Many headphones can get to 100 – 105 dBA at max volume, which can get dangerous pretty fast.

    Find more study data on how headphones cause hearing loss in another article.

    To keep volume safe for a couple of hours, keep the max headphone volume at 60-70%, or even better, at around 50%.

    This way, you’ll stay in the 60-80 dBA range, which is safe even if you listen for a whole day.

    Interestingly, we tested the max volume of AirPods 3 and AirPods Max.

    • AirPods 3 at 100% volume reach 104dB, at 60% 81.5dB
    • AirPods Max at 100% volume reach 105dB, at 60% 84.6dB

    These are dangerous levels if you blast them at full or listen for too long.

    Here’s the table of recommended noise exposure by NIOSH – CDC:

    Noise exposureDuration limit
    105 dBA4min 43s
    100 dBA15min
    95 dBA47min 37s
    94 dBA1h
    93 dBA1h 16min
    92 dBA1h 35min
    91 dBA2h
    90 dBA2h 31min
    89 dBA3h 10min
    88 dBA4h
    86 dBA6h 21min
    85 dBA8h
    83 dBA12h 42min
    81 dBA20h 10min
    80 dBA25h 24min
    Source: NIOSH – CDC

    From the data above, we can make a conclusion:

    The longer you wear headphones, the lower the volume you can listen at: If you listen at a high volume, you have to shorten the listening time.

    For comparison of how loud dB is:

    Decibel levels of common sounds

    Decibel Levels of Common Sounds

    Loudness of music

    Decibel levels of music instruments

    Is it safe to use headphones every day?

    Using headphones daily for a limited time, under 8 hours at below 70% max volume, is safe.

    Also, it’s safe to use headphones for the whole day if you keep the volume below 80 dBA, which is about 50-60% max volume.

    The longer you wear headphones, the lower the volume you can listen at: If you listen at a high volume, you have to shorten the listening time.

    For more specific recommendations, read the guide on max volume in headphones.

    Prolonged use of headphones can lead to problems

    If you wear headphones for a long time, they can pressure your ears and cause discomfort and even pain.

    The earpads rubbing against your skin can irritate it and make it itchy. Another side effect is increased sweating. With pleather earpads, the skin under it cannot breathe, which leads to sweating and, eventually, a bad odor.

    But apart from annoyance, wearing headphones for hours isn’t harmful to health as long as you listen at a reasonable volume.

    Are Earbuds Safe?

    Uncomfortable fit on earbuds
    Peter testing true wireless earbuds

    Earbuds (earphones or in-ear headphones) are the most portable and convenient type of headphones. However, there are risks associated with earbuds that don’t exist with traditional headphones.

    Do earbuds cause ear infections?

    This study of 136 customer service representatives who use earbuds daily found only 4 or 2.9% of them had an ear infection. They concluded there is no correlation between wearing earbuds and a higher risk of ear infection.

    Nonetheless, another study found using earbuds results in bacterial growth and wax build-up, which lead to ear infections.

    The conclusion is that well-maintained and clean earbuds won’t lead to an ear infection. But if you neglect the hygiene of your earbuds, it can lead to germ growth and wax build-up in the ear canal, which is an ear infection hazard.

    For these reasons, it’s important to keep your earbuds clean. Here’s a guide on cleaning earbuds. By maintaining them well, you can avoid potential problems.

    Are earbuds louder and more dangerous than regular headphones?

    Earbuds can be more dangerous than traditional headphones but generally aren’t.

    In-ear headphones use eartips that sit deep inside the ear canal and close to the eardrum. Because the source of sound is closer to the eardrum, it can be louder and more intense than regular headphones, which increases the risk of hearing loss.

    On the other hand, in-ear headphones or earbuds offer better passive noise isolation, which removes the reason for increasing volume. You can listen to your music at a lower volume which is healthier for ears.

    Safety comparison: Earbuds vs. traditional headphones

    EarbudsHeadphones
    Hearing loss:More sensitive to loud volume because they sit closer to eardrumsLess sensitive to loud volume because the drivers are outside the ear
    Noise isolation:Better noise isolation which promotes listening at lower volumesWorse noise isolation promotes listening at higher volumes
    Ear infection:Higher chance of ear infectionLow chance of ear infection
    Skin irritation:Badly fitting earbuds irritate the ear canalClamping earcups of headphones with unbreathable earpads promote sweating
    Earbuds= in-ear, earphones. Headphones= over-ear, on-ear.

    Check the in-depth comparison of earbuds vs. headphones.

    Headphone Safety Tips

    Here are the headphone safety tips to keep in mind:

    1. Listen to headphones at lower volumes: If you have to wear headphones all day, keep the volume below 82 dB. It’s safe to listen at 82 dB for 16 hours per day, according to CDC.
    2. Choose safer headphones: Headphones with good passive noise isolation or noise-cancelling headphones enable you to listen comfortably at lower loudness.
    3. Limit how long you use headphones and take breaks: Check the CDC table recommendation above for general guidelines. If you listen to music at higher volumes, keep it short.
    4. Ensure a good fit of in-ear headphones and earbuds: A good fit helps with noise isolation and lowers the occurrence of irritation.
    5. Clean your earbuds: Maintaining in-ear headphones doesn’t bring infection risk into your ear canal. How to clean earbuds
    6. Please don’t share your earbuds with other people: Sharing in-ear headphones or earplugs brings new germs into your ear canal and can lead to ear infections.
    7. If you are using headphones professionally: an audio limiter is a smart idea since it will protect you from over-abusing your hearing in the long run. This also applies to kids. Ensure they have headphones with a volume limit, so they can’t crank up the music.
    8. Try the 60/60 rule: That means you listen to your music at 60 percent of the maximum volume for 60 minutes at a time and then take a short break.
    9. Pick headphones with high-quality sound: Interestingly, when headphones produce a full range of sounds without getting muffled, we are less likely to increase the volume.

    How do I know if my headphones are too loud?

    Two DJs at the club

    If you experience any of the symptoms below after listening to your headphones, change your behavior:

    • You have a problem hearing high-pitched sounds
    • Speech sound muffled, and it’s hard to understand conversations
    • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
    • People talk too fast and too silently for you to understand
    • You have to turn up the volume to watch TV or listen to radio
    • Some sounds induce pain

    According to CDC, these symptoms indicate that you have listened to your headphones too loudly. And if you keep doing it, it can lead to permanent hearing loss.

    Source: CDC.gov

    Keep in mind that hearing problems are not always permanent and can occur temporarily after being exposed to damaging situations. Timely medical treatment can, in many cases, help the patient recover from the loss of hearing completely.

    Additionally, pretty much all humans are subject to gradual hearing loss. The effects of gradual hearing loss can accumulate over time, but it is difficult to spot and seek medical help soon enough because this happens over many years.

    Related: Here’s how many people have tinnitus.

    Are Bluetooth Headphones Safe?

    Lady listening to wireless headphones

    Bluetooth headphones and earbuds are safe, as concluded by multiple studies. The harmful effects are either non-existent or negligible.

    In 2015, 250 scientists signed a petition to the UN and WHO concerning the health risks of electromagnetic filed created by wireless devices like cell phones and Bluetooth headphones.

    In short: A systemic review of data found no significant risk of cancer from wireless phone use. FDA agrees with the findings and confirms the current limitations are sufficient.

    Also, WHO’s (World Health Organization) International Agency for Research on Cancer report about phone use and cancer finds no connection between the two. Phone usage and radiation seem to have no impact on the higher occurrence of cancer.

    Since Bluetooth waves are non-ionizing (less harmful type) and 10 to 400 times weaker than cell phone waves, it’s reasonable to conclude the effect to be even smaller.

    Using Bluetooth headphones for phone calls is less harmful than using a smartphone. Because Bluetooth only works in a short range, it actually emits less radiation than long-range mobile antennae.

    Therefore, when you’re using your phone for calls, you receive more radiation than if you used Bluetooth headphones or earbuds with a microphone.

    Bluetooth emits a similar signal as Wi-Fi (2.4GHz) except much weaker. And most people have no problem being in a Wi-Fi-covered area, so you definitely shouldn’t worry about Bluetooth.

    Not convinced?

    According to Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Bluetooth is harmless. Though others doubt the validity of current regulations as sufficient and call for further research.

    The science is not yet settled on the question, but current studies show an almost non-existent link between Bluetooth and risks to health.

    In conclusion: You can use your Bluetooth headphones without worry, just like wired headphones. The same goes for true wireless headphones.

    If you want to read more about wireless technology, check out our Bluetooth tech explanation.

    Are cheap Bluetooth headphones safe?

    Cheap headphones are no different from expensive headphones regarding Bluetooth versions, materials toxicity, or loudness.

    If you worry budget wireless earbuds have inferior technology that can harm you, rest assured it’s the same technology and in no way more dangerous.

    The materials are often similar as well. While cheap Bluetooth headphones might be more plastic and thus less fancy, they’re perfectly safe.

    The one dangerous thing is maxed volume. If you crank up the volume in cheap headphones, they can reach unhealthy loudness resulting in noise-induced hearing loss.

    Are Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones and Earbuds Safe?

    Watching videos on smartphone

    Active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones and earbuds are safe to use but might give an impression of causing issues. Some people can feel “pressure” or “fullness” when ANC technology is turned on.

    It just so happens that some people are sensitive to noise cancellation, which can give them the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. And while the feeling is annoying, it’s not dangerous.

    And not only is ANC harmless, it helps with safer use of headphones at lower volume.

    Besides, ANC doesn’t emit radiation. Here’s a quick summary of how it works:

    The microphone picks up the surrounding noise and sends that information to the headphone’s circuitry. The circuitry then creates an opposite sound (reverses the phase) and sends it to the headphones so the sounds “cancel each other” before they reach your ears.

    This way, you don’t hear all the noise present in your surroundings and lower the volume.

    ANC earbuds and in-ear headphones are safer

    ANC earbuds are safer because researchers have found users listen to them at a lower volume than regular headphones (study).

    A study about what volume people use in a busy street showed users increased the volume due to environmental noise above 80 dB (up to 80 dB is not dangerous). The majority of people use dangerous levels of volume in noisy, public areas.

    But ANC technology lowers ambient noise, making the need for higher volume lower while still keeping it enjoyable. This way most users lower their volume with ANC headphones.

    Though keep in mind, listening to ANC headphones loudly is still dangerous.

    FAQs

    How many hours can you safely wear headphones?

    How many hours you can safely wear headphones depends on the volume. You can wear AirPods 3 safely for the whole day at 50% volume. At 80% volume, it’s safe to listen for only 37 minutes.

    Is it ok to wear headphones for 5 hours?

    It’s ok and perfectly safe to wear headphones for 5 hours if you keep the volume under 87dB, according to CDC. This equates to under 60% max volume for most headphones.

    Can headphones cause tinnitus?

    Headphones can cause tinnitus if you listen to loud music for too long. Tinnitus is a known symptom of noise-induced hearing loss. Thankfully it can be avoided with safe headphone use.

    Is listening to headphones at low volume bad?

    Listening to headphones at low volume is not bad. In fact, it’s the only healthy way of listening to headphones long term. By listening to headphones below 80 dB loudness, which equals under 60% volume, you can listen to them for a whole day, according to CDC.

    Can you go deaf from AirPods?

    You can go partially deaf from AirPods because the 3rd gen. AirPods reach 104 dB loudness at max volume. According to CDC guidelines, just over 6 minutes of listening at 104 dB is hazardous.

    Is it safe to use headphones with exposed wire?

    Is it safe to use headphones with exposed wire because the power traveling through headphone wires isn’t strong enough to harm a human body.

    Conclusion

    It’s important to take the safety of headphones seriously because it can have lifetime consequences. Apart from headaches and neck pain, you can sustain life-long hearing loss with improper use.

    When you listen to your favorite tunes on a busy street, remember that overpowering the street noise isn’t healthy and will result in hearing loss over time.

    But don’t be afraid to go “crazy” from time to time and turn up the volume to the max. Just keep it short.

    Be smart, choose the right headphones, and limit the volume and time of use.

    So, take the tips on how to safely use headphones to heart, and your ears will thank you later.

    For headphones that are safer to use, check: