Ear Plugs vs Ear Muffs – Which are better for you?

If you work in a loud environment, do construction projects around the house, or enjoy loud hobbies (concerts, auto racing, target shooting, etc), investing in hearing protection is not only a good idea, but often required in order to protect your ears from loud noise levels. Using ear protection will help with noise reduction, preventing hearing loss and preserving your quality of life.

According to OSHA (source) 85 decibels (85dB) is the “Safe Noise Threshold” – any time you are in an environment with noises above 85dB you should wear ear protection to prevent hearing loss. For a noise that is 85 dB, the Permissible Exposure Time (PET) which will not causing hearing damage is 8 hours. If you will be in an environment that is 85 dB for more than 8 hours, you should wear hearing protection to avoid hearing damage. If you are in louder noise environments, the amount of safe exposure time is even lower.

Data from NIOSH:

dBAMaximum Exposure Time
1037m : 30s

If you are unsure of the level of noise in an area, you can use the free NIOSH Sound Level Meter App.

Are ear muffs or ear plugs better?

When considering ear plugs vs ear muffs, each has their pros and cons and the best choice for you depends on the situation as each type of protection offers different levels of noise reduction rating and unique benefits. Ear plugs typically have the highest levels of noise reduction ratings (NRR), and higher levels of noise protection, as they go directly in the ear canal. They also have better low-frequency attenuation. While many people find ear plugs more comfortable for extended use, people often find ear muffs are more convenient for short usages or when needing to frequently put on and take off their hearing protectors. Electronic ear muffs can be a good option to provide hearing protection while still allowing for conversation.

The effectiveness of hearing protection depends entirely on proper usage. Improperly worn ear plugs will provide worse protection from loud sound levels than properly worn ear muffs (provided they have similar NRR’s). As there are often factors in real world environments that lessen the effectiveness of hearing protectors (more on this below), NIOSH recommends de-rating the stated NRR of ear plugs by 50% and ear muffs by 25% while OSHA recommends de-rating all types of hearing protection NRR by 50%.

 Ear PlugsEar Muffs
Advantages– Cheap
– Can have higher NRR
– Better for use in small spaces
– More comfortable for longer use and hot/humid environments
– Portable due to their size
– People are more likely to properly use ear muffs
– Can be used with an ear infection
– Easy to monitor usage
– More difficult to lose
Disadvantages– Harder to properly use
– May not fit well
– Unable to use with an ear infection
– May cause irritation of ear canal
– Easy to lose
– Difficult to monitor usage
– Lower NRR
– Do not work well with safety glasses and hats
– Uncomfortable for long periods of time and in hot weather
– Bulkier
– More expensive
Typical NRR:up to 33 dBup to 31 dB
Typical Cost:$0.25 to $10 / pair$10 to $100 / pair

Ear Plugs

Benefits of ear plugs

Simple foam ear plugs are often the go to choice for hearing protection for many people due to their cost, convenience, and they offer the highest level of protection against extreme noise levels. Given their lightweight and size, most people regard them as more comfortable to wear for a long duration of time. Since they are small compared to ear muffs, there are several size related benefits of earplugs. They are easy to carry around in a pocket, vehicle or jacket for when there are unexpected high noise exposure levels and you want to avoid hearing damage.

If you frequently find yourself in work areas with a high level of noise, you can get custom reusable ear plugs – while these will cost more than disposable earplugs, they will be more comfortable for you to need an extended  level of protection (ex: when using power tools, using a vacuum cleaner, or are at the range). Finally, ear plugs work well when other personal protective equipment is required in addition to hearing protectors since ear muffs can get in the way of hardhats and protective safety glasses.

Disadvantages of ear plugs

While ear plugs are very effective hearing protection, they may not work properly if they are not properly inserted into the ear. Ear plugs must be rolled up very tight and inserted deep into the ear canal – when the ear plugs expand, they will fully seal the ear canal to effectively prevent hearing loss. If the ear plugs are not properly inserted they may not properly seal which reduces their noise reduction capabilities and their effective NRR.

Further, ear plugs are not one size fits all – people have different sized ear canals so different ear plugs may be required to fit different people. Another disadvantage of ear plugs is that you should have clean hands to insert the ear plugs making them a poor choice for dirty environments. Finally, ear plugs are very uncomfortable and aggravating to wear when you have an ear infection, causing significant discomfort.

Earn Muffs

Benefits of ear muffs

Since ear muffs are easy to put on and take off, they are ideal for situations where you do not need continuous protection and want to be able to periodically talk to other people. They are also one size fits all as they cover the outer ear and there is inherently less risk of improper improper use, which is common with foam earplugs, and offer maximum protection.

Electronic ear muffs can filter out harmful noises while amplifying voices to facilitate conversations and listening to instructions. If personal protective equipment compliance is a problem in work areas where OSHA mandates hearing protection devices , ear muffs make it easy to check whether workers wear hearing protection. Finally,, ear muffs may be preferred in colder work environments as they can help keep the ears warm.

Disadvantages of ear muffs

While ear muffs are convenient for limited use, they can be bulky and uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Given their size, ear muffs can also be difficult to store. Another drawback with ear muffs is the cost – they cost significantly more than typical foam ear plugs.

If you need to simultaneously wear eye protection, the eye protection can break the seal around the ears, leading to a reduced noise protection below the advertised NRR rating (and potentially hearing damage). A study published in the The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that wearing safety glasses with ear muffs can reduce the NRR anywhere from 2 dB to 11 dB depending on the thickness of the temples – the thicker the temples, the higher the drop in the noise reduction rating.

Doubling Up: Using Both Ear Plugs and Ear Muffs

According to NIOSH, using both ear plugs and ear muffs can provide an additional 5bB to 10dB of hearing protection. This strategy is often recommended for very loud situations as well as when a single form of ear protection may not work well – ex: using electronic ear muffs at an range or when using safety glasses breaks the seal of the ear muffs on your skin. NIOSH even recommends using both ear muffs and ear plugs at ranges due to the extreme noise levels.

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