Buying Guide

Hearing Protection Buying Guide

Earplug Materials
A pair of silicone ear plugs.

There is no single best material for earplugs to be made from. Earplugs can be made from foam, silicone, wax, metal or other pliable materials. The best type of ear plug materials for you can vary depending on what they will be used for.

Silicone earplugs and wax earplugs are mostly used for ear protection from water. Swimmers, surfers and people who work around the water usually find these types of earplugs most useful. The materials are waterproof and highly moldable to help create a better seal for the ear. For divers, it is important that the earplugs be vented to maintain the correct pressure balance between the eardrum and the outer atmosphere.

Foam earplugs are chiefly made from PVC or memory foam. Most of these are intended for disposable wear. The nature of the material allows it to be compacted to fit into the ear canal and then expand to seal the ear against noise.

Metal earplugs are excellent for people who work in large venues or are exposed to subsonic sound for long periods. Metal earplugs have the density to block a wide range of sound frequencies and have the advantage of being very easy to clean and sterilize. Opt for a foam-wrapped version of metal earplug, and they will be even more comfortable. 

Many musicians also use silicone earplugs specifically made for the industry. These are designed to dampen volume but retain the ear’s perception of bass and treble levels. This allows music pros to protect their hearing but still be able to properly hear and analyze the music. 

Earplugs vs. Earmuffs
An airline worker wearing ear muffs for hearing protection.

Since earplugs fit directly into the ear, they are better at noise reduction than ear muffs in loud workspaces such as factories and airports. Their compact size also makes them ideal for use by both workers and people who use them recreationally. Earplugs also work more effectively in combination with other safety gear such as protective glasses and helmets, as they do not interfere with other headgear. 

Disposable earplugs may not always fit correctly and comfortably without practice. For this reason, reusable earplugs are made with more detail and can often be custom fit. This increases their cost, though.

Earmuffs fit over the ear and are easy to adjust, so they can always fit comfortably to the head of the wearer. While they are very good in colder climates since they help keep the ears warm, they can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods during hot weather. They also typically have lower noise reduction ratings than earplugs. 

Headphone ear muffs and electronic ear muffs serve dual purposes by connecting to music devices while filtering out unwated backgroung sounds and protecting your hearing from subsonic noise.

Earplug Safety
A woman inserting a disposable ear plug for hearing protection.

Insert disposable earplugs properly. Gently roll the earplug between your fingers until the foam compresses into a thinner tube, about 30 seconds, then pull up on the top of ear to open the ear cavity. Insert the earplug and allow the foam to expand in place to fit the ear, about 30 seconds.

Clean or discard earplugs daily. If allowed to become dirty or clogged, earplugs can introduce bacteria and lead to ear infections. Discard foam earplugs and use a fresh pair each day. Clean reusable earplugs daily with a peroxide, soap and water mixture and a small brush. Dry thoroughly before re-inserting in the ear. 

Pay attention to earwax buildup. Daily earplug wear can cause wax to build up, which can in turn lead to ear problems. See a professional for any ear pain, sound distortion, ringing in ears, itching or unpleasant odor or discharge from ears. A stuffed-up feeling can also indicate hearing impairment. Consult a hearing health professional, even if there is no pain. Hearing loss has been linked to other physical and emotional ailments such as depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

Types of Ear Protection
Two people wearing ear muff hearing protection at a shooting range.

The type of hearing protection you use depends on where and how you will be using it.  

Ear plugs are the most versatile and protective form for hearing protection.

  • Musicians should use hi-fidelity ear plugs. These are made specifically for the music industry. They protect ears from loud volume and certain bass frequencies while allowing musicians to still hear the sounds they need with very little distortion of pitch and tone.
  • Sports ear plugs are all useful for blocking loud sounds, but people who participate in water sports such as swimming, diving or water polo should use vented ear plugs. These block both sound and water intrusion, but also help regulate the water pressure on the ear. Left unchecked, any sudden changes to the pressure in the ear can cause swimmer's ear, ear pain and other damage.
  • The best earplugs for factory workers, construction workers or those employed in environments where they are exposed to loud sounds daily are custom earplugs. While they are initially more expensive than disposable foam plugs, a custom pair will last longer, fit more comfortably and provide better protection.
  • Hearing protection in most sports can be accomplished with earplugs alone, but shooting enthusiasts are encouraged to combine ear plugs with earmuff-style hearing protection to ensure that your hearing is preserved. Both the noise and the percussive air impact of shooting puts you at risk for damage to the inner ear. By combining both types of hearing protection, you increase the total NRR rating of your gear.