While conversations about earbud-induced hearing loss have mostly faded away, people are becoming seriously concerned that volume levels at work, in restaurants, and on the street can cause permanent hearing loss. So, how loud is too loud?
Long Story Short, You Should Avoid 85+ dB
With extended and repeated exposure, sounds that exceed 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss. And while 85 dB may sound like a lot, there’s a good chance that you’re exposed to 85 dB of sound every day. As an example, every time you open your car window while driving at 50 mph, you’re being exposed to about 89 dB of sound.
Now, before you get too nervous, consider how long and how often you’re being exposed. Most doctors agree that you can get away with about eight hours of exposure to 85 dB of sound. But even after those hellish eight hours of mowing a lawn or driving with the windows down, there’s a decent chance that you won’t sustain permanent hearing loss.
See, there are little hairs inside of your ear called sterocilia. These hairs vibrate when sound waves enter your ear, and those vibrations are turned into neural information that your brain can understand. With extended exposure to loud sounds (say, an eight-hour lawn mowing session), your little ear hairs get depressed, like blades of grass that have been stepped on. When depressed, these hairs stop vibrating, which means that your brain doesn’t receive any sound signals.
But, like blades of grass, your little ear hairs can spring back up overnight. Occasional long term exposure isn’t a big deal—it’s repeated long term exposure that will ruin your ears. Every time those ear hairs get depressed, they also get a little less spry. Eventually, they stop bouncing back at all, and you’re left with permanent hearing loss.
It’s also important to note that, just because you’ve sustained hearing loss, doesn’t mean that you have a higher volume tolerance. 85 dB is the universal threshold for hearing loss, even if your ears are already blown out.
At the 85 dB range, open-window drivers and lawncare amateurs don’t have much to worry about. Most people that endure repeated eight-hour exposures to 85 dB are construction workers, employees at bars, and sound engineers. That’s not to say that you’re safe from noise-induced hearing loss—you just don’t have to worry about the 85 dB threshold as much as someone who works in a loud environment.
What Happens After 85 dB?
The way that we measure sound can be a little misleading. You’d assume that 80 dB would be twice as loud as 40 dB, but that’s not the case. Volume level doubles with every 10 dB gain, so 80 dB is eight times as loud as 40 dB. In that way, it’s similar to earthquake measurements on the Richter scale.
As volume level increases, your noise tolerance decreases at a similar rate. At 90 dB, four hours of exposure time will cause permanent hearing loss. Go up to 95 dB, and your ears can only handle two hours of exposure. Push it up to 110 dB, and your ears can only take 1 minute and 29 seconds.
Even if you aren’t exposed to eight terrible hours of lawnmowing, there’s a good chance that you’ve repeatedly spent a few hours at a rock concert, a couple of hours at a bar, a night at a football game, or a whole day listening to music through your earbuds. Well, the average rock concert is about 120 decibels, a busy bar is about 90 decibels, NFL games are about 90 dB, and most earbuds can reach the 115-decibel mark.
It’s easy to see how an average day can expose you to dangerous sound levels. But if you want to keep doing regular people things, then what precautions can you take to keep your ears safe?
If You Work in a Loud Environment, Buy Some Earplugs
If you’re a lawn care professional, construction worker, musician, bartender, or work in another loud environment, then you can’t help but hear deafening sounds. Sadly, you can’t tell a bulldozer or a loudspeaker to shush, so you have to resort to earplugs.
Lucky for you, modern earplugs are inexpensive, comfortable, and practical. Some of them aggressively block out incoming noise, while others actively lower decibel levels without sacrificing sound clarity. If you need some help finding a good pair of earplugs, there’s a great article on Review Geek that runs through a variety of high-quality earplugs.
I know, your friends and coworkers will make fun of you for wearing earplugs. You can explain to them how you’re actually super cool for taking care of your health, or you can shamefully disguise your earplugs as earbuds. There are plenty of earplug-earbuds on Amazon, and some earbuds are dense enough that they can block out external sounds. Just keep in mind that playing sound through earbuds doesn’t magically cancel out the incoming decibel level of external sounds, and dedicated earplugs will always be better for preserving your hearing than a pair of earbuds.
Watch Out for Ambient Sound and Noise Pollution
As it turns out, people who live in big cities are at high risk for noise-induced hearing loss. Usually, this is attributed to “ambient sound” and “noise pollution.” Traffic and construction can fill a city slicker’s morning commute with loud sounds, and late nights at bars and restaurants can be a sonic nightmare.
If you’re concerned that the city life is ruining your ears, you should probably check how many decibels you’re being exposed to throughout the day. Download a decibel meter on your phone, like Sound Meter, or Sound Analyzer, or use a dedicated decibel meter for more accurate sound measurements. If you aren’t happy with the sound levels that you’re being exposed to, consider buying earplugs, or changing your routines.
For Music Lovers, Wear Earplugs to Lower Volume but Not Quality
There’s a good chance that you’ve heard this already, but you should always wear earplugs at a concert. The average rock concert is about 120 decibels, and there’s a good chance that the shows at your local dive or the DJ at your favorite club get even louder. There are plenty of earplugs that lower decibel levels without sacrificing sound quality, so there’s no excuse not to wear earplugs. If your friends make fun of you, wait until the day after and ask how their ears feel.
Concerts aren’t the only thing that music lovers have to worry about. Headphones and earbuds can usually reach volume levels that are way past 100 dB, and the sound system in your car or home can get even louder.
You may think that you like loud music, but you probably just like to hear all of the details that your music has to offer. If your speakers or headphones sound like crap at a low volume, then you should invest in higher quality audio equipment. You don’t have to break the bank; there are plenty of high-quality headphones and speakers that cost less than $200.
If you don’t want to drop a few hundred on some new headphones, then consider adjusting your equalizer settings to make up for poor sound quality. Most cellphones and amplifiers have powerful, automatic EQ settings, and they can really step up the audio quality of your current setup.