It’s surprisingly easy for your headphones to damage your hearing

Here's how to check.

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When the rest of the world gets too distracting, it’s tempting to pop in your earbuds, crank up some tunes, and close yourself off to focus better. But if you blast your music too loudly, you may permanently damage your hearing. Here’s how to keep your ears in good shape—so you aren’t kicking yourself 10 years down the road.

Why high volumes cause hearing loss

“Noise exposure is a common cause of hearing loss,” says Tricia Ashby, Director of Audiology at the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA). When you subject your ears to loud input, the fluid in your inner ear moves more, which can damage the hair cells that send signals to the brain.

This exposure is cumulative, meaning the more often you expose yourself to loud sounds, the greater impact it will have on your hearing. For example, after a loud concert, you may notice that your “hearing threshold” shifts—it may become more difficult for your ears to pick up certain things you could easily hear before.

“If a person has repeated exposure to noise,” Ashby says, “that temporary threshold shift can become a permanent threshold shift. This is why it is so important to protect your hearing when involved in noisy activities.” That includes everything from mowing the lawn to attending a concert to, yes, jogging with earbuds in. The earlier you start taking care of your hearing, the better off you’ll be down the line.

How loud is too loud?

Headphones aren’t inherently dangerous. They’ve been around for decades, and while there are no statistics measuring hearing loss from these devices specifically, hearing loss as a whole has actually declined over the years. Still, some experts—like those at the World Health Organization—think these gadgets may have something to do with the rise in hearing damage among young people.

According to the ASHA, noises at 85 A-weighted decibels (dBA)—dBA are decibels adjusted for how we perceive sounds, and 85 of them are about as loud as busy traffic or a motorcycle going by—can be harmful if you listen to them for more than 8 hours at a time. That may not seem so bad, but as the audio gets louder, the safe listening time decreases exponentially. By the time the dial reaches 91dBA, you can only listen for 2 hours before you start damaging your hearing.

Many headphones can easily exceed that. So if you’re trying to drown out some other distraction—like the aforementioned traffic—you can quickly reach the unsafe range without realizing it.

“In today’s technology age, the best option is to limit the exposure time,” says Ashby. “Volume levels should be set so the person can hear the signal they are listening to, but it is not so loud that they aren’t able to hear sounds around them.”

This may seem easy, but again, if you’re masking other noises with your music, you might be listening at louder levels than you think. Ashby says your music is too loud if:

  • You have to raise your voice to be heard.
  • You can’t hear or understand someone 3 feet away from you.
  • After you remove the headphones, the speech around you sounds muffled or dull.
  • You have ringing or pain in your ears.

Those last couple may seem extreme, but most of us can probably identify with the first two. It seems lame to listen to music with the volume so low you can hear everything around you, but it’s definitely better than gradually losing your hearing.

Keep your volume in check

On its surface, the solution is simple: Turn the music down (and get off my lawn, you darn kids). But we all know how effortless it is to turn the music up just one notch to drown out the guy at the next table. Then you turn it up one more notch to mask the clamor of nearby construction, and so on, until you’re right back where you started.

Most smartphones have limiters that let you change what constitutes “maximum” safe volume. If you have an iPhone, head to Settings > Music > Volume Limit and set the slider to your desired level. This only affects the stock music app, unfortunately, so if you listen through another app like Spotify, you’re out of luck (unless that app has its own built-in limiter).

If you have an Android phone, check Settings > Sound > Volume to see if your particular device offers a limiter. Samsung phones, for example, have one hidden under this page’s three-dot menu. Other phones may not have a limiter built in, but you can download an app like Volume Lock that lets you set a range of safe levels.

Noise-reducing headphones, particularly those with active noise cancellation, are a more elegant (and more expensive) solution. Since they mask external distractions, you can set your volume lower and still hear your music comfortably. Just don’t use these while jogging or in other situations where ignoring the outside world may be unsafe.

Lastly, take breaks. The longer you listen to loud music, the more likely you are to cause permanent damage. Remove the cans every hour or so to give your ears a rest.

Even with precautions like these, Ashby advocates for regular hearing testing, so you can avoid the negative effects of hearing loss. “As we lose the ability to hear, we begin to isolate more and more from people around us,” Ashby says. “It is important to have regular hearing testing, perhaps every 5 years, to track hearing ability from a baseline measure forward. People with treated hearing loss have far better cognitive outcomes and communication ability over time compared to those who don’t get treated.”