For nighttime use, I typically toss out foam earplugs when they don’t look or smell clean anymore or when their effectiveness starts deteriorating.
Many manufacturers state something like:
“Discard after several uses or as soon as dirt or wax accumulates…” (Macks)
“Disposable foam earplugs” (Moldex)
When using earplugs for hearing protection in a high-noise environment, I take these statements seriously.
Rarely have I come across foam earplugs where the manufacturer even mentions washing.
Surprisingly, 3M, with respect to their E-A-R Classic (the original foam earplugs) says the following:
“Question: Can E-A-R foam earplugs be washed? Answer: Yes. E-A-R Classic is reusable and washable.”
They also provide additional details:
“They may be washed in mild liquid detergent and warm water. Squeeze excess water from the plugs and allow to fully air dry. Washing may be repeated several times.
Discard plugs if they noticeably change their firmness or do not re-expand to their original size and shape.”
This piqued my interest.
Wouldn’t it be nice to cut down on waste and save some money at the same time?
I wanted to try this.
In this post, I report on cleaning earplugs using two different liquid formulas:
- Water plus a mild soap. (The one I often use for showering.)
- Water plus a hydrogen peroxide solution (100 ml water + 100 ml hydrogen peroxide 3%).
I am currently testing Mack’s ThermaFit, so these are the ones that needed washing.
Like 3M’s EAR Classic and Flent’s Quiet Please, ThermaFit are cylindrical PVC foam earplugs.
I like this type of earplugs (in particular Quiet Please) for situations where I need to maximize low frequency noise reduction (e.g., against traffic rumble, bass noise).
But I have also found that PVC “foamies” don’t hold up nearly as well to multiple uses as tapered PU foam earplugs, such as Moldex PuraFit, making them more expensive for long-term use.
After three or four nights, both Quiet Please and ThermaFit start losing their firmness. And not surprisingly, their effectiveness, in particular against low frequency noise, deteriorates. They also smell more and more like earwax.
Ideally, to maintain optimal performance and good hygiene, I need two pairs of these cylindrical earplugs per week. If I have to stretch it, I can perhaps go for a week.
So how well did my washed foam earplugs do?
Both the soap solution and the hydrogen peroxide solution worked for removing earwax and dirt from these PVC foam earplugs. I felt hydrogen peroxide did a slightly better job and the earplugs also smelled fresher.
Washing and then air drying the earplugs didn’t further negatively affect their firmness and ability to expand.
However, it also did not restore the earplugs’ original performance and firmness.
For sleeping and reducing everyday noise, washing earplugs is an option to cut down on costs and reduce waste as long as you don’t need maximum noise reduction effectiveness.
For best low frequency noise reduction (snoring, traffic rumble, bass noise, etc.) or when I want to protect my hearing in a high noise environment, I will continue to switch to a new pair of earplugs as soon as the performance deteriorates.
Washing got rid of the dirt and the earwax but it didn’t restore the earplugs’ original noise reduction effectiveness for me.
How to quickly assess the noise reduction performance of washed earplugs?
The fan of my bedroom’s AC unit is my first gauge. When the earplugs have fully expanded, I don’t hear that fan anymore.
After inserting new earplugs that expand vigorously, the fan noise is gone after a short period of time. As the earplugs get older, it takes longer and longer for the noise to disappear.
If you don’t have such a continuous noise around you, you can also use a white noise app.
The AC’s fan/white noise can, however, be deceiving when it comes to low frequency noise.
Low frequency noise reduction, I quickly assess by slamming the door of my freezer. With deeply inserted new earplugs, the door sounds like “pac, pac.” Bass noise from the freezer-door-slam is effectively being reduced.
After using the earplugs for a few nights, this sound turns into a “bumm, bumm,” and I know the earplugs won’t effectively block out trucks anymore.
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will have noticed that for new earplugs I often do more rigorous noise reduction tests to assess performance at different frequency bands and optimal insertion depth.
However, once I know how a pair of earplugs should perform, these two simple tests tell me right away, whether I am good for the night or not.
How did I clean my foam earplugs?
As mentioned earlier, I tried two different formulas for cleaning my earplugs
- Water plus a mild soap
- Water plus 3% hydrogen peroxide solution
For the soap formula, I submerged a bar of household soup in a bowl filled with water until the water turned slightly milky.
Hydrogen peroxide formula
For the hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) formula, I mixed about 100 ml (3.4 fl oz) of water with 100 ml (3.4 fl oz) hydrogen peroxide (3%) in a small ceramic bowl.
For washing earplugs in hydrogen peroxide, I use a ceramic bowl instead of steel to avoid corrosion (see material chart, link below).
According to material charts, a 10% solution of H2O2 is compatible with PVC. This is a much higher concentration than what I used. I wouldn’t dare using a 10% solution!
I feel comfortable using low concentration H2O2 (as mixed above) for cleaning my earplugs, but please do your own research and consult with your doctor/audiologist.
This is the procedure I use for washing my earplugs:
1. Wash the earplugs in your chosen cleaning solution and squeeze them a few times to have them soak up water and remove dirt. Use gloves to protect your skin.
2. Let the earplugs soak for about 45 minutes, squeezing them from time to time to get rid of earwax deeper inside the plugs.
3. Rinse and squeeze the earplugs in clean water until you have cleared out the soap.
4. Let the earplugs air dry on a paper towel. (I let them sit for about 24 hours before reusing them.)
Washing PVC foam earplugs was effective for removing dirt and ear wax.
It didn’t negatively affect the firmness and expand-ability, but it also didn’t restore the earplugs original firmness and performance.
I have a fairly large ear canal. To get the excellent low frequency noise reduction performance cylindrical foam earplugs have to offer, I need them to expand as vigorously as they do when they are new.
If you have a smaller ear canal, you may get more mileage out of these earplugs and washing them helps to keep them clean.
For hearing protection (as opposed to everyday noise and annoyance reduction), it is safer to consider foam earplugs as disposable.
1. 3M Corporation. “Tips & Tools for Fitting and Using E-A-R Foam Earplugs,” 2010.
2. 3M Corporation. “Poster: How to Use and Clean Foam and Premolded Earplugs.” Accessed June 8, 2022.