Learning how to put in earplugs isn’t rocket science, or is it?
Sadly, in multiple studies, fitted earplugs did not even provide half the noise reduction that was printed on the package.
The striking difference between the noise reduction rating (NRR) obtained in the lab and real-world noise reduction prompted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to recommend that foam earplugs be de-rated by 50% and other earplugs even by 70% when assessing whether they provide enough protection.
As is usually the case with averages, some users get a lot less than half the stated noise reduction, some even obtain an effective overall protection of 0.
Other users, however, even exceed the attenuation printed on the box.
This second category is where you want to be.
I am writing this post to help you insert your foam earplugs for maximum noise reduction and test whether you have obtained a proper fit.
Whether you want to get rid of night time noise or effectively protect your hearing, selecting a plug that fits your ear and learning how to put in earplugs can make all the difference.
For different earplug types, you need different techniques:
Foam earplugs need to be rolled into a tiny cylinder and inserted, while moldable wax and silicone putty earplugs need to be formed into a ball and flattened against your ear. These moldable earplugs are not to be inserted. This post is about foam earplugs.
Warning: Never roll a moldable wax or silicone earplug into a cylinder or cone and try to insert it into your ear canal. You may not be able to remove it and a visit to an ENT specialist may become necessary.
How to insert foam earplugs?
Foam earplugs tend to have the highest noise reduction rating of all earplugs, going up to an NRR of 33. But, they are perhaps also the type for which you need the most practice to make them effective.
Wrong insertion technique is the main reason for ineffective foam earplugs.
Here is the procedure I use to put in my foam earplugs:
- Using your thumb and forefinger, roll the entire earplug into a tiny, compressed cylinder (or torpedo).
The thinner you can roll the plug, the easier it gets to insert it. Start by exerting only a little pressure, and as the cylinder gets smaller, gradually increase the pressure to compress the plug as much as you can.
- Grasp your ear with the opposite hand and pull it up and slightly outwards.
This will straighten the ear canal and make insertion easier.
- Use the other hand (forefinger and thumb) to slide in the earplug. Depending on the plug and your ear canal, a little bit of wiggling may be necessary to insert it.
In no case should you need to use force to get it in. If it doesn’t slide in, remove it and roll it even harder.
- Put your thumb on the plug to keep it in place as it expands while letting go of your ear.
The following video by Elliott Berger, one of the pioneers of hearing protection, is the best I have come across:
In his demonstration, Mr. Berger uses a cylindrical earplug and rolls down the entire plug.
You may be wondering whether a tapered earplug should also be rolled in its entirety.
In my experience, for most earplugs this is a clear Yes.
Some earplugs are quite long, so they may not completely disappear as the one shown in Berger’s demonstration and in the image at the top of this post.
Nevertheless, except for a few exceptions, I roll the entire earplug and then slide it in (not push it in!) as deep as I feel comfortable.
In any case stop, if you experience discomfort.
On the other hand, the deeper you can insert the earplug, the more attenuation, in particular for low-frequency noise, you are going to get. So you have to balance comfort and attenuation.
If an earplug is too long for you but you still want to use it, you could also leave the outermost part uncompressed, forming essentially a T-shaped plug.
Can you push in your earplugs too far and perhaps damage your eardrums?
While I am not aware of ever having touched my eardrum with an earplug—and I have done my share of experimenting—I have been wondering whether this is something I should be concerned about.
According to NIOSH’s noise FAQ, it is unlikely that you’ll touch your eardrums with an earplug:
“That is unlikely for two reasons. First, the average ear canal is about 1 1/4 inches long. The typical ear plug is between 1/2 and 3/4 of an inch long. So even if you inserted the entire earplug, it would still not touch the eardrum…”
However, many of the newer foam ear plugs are more than an inch long!
What’s more, the stated ear canal length is an average—it varies among people, and different sources cite different averages, some quite a bit shorter than 1 ¼ inches.
Besides, women’s ear canals are shorter than men’s!
A second concern is that you might further push in built-up earwax which could potentially also lead to problems. If in doubt, have a checkup with your audiologist or an ENT doctor to see whether you have built-up earwax and for further advice.
My take is:
Don’t get too concerned, but be sensible and follow your sensations when inserting your earplugs. That’s what I do. And if an earplug feels uncomfortable, insert it a bit less or get a shorter earplug.
How to remove your earplugs?
You want to break the seal of your earplugs slowly as to minimize the risk of any damage to your hearing.
I get hold of the plug and pull it out ever so slowly while wiggling it a bit. (Other people use a twisting motion.) At some point the seal starts breaking, which is when I try to be extra slow.
In his article Removing Ear Protectors Slowly, Dr. Neil Bauman gives a very good explanation as to why you want to break the seal gradually and let the air in slowly.
Essentially, when you pull out the earplug fast, your eardrums can get sucked in. When the seal then suddenly breaks, the air rushes in and your eardrums may snap back, violently moving the middle ear bones (which are attached to the eardrum). Dr. Bauman specifically mentions gel earplugs, but I recommend you also exercise caution with foam earplugs.
Gradual removal only takes a tiny bit longer, so I would stay on the safe side.
What if you can’t grasp your earplugs when trying to remove them?
Usually I keep the nails of my forefinger and thumb a bit longer so that I can easily grasp even an earplug that sits deep in the ear canal.
Very occasionally, I have had to use tweezers to pull out a foam earplug. If this happens to you, get your partner or a colleague to help you with the tweezers.
What can you do if your earplugs keep falling out?
Typically ear canals have two major bends. For your earplugs to stay in safely, block noise, and not fall out they need to go well beyond the first bend.
To maximize noise reduction it would be even better to get a seal at or beyond the second bend.
To get your earplugs beyond the ear canal bends, roll them into a very small cylinder/torpedo before insertion. During insertion you might have to wiggle the torpedo a bit when sliding it in.
If they are not (or cannot be) rolled into a small enough diameter for your ear canal, chances are they might hit the canal wall.
The consequence is that your earplugs might look properly inserted and muffle a bit of noise but tend to fall out.
If your earplugs keep falling out here is what you can do:
- Roll the earplugs into as tight a cylinder as you can, following the steps outlined above. If you hit resistance during insertion wiggle them a bit. If that repeatedly fails, consider the following:
- Your earplugs might be too large for your ear. Despite your best efforts you cannot roll them small enough. Choose a smaller earplug.
- Your earplugs might be too small or too short for your ear. You can roll and slide them in well, but they barely reduce sound. Get a larger earplug.
- Your earplugs might be expanding too fast due to a humid, warm climate. Some foam earplugs, such as the otherwise excellent 3M-1100, don’t do well when the humidity is high. As a work around, use your AC’s dehumidifying function to get the room humidity and temperature down and then roll the earplug again. Some people also put earplugs briefly in the fridge before rolling them up. If this doesn’t work, choose a different earplug.
How can you test the fit of your earplugs and their effectiveness?
Cupping your ears
The most commonly suggested test is this: In an environment with constant noise, cover your ears with your hands and then remove your hands. You should not hear a noticeable difference.
Using a fitting noise
My favorite subjective test is a fitting noise. I have a fairly loud air conditioner. I know how it should sound when I have properly inserted my earplugs. It should almost be silent. If I hear a low-frequency humming, or worse, the mid-frequencies come through as well, I know the earplugs aren’t properly fitted, remove them, roll them up again, and reinsert them.
This way, I can usually also find out which of the two earplugs is causing the problem. If I press my thumb on an earplug and the leaking sound goes away, I have found the culprit and refit that earplug.
Where do you get the fitting noise from?
If you don’t have a louder constant noise source close by, pink noise works just as well:
Play pink noise from an open source (or a white noise app) via decent speakers, or use a white noise machine as your fitting noise.
Set it fairly loud and insert your foam earplugs. As the earplugs expand, the noise should subside. If the noise does not get significantly reduced and only sounds muffled—with a large part of the lower frequencies remaining—I would refit the earplugs.
A 2012 earplug attenuation study also used pink noise as fitting noise: in that study participants put in their plugs in the presence of pink noise played at 70 dB until they were satisfied with their fit.
NIOSH has developed Quickfit, a test where you listen to two test sounds—one 15 decibels louder than the other—either through speakers or over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones. The Quickfit test sounds and further details can be found on NIOSH’s website.
You have to conduct this test in a quiet room.
- With open ears, you listen to the quieter test sound and adjust the volume down until you can’t hear it anymore. (With the volume one step up, you can faintly hear it again.)
- Put in your earplugs.
- Now listen to the louder test signal (without any volume adjustment). If you can’t hear it, your earplugs should provide at least 15 dB attenuation.
Geek Note: The test signal is pulsed, one-octave-band pink noise centered at 1000 Hz.
Personal Fit-testing Systems
Companies such as 3M (E-A-Rfit), Howard Leight (Veripro), Michael & Associates (Fitcheck Solo by NIOSH), and others have developed fit testing systems that conduct either a REAT (real attenuation at threshold) test at multiple test frequencies or an F-MIRE (field microphone in real ear) test at multiple frequencies to determine a personal attenuation rating (PAR) in decibels for a fitted earplug.
Going through such a test can be very helpful for training earplug insertion and for understanding what attenuation you are actually getting from a specific earplug—as opposed to the noise reduction rating printed on the earplugs, which is an average obtained in a lab with test subjects and experimenter-fitted earplugs.
Personal fit-testing also helps with practicing earplug insertion until you consistently get a desired PAR with a specific earplug.
These fit testing systems aren’t cheap and are aimed at companies, rather than individuals. However, some third-party services also offer fit testing for a fee.
It takes a bit of practice to put in foam earplugs. Properly inserted though, they are the best in-ear noise reduction device I know of. They are well worth your effort.
When I started out with foam earplugs, I falsely assumed that they don’t work. The real reasons were: I was doing it wrong and I had the wrong earplugs.
Also, I needed outstanding low-frequency noise reduction—which foam earplugs can provide, but only when optimally inserted.
If, after practice, your earplugs still never seem to work for you or become uncomfortable after a short period of time, get a selection of different earplugs. To this day, there are quite a few foam earplug models that just don’t work for me.
Some earplugs are easier to insert because they can be compressed into a smaller diameter and because they expand more slowly. In particular if you your ear canal is small in diameter, this is paramount.
Other foam earplugs, while being equally effective, expand so fast that they are just not for beginners or people with trickier ears.