7 Different Types of Earplugs and What They Are Used For

Different types of earplugs

The purpose of this post is to provide an overview of different types of earplugs, prime use cases, and some peculiarities you need to know when using them.

Common uses of earplugs include:

  • Hearing protection at work and at the range
  • Hearing protection at concerts and other entertainment venues while maintaining sound fidelity
  • Noise reduction at night for better sleep
  • Noise reduction during the day while traveling, studying, or meditating
  • Reducing stress
  • Keeping water out of your ear when swimming, surfing, or bathing
  • Helping with rapid air pressure changes and ear pain during air-travel

Where available and applicable, I have included my own observations and experiences, which are necessarily subjective.

If you are looking for earplugs as a hearing protector in a work environment, make sure to confirm with your company’s safety personnel which hearing protectors are required / allowed at your workplace.

Contents:

Foam earplugs

As a group, foam earplugs are the most effective noise reduction earplugs. They are rolled into a tightly compressed cylinder and inserted into the ear canal. They slowly expand to perfectly conform to the shape of your ear canal.

foam earplugs-tapered-cylindrical

If you insert them deeply, they can be very effective at blocking noise, including low frequency noise.

This post explains how to insert them and test their fit.

I have successfully used foam earplugs against humming noise as low as 40-50 Hz.

Note: In the US, noise reduction data for earplugs and earmuffs is typically published only down to the 125 Hz octave band, in Europe down to 63 Hz.

Foam earplugs are available in different sizes and shapes, with the slightly tapered plug and the cylindrical plug being the most common ones.

Because there are so many options and sizes, almost everyone can find foam earplugs that fit their ear and are comfortable.

Foam earplugs have a noise reduction rating (NRR) of up to 33, the highest rating available for any earplug. The typical range for foam is from 28 to 33.

Tip: The NRR provides guidance, but it is an average, so don’t just hunt for the highest NRR. You may find an NRR 29 earplug that fits you better and hence reduces more noise.

Examples

Tapered: Flents Quiet Time (NRR 33), Moldex Purafit (NRR 33), 3M Yellow Neons (312-1250) (NRR 33)

Cylindrical: Flents Quiet Please (NRR 29), 3M E-A-R Classic (NRR 29) (the first foam earplugs)

Read my review and size information for the above-mentioned earplugs.

Where are foam earplugs used?

  • Almost anywhere where noise reduction is required
  • Hearing protection in a loud work environment
  • Hearing protector at the range*
  • Sleep, Studying, Travel, Meditation
  • Snore blocking earplugs
  • At entertainment venues (concerts, loud bars)

*Note: for both indoor ranges and outdoor ranges, NIOSH recommends wearing double hearing protection (i.e., earplugs and earmuffs).

Because foam earplugs are soft and pliable, and offer good low-frequency noise reduction, they are great for doubling up, i.e., wearing them in conjunction with hearing protection earmuffs.

Advantages

  • Very effective noise reduction
  • No rigid parts
  • Comfortable because they conform to your ear canal
  • Many different sizes and shapes to choose from

Disadvantages

  • Not one size fits all. You may need to try different earplugs to find your ideal match.
  • You need to practice how to optimally insert foam earplugs for maximum protection. Poor insertion can lead to little or no protection.
  • Some people cannot tolerate any pressure in their ear canal.
  • Foam earplugs are not suitable for swimming.
  • For some purposes, foam earplugs are too effective. They can interfere with communication.
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Reusable earplugs (pre-molded)

Reusable silicone earplugs usually have a stem (more or less rigid) to make insertion easier and three or even four soft flanges attached to the stem.  Other types feature a single rubbery cone or dome.

To insert them, you pull your ear (pinna) up and outwards, gently push the earplug in, and then release your ear. You can also twist or wiggle the plug a bit, but don’t use force.

All flanges should be in the ear canal.

Reusable earplugs

If they fit well, most types are watertight.

In terms of maximum achievable noise reduction, the best reusable silicone earplugs are second only to foam earplugs.

Noise reduction ratings from 20 to 28 are common, with some types going even higher.

However, because they are pre-molded, reusable earplugs do not conform to the ear canal as well as foam earplugs. If you have an odd-shaped canal it may be difficult to get a good seal with this type of earplug.

While many people use them every day for eight hours, they tend to be less comfortable than foam earplugs.

Personally, I recommend them for shorter time periods. They tend to irritate my ear canal more easily than foam earplugs.

Be careful to remove reusable earplugs slowly to prevent air from rushing in too quickly. Otherwise, sudden air pressure changes may violently move your ear drum.

Dr. Neil Bauman has written a wonderful article on how and why you need to remove reusable earplugs slowly.

Because of their more or less rigid stem, many pre-molded earplugs can become uncomfortable if you sleep on your side.

On the other hand, reusable earplugs are a good option for swimmers as they tend to form a watertight seal.

They need to be properly cleaned to prevent infections.

Examples

Where are reusable earplugs used?

  • Hearing protection in a loud work environment
  • Swimming (some models are even specifically designed for swimming)
  • Studying, travel, meditation, and sleep (some types have a soft stem)
  • At entertainment venues (concerts, loud bars)

Advantages

  • Washable and reusable
  • Can provide a watertight seal
  • Only the stem (but not the plug) needs to be touched when inserting reusable earplugs
  • No roll-down necessary

Disadvantages

  • They don’t work for some ear canals.
  • Reusable earplugs are not as comfortable as foam, wax, or silicone putty earplugs.
  • Most types are not as effective as foam earplugs
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Wax earplugs

Invented in 1907, moldable wax earplugs were the first commercially available earplugs. Typically paraffin wax recipes are used.

Wax earplugs

To apply them, you remove any surrounding cotton wool, warm the wax in your hand and roll it into a ball. The ball is then flattened over the ear canal entrance.  (Optionally pull up your ear a bit during application.)

These earplugs are designed to only seal the canal entrance.

moldable-earplug-applied

Never try to insert them into the ear canal as you may not be able to remove them.

Some companies, such as Quies, use pure wax, while others, such as Ohropax, use a somewhat stickier wax-vaseline-cotton mix. For me, both work equally well against noise.

In my experience, pure wax earplugs are slightly more prone to losing their seal than wax-cotton-mix plugs, but they also leave fewer residues.

Because wax earplugs are moldable and only seal the ear canal entrance, they are very comfortable.

On the flipside, because they may not be deeply inserted, they reduce less noise (most apparent with lower frequency noise) and consequently have a lower noise reduction rating than foam and most reusable silicone earplugs.

For more details, please also check my post Foam vs Wax vs Silicone Putty Earplugs.

Examples

  • Ohropax Classic (NRR 23)
  • Quies (No U.S. NRR; comparable noise reduction to Ohropax)

Typical noise reduction rating

  • 22-23

Where are wax earplugs used?

  • For sleep, studying, travel, and meditation
  • Against everyday noises when moderate noise reduction is required
  • For people who can’t tolerate any pressure in their ear canal

Advantages

  • Easy to apply
  • Very comfortable
  • No pressure in the ear canal

Disadvantages

  • Wax earplugs don’t reduce as much noise as foam and reusable silicone earplugs, in particular lower-frequency noise.
  • They are only moderately effective against snoring and machine noise.
  • Body generated sounds (chewing, speech…) can get amplified and sound boomy. (=occlusion effect)
  • Wax earplugs cannot be cleaned.
  • They can leave a residue on your hand and your ear canal entrance.
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Silicon putty earplugs

Moldable silicone putty earplugs are very similar to wax earplugs both in terms of noise reduction effectiveness and use cases.

However, in addition to everyday noise reduction (sleep, studying, travel, meditation), silicone putty earplugs are very good for keeping water out when swimming.

Silicone putty earplugs

These earplugs too are kneaded into a ball and flattened over the ear canal opening.

And like wax ear plugs, silicone putty earplugs may not be shaped into a cone or inserted into the ear canal. You might not get them out in one piece!

Subjectively, it appears to me that silicone putty earplugs leave somewhat fewer residues than wax earplugs.

For more details on silicone putty earplugs, please read the post Foam vs Wax vs Silicone Putty Earplugs.

Examples

  • Mack’s Pillow Soft (NRR 22)
  • Mack’s Silicone Putty kids size/small (NRR 22)

Where are silicone putty earplugs used?

  • To keep water out when swimming, bathing, or showering
  • For sleep, studying, travel, and meditation
  • Against everyday noises when moderate noise reduction is required
  • For people who can’t tolerate any pressure in their ear canal

Advantages

  • Easy to apply
  • Very comfortable
  • No pressure in the ear canal

Disadvantages

  • Silicone putty earplugs don’t reduce as much noise as foam and reusable silicone earplugs, in particular lower frequency noise.
  • They are only moderately effective against snoring and machine noise.
  • Body generated sounds (chewing, speech…) can get amplified and sound boomy. (=occlusion effect).
  • They cannot be cleaned.
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Earplugs for musicians / music earplugs

Loud music can damage your hearing in the same way less pleasant noises can. Musicians as well as people who go to concerts or work in dance clubs are at risk.

musician earplugs with changeable eartips

In fact, hearing loss and tinnitus are common among musicians.

But even when the noise level in a louder restaurant, pub, or club doesn’t exceed the threshold where hearing protection is mandated, there can still be negative health consequences for staff as well as frequent visitors.

Most earplugs that effectively reduce noise, such as foam earplugs or reusable silicone earplugs, can help at a concert as well.

The problem with standard earplugs is that they don’t attenuate all frequencies evenly.

As a consequence, the music sounds distorted, muffled or “under water,” lacking higher frequencies.

In addition, foam earplugs can be too effective for moderate noise environments, making communication difficult.

A waiter/waitress in a bar isn’t going to wear earplugs if they can’t understand customers’ orders.

Music earplugs attempt to provide a more even noise reduction across the frequency range.

Most music earplugs employ an acoustic filter to accomplish this.

What’s more, some models come with multiple filters with different noise reduction ratings, allowing you to swap out the filter according to how loud your environment is.

musician earplugs with changeable filters

However, most music earplugs have significantly lower noise reduction ratings than foam, “normal” reusable, and even wax and silicone putty earplugs.

If you are interested in this type of earplug for professional or very frequent use (especially in a high noise environment), it may be worthwhile to invest in custom molded earplugs (see section below), which can also be made with acoustic filters.

Examples

Where are musician earplugs used?

  • At concerts and clubs
  • In bars, pubs, and restaurants
  • Some flight attendants use them too

Advantages

  • More even noise reduction across the frequency range; better preservation of sound fidelity
  • Reusable
  • Moderate attenuation, less impact on the ability to communicate
  • Some types have changeable filters with different noise reduction ratings

Disadvantages

  • Not one size fits all but with many types only one size is available.
  • They don’t work for some ear canals.
  • The noise level at some concerts and clubs is so high that I would still feel too exposed with low-NRR music earplugs. Better additionally carry a well-fitting pair (practice before the event!) of high-NRR earplugs with you (e.g., foam).
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Flight earplugs

During take-off and landing, cabin air pressure changes much faster than our ears can adjust. The result can be airplane ear: ear pain, muffled hearing, and a feeling of stuffiness in your ear.

Flight earplugs typically contain a small ceramic filter that slows down these pressure changes, giving the ear more time to adjust.

flight earplugs

In addition to wearing earplugs, you still need to do something (e.g., yawn, swallow) to equalize the pressure.

I have tried to just rely on earplugs and not engage in any pressure equalization exercises, and felt discomfort for several hours after the flight.

Ideally, put in your flight earplugs before take-off and about 1 hour before landing. They can be removed at cruising altitude.

You can also keep them in to reduce airplane noise. Some flight earplugs are also excellent noise blockers.

Examples

Where are flight earplugs used

  • On a plane to help with pressure changes, prevent ear pain and reduce noise

Disadvantages

  • Not one size fits all.
  • Like other multi-flange earplugs, they don’t work for some ear canals.
  • Some are good only for one round-trip, making them quite expensive over time.
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Custom-molded earplugs

Shape, length, and diameter of ear canals vary widely among people.

No two ear canals are the same; your left ear is very likely different from your right ear.

To compensate, some people even wear a different earplug in each ear. I can insert the same foam earplug more deeply in my left ear than in my right one.

If you have an odd ear canal shape, standard reusable silicone earplugs may not work for you at all or remain uncomfortable.

With custom earplugs, an impression of each ear canal is taken, usually by an audiologist.  These impressions are then used to manufacture custom molded earplugs that conform precisely to the shape of each of your ear canals.

custom-molded-earplugs-with-ER25-acoustic-filter

It is self-evident that the quality of your custom earplugs depends largely on getting the impressions right.

The noise reduction effectiveness varies with type and purpose.

Your audiologist may be able to test how well your fitted earplugs reduce noise and give you a personal attenuation rating.

Custom molded earplugs can be made for almost any purpose you may need earplugs for

  • Sleeping and everyday noise reduction
  • Protecting hearing in a loud work environment
  • Swimming
  • Earplugs for shooting and hunting
  • Musician earplugs with acoustic filters (like the one shown in the image above)
  • Motorcycle earplugs

Advantages

  • Reliable, comfortable fit: they are made for your ears
  • Highly effective at reducing noise (But not necessarily more effective than well-fitted foam earplugs.)
  • Cleanable and reusable
  • Available for a large variety of different purposes

Disadvantages

  • Lead time to make them
  • Expensive

That’s it. Have a great day!


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