Earplugs Versus Earmuffs

Once your hearing goes bad, there's no getting it back. That's why it's important to wear quality ear protection. The two main choices for ear protection are earplugs and earmuffs - one relatively small and unassuming and the other quite a bit bulkier. Here's how they stack up against each other.

Earplugs

Unlike earmuffs, which cover the entire ear, earplugs fit inside the ear canal. The most common and least expensive earplug is the moldable foam variety, which expands after insertion to provide a snug fit. Foam earplugs are generally worn once and discarded. They are quite effective at blocking noise when properly fitted. Earplugs are generally less expensive than ear muffs but they are also less durable.

Pre-molded earplugs are flexible, tapered inserts that are preformed to fit the ear. They are more expensive than foam earplugs but can be washed and reused several times before being discarded. The effectiveness of pre-molded earplugs is limited by how well they fit inside the ear canal. In general, their noise attenuation performance is no better than foam earplugs.

Custom molded ear plugs are cast from the user’s own ear canals. Contrary to common belief, this custom fitting does not ensure that they will provide better noise protection than other types of earplugs.

Semi-insert ear plugs, aka canal caps or semi-aural devices, consist of two ear plugs held over the ends of the ear canal by a rigid metal or plastic headband. These devices are easily inserted and removed although the level of hearing protection is typically less than that afforded by other types of earplugs.



Earmuffs

Earmuffs create a seal around the outside of the ear to prevent noise from reaching the inner ear. They are held in place by a metal or plastic band, effectively providing a pressure fit.

There are two main types of earmuffs: passive and electronic. Passive earmuffs, the most common choice in industry, utilize acoustic foam inside the muffs (or cups) to block incoming sound waves. Electronic earmuffs employ circuits to amplify or attenuate certain sounds, or add other specialized features to the earmuff. For example, Active Noise Reduction (ANR) earmuffs use sophisticated phase-reversing circuitry to cancel incoming sound energy.

Noise Attenuation

Properly fitted earplugs, as a group, provide better noise attenuation or blocking than earmuffs because it is more efficient to seal an ear canal with an earplug than it is to seal the pinna (outer projecting ear) with an earmuff. However, the difficulty in obtaining a proper deep insertion prevents many earplug users from achieving optimal attenuation.

Government safety guidelines in North America specify that workers should wear ear protection if occupational noise levels exceed 85 dB. Properly fitted earplugs or muffs reduce noise 15 to 30 dB. The better earplugs and muffs are approximately equal in sound reduction, although earplugs are better for low frequency noise and earmuffs for high frequency noise.

Earmuffs provide more consistent and repeatable attenuation due to their improved ease in obtaining a proper fit and convenience for intermittent noise exposure. For these reasons, earmuffs tend to provide better overall noise protection.

The combination of foam ear plugs and earmuffs provides the highest levels of noise protection. However, this so-called dual protection isolates the wearer so it is warranted only for extreme noise levels. Note that the noise blocking is not doubled - one study found that there is only about a 4 to 7 dB benefit to wearing earplugs and earmuffs simultaneously.

Cost

Comfort and Convenience

According to the American Industrial Hygiene Association, over three quarters of employees wearing hearing protection against occupational noise, select earplugs over earmuffs. This is likely because earplugs are lighter, less bulky, less expensive, and less intrusive. They are also more comfortable, especially in hot, humid work environments. People who have sideburns or wear thick-framed glasses, may find earmuffs to be uncomfortable and/or difficult to get a proper seal around the ear. Earplugs are often a better choice for these people.

Earmuffs are easy to wear and usually provide a more consistent fit than an earplug. They are also more convenient than earplugs for multiple applications and removals during the day. For example, earmuffs are easy to put on and take off if you are working intermittently with power tools or vacuuming. In such scenarios, earplug users find it inconvenient to repeatedly remove and reinsert earplugs.