There are many different types of hearing protectors, but the absolute best – in the sheer amount of noise reduction that they provide – are foam inserts. The problem is, not everyone uses foam inserts properly.
To properly use foam inserts, about ¾ of the insert needs to go down inside your ear canal. If you don’t get it into the right spot in your ear, to where you can just barely remove it with your fingertips, then it is not providing you the prescribed level of safety that it says on the package.
Here, I’ll show you how to properly use two different foam ear plugs available on the market.
Take the earplug and roll it between your fingers and thumbs length-wise until it is a skinny cylinder. Once it is skinny and flattened, pull your ear back to straighten out your ear canal and work the ear plug down inside your ear. Once you’ve gotten it far inside your ear, hold your finger in your ear until the ear plug expands entirely. If you do not place your finger in your ear, the ear plug will expand outside of your ear rather than inside. As long as you hold your finger there, it will expand in the right direction.
In just a few seconds, I can already hear that it has dropped the sound of my voice incredibly low. If it is in properly, then you should barely be able to pull it out with your fingernails.
For a visual demonstration, watch the video above. You can see how deeply the ear plug is inserted inside my ear canal. When you look at me straight on, you cannot even tell that I am wearing a protector!
What you shouldn’t do: Don’t just take the protector and stick it into your ear, where it is visibly hanging over your outer ear. This provides zero protection – you might as well not even wear hearing protection if you insert it this way! Additionally, do not mash the ear plug vertically and then insert it into your ear canal, as it will not expand properly inside your ear canal.
Howard Leight ear plugs are a little bit softer than the yellow ones from 3M, but they still provide a really good amount of protection for your hearing. To insert these properly, you’ll follow the same maneuver as with the 3M yellow plugs. Take the Howard Leight protector between your fingers and thumb and roll it length-wise until it is a nice, skinny cylinder. Again, pull your ear back, insert it down inside the ear canal, hold your finger over your ear, and wait for the ear plug to expand. The Howard Leight protector expands a little quicker than the 3M protector. Again, wait for the ear plug to fully expand within your ear canal before removing your finger.
What you shouldn’t do: Do not stick the unflattened ear plug into your ear and try to work it down inside your ear canal. It won’t provide you any protection whatsoever. If you’re at a concert or shooting at the range, it will not provide you with any hearing protection. You could end up with tinnitus or hearing loss – and then you’re going to have to come see me!
Just using foam hearing protection in 99% of your circumstances will provide you with more than adequate protection to prevent against noise-induced hearing loss. The one exception is shooting. If you’re going to the gun range or you just like to shoot, and you’re shooting really high caliber rifles, then you will want to double-protect your hearing – which means using foam inserts and then getting a pair of earmuffs to wear over your ears.
A common misconception is that earmuffs are the most effective hearing protection on the market. They are not – especially if they do not produce a perfect seal around your ear. Without a perfect seal, they do not provide you the prescribed amount of noise reduction that they say on the packaging.
There is absolutely no excuse for you to not be protecting your hearing, whether you’re going to a concert, sporting event, gun range, or riding your lawn mower. You should be using hearing protection in all of these situations.
Nothing would make me happier than to never have another patient with noise-induced hearing loss come into my clinic – but if we’re going to make that happen, we’re going to have start protecting our hearing and protecting it the right way!
Dr. Clifford Olson, Audiologist and former Marine Corps Scout Sniper from Applied Hearing Solutions in Anthem Arizona, teaches the proper way to insert foam earplugs.