Outside noise can be a major sleep disruption, and many people rely on earplugs to get a good night’s rest. Situations where earplugs may come in handy include the following:
Your sleep partner snores
You are staying in a hotel or other overnight accommodation with high noise potential
Your bedroom is located near a busy street or loud commercial establishment
You are traveling by plane, train, or another form of public transport
Earplugs for sleeping are relatively inexpensive compared to other noise-blocking products (such as white noise machines or headphones), and are widely available through online and brick-and-mortar retailers. Users can also choose from a wide range of shapes and styles. However, it’s important to note that long-term earplug use can lead to medical conditions like tinnitus, hearing loss, and ear infections.
This guide will look at the most popular designs for earplugs, information about health risks, and our picks for the top-rated earplugs sold today.
Earplugs for Sleeping: Common Designs and Characteristics
The majority of earplugs sold today are made from one of three materials:
Foam: This is the most common type of earplug material, and these models are usually the cheapest. Foam earplugs are designed to fit inside the ear canal, where they expand to create a relatively soundproof barrier. High-density polyurethane foams tend to be most effective at blocking outside noise, though overly dense foam may cause comfort issues. Foam earplugs come in a wide range of shapes, but most are cylindrical with slight tapering.
Silicone: Unlike foam earplugs, which are inserted into the ear canal, silicone earplugs are designed to cover the entrance of the ear without much penetration. This makes them fairly easy to remove. Silicone earplugs are typically more expensive than foam models — but in many cases, they can be reused.
Wax: Wax earplugs are fairly rare, and can be relatively expensive despite their one-time-use design. However, many users claim they are the most effective material for blocking outside noise.
A wide range of earplug shapes are available. These include cylindrical (tapered and non-tapered), circular, bell-shaped, and T-shaped designs, as well as moldable models that match the specific dimensions of the user’s ear canal. Regardless of shape, most earplugs sold today share the following characteristics.
Size: Some earplugs are one-size-fits-all, while others may come in multiple sizes to accommodate users with different ear dimensions.
Multiple use: Select foam and silicone earplug models are reusable, but most are designed for one-time use.
Noise Reduction Rating: Earplugs sold today come with a Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR, which is measured in decibels (dB). The NRR may fall anywhere from 20 to 34; the higher the NRR, the more effective the earplugs are at blocking outside noise.
Price-point: Earplugs are quite inexpensive, and often sold in bulk. The average 50-, 100- or 200-piece set of one-time-use earplugs costs less than $30, giving them an individual price of less than 20 cents per pair. Reusable earplugs are sold in smaller quantities (typically no more than 25 pairs), and have an average price-point of 70 to 80 cents per pair.
Health Risks for People Who Sleep with Earplugs
Nightly earplug use is associated with three general health and safety risks:
Earwax Impaction: Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a substance secreted (or drained) in the ear canal on a daily basis. It protects the skin and tissue of the inner ear against contaminants like bacteria and fungi, as well as water, and provides much-needed lubrication. Wearing earplugs can affect how much earwax is drained, and this can lead to earwax impaction, or buildup. One common side effect of earwax impaction is tinnitus, a condition characterized by a constant ringing in the ears. Other outcomes may include hearing loss, leaky discharge, or ear infections.
The best way for earplug users to prevent earwax impaction is to thoroughly clean the ear canal on a regular basis — if not every day, then multiple times per week. Cleaning and replacing earplugs can also help reduce the risk of impaction.
Ear Infections: In addition to infections caused by earwax impaction, people who use earplugs may become infected if they do not regularly and properly clean their plugs. Failure to do so allows bacteria to accumulate, and placing bacteria-infested plugs in one’s ear canal can easily lead to an infection. Foam is particularly conducive to bacteria buildup. For this reason, many earplugs are designed for one-time use.
To clean reusable earplugs, simply submerge them in warm water and rub away dirt and waxy buildup. Once they are clean, place the earplugs under running cold water to rinse away any traces of soap, which can affect the structural integrity of the earplugs. Lastly, place them on a clean towel to dry.
Minimized Hearing: Because they effectively block outside noise, earplugs can pose a risk to sleepers by preventing them from hearing certain activities in their home. These include emergency situations, such as a fire or home intruder, as well as medical issues involving family members or roommates. People with young children may want to refrain from using earplugs for this reason.
Important Considerations for Earplug Shoppers
When shopping for earplugs for sleeping and comparing different brands and models, here are a few factors to keep in mind:
What size is your ear/ear canal? Most earplugs are designed to fit all ear and/or ear canal sizes, but some may be too narrow or wide for certain users.
What shape are the earplugs? Whether cylindrical, bell-shaped, T-shaped, or moldable, the choice of shape often comes down to personal preference.
What material are the earplugs? Foam earplugs are far more common and lower-priced than other earplug options, but not as durable as wax or silicone models.
What is the Noise Reduction Rating? The NRR for most earplugs falls between 20 and 34, but models with an NRR of 27 or higher are considered the most effective.
Are the earplugs reusable? The per-pair price-point of reusable earplugs will be considerably higher than that of one-time-use models.
How much do the earplugs cost? Typically, a box of 50 to 200 pairs of one-time-use earplugs will cost $30 or less; boxes of reusable earplugs (which may contain up to 25 pairs) typically cost $20 or less.
Best Earplugs for Sleeping: Brands and Models
Now, let’s look at the sleeping earplugs that have earned the highest ratings from owners. The two tables below feature our 10 top-rated picks. All satisfaction ratings have been generated from authentic customer experiences.
If you’re unable to sleep despite using earplugs, then you may be more satisfied with one of these noise-blocking alternatives.
Headphones: Listening to music while you sleep can be an effective method of blocking outside noise, and some studies suggest this may also lower your heart rate. Headphones come in in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear designs, and some newer models are built into headbands or sleep masks. Cheaper headphones are available for less than $30, while higher-end models may cost $200 or more. To learn more, please visit our Best Headphones for Sleeping guide.
White noise machines: White noise machines produce random sound signals that can mask outside noise to a significant extent. Many sleepers utilize these machines when they go to bed. In addition to white noise, the machines may produce other ‘colors’ of noise, such as pink, blue, red, and brown noise — all of which increase or decrease volume per tempo for different listening experiences and sound-masking capabilities.
Most white noise machine models come with speakers and headphone jacks to accommodate different listening preferences. These machines rarely cost more than $100, and are widely available through brick-and-mortar and online retailers. For more information, check out our White Noise Machine Reviews guide.
Apps: Today’s smartphone or tablet user can choose from a wide selection of soothing, noise-blocking apps. Most are free, and come with multiple white noise and ambient options. The most popular white noise apps priced at $2 or less include the following: