If you choose to tackle your commute, gym session, desk job, or grocery shopping with the aid of good music or your favorite podcast, chances are you’re spending a lot of time wearing headphones. With more of us plugged in to portable devices than ever, should we be worrying about the impact of sending sound straight into our eardrums? The World Health Organization thinks so: They’ve warned that listening to audio devices too loud and for too long is damaging the hearing of millions of teenagers and young adults. So how can we protect our hearing while also enjoying our favorite songs or podcasts? Listen up.

How Bad Are Headphones, Really?

A woman wearing headphones leans against a bright red brick wall

This question has intrigued experts since the Walkman (RIP) came out in the late ‘80s, says Dr. Marco Jurado, an audiologist at Austin Regional Clinic in Texas. Dr. Jurado shares that the data is mixed: “Some studies have suggested that the prevalence of noise-induced hearing loss was on the increase until the mid-2000s, whereas more recent studies have shown that it’s actually decreased in younger populations.” Regardless of how many young people are experiencing hearing loss, the experts agreed that the prevalence of headphones and earbuds have become a major contributing factor. “There are a number of causes of hearing loss, such as genetics or as a side effect of other illnesses, but the main culprit is noise, in particular, excessive use of headphones and earbuds,” says Dr. Leigh Hogan, an audiologist and founder of Hear Well Audiology.

It’s not simply that headphones are closer to your eardrums that makes them dangerous: As with any noise, it’s the volume that determines the impact on your hearing. Audiologist Dr. Meryl Hochdorf Miller from the Audiological Consultants of Atlanta in Georgia explains: “Sound loses energy, and therefore intensity, as it travels. If the sound coming out of your headphones is the same volume level as that emitted from a speaker, it is more dangerous, because the sound doesn’t travel as far to your eardrums.” The good news, then, is that headphones aren’t inherently damaging — but we have to use them responsibly.

What Makes for Good Headphones?

A woman dances while listening to music on headphones

Given that the louder you listen, the more damage you’re doing, it’s best to look for headphones that reduce your urge to turn up the volume. Luckily, technology is here to help. “Noise-canceling or noise-reducing headphones mean you don’t have to increase the volume to overcome noise around you,” Dr. Miller points out. “Also, make sure that your headphones fit well. If they’re loose or tend to work their way out of your ears, you’re more likely to increase the volume to make up for the lost sound. If you have small ear canals, try over-the-ear headphones, earbuds that have a very small tip on the end, or having custom molds made.” That said, remember that it’s not just your hearing you have to think about when you’re walking down the street with your music blaring. “Be mindful of your surroundings when using noise canceling technology,” Dr. Jurado cautions. “There are some loud ambient sounds, like a car honk or approaching ambulance siren, that we still need to hear.”

If you feel comfortable broadcasting the fact you’re listening to a device and don’t mind carting around the extra bulk, headphones might be a better choice than earbuds. Dr. Whitney Hardy, a family medicine specialist with Ochsner Health System, warns, “Earbuds are more dangerous than headphones, because they sit closer to the eardrum and provide more direct vibration, increasing the decibel level of the sound by seven to nine decibels from its original level.” Solid justification for the headphones-as-accessory look.

What’s the Safest Usage?

A woman holding a basketball browses her phone with earbuds in

The two key components of safe headphone use that all of our experts pointed to are, as Dr. Miller summarizes, how long and how loud? She describes a formula to keep in mind: “80 decibels (dB) is safe for up to eight hours: That’s about as loud as the garbage disposal in your sink. For every 3 dB you add to the volume, you have to cut the time in half. So if I listen to music at 83 dB and want to keep it at a safe level, I have to cut my listening time to four hours. At 86 dB, I will be safe at two hours, and so on.” So how do we make sure we’re not going over 80 dB? “Set the music so only you can hear it. If you turn headphones up loud enough that someone else in the same room can hear, it’s too loud.”

Don’t automatically trust your smartphone to protect you, either. “Many smartphones and MP3 players can reach a maximum volume as high as 100 dB, which is only safe for five minutes,” Dr. Hardy tells us. “A good rule to remember is the 60/60 rule, which is to listen for 60 minutes at 60 percent volume, then give your ears a break.”

One clue that the volume is too high, Dr. Jurado says, is tinnitus — that ringing in your ears you’ve probably experienced after going to a gig or a noisy nightclub. This specific form of tinnitus is known as a temporary threshold shift because it fades after a few hours, but “continuing use at this volume will certainly lead to hearing loss.” Unfortunately, it’s hard to know if overexposure to loud noises is damaging your hearing until it’s too late. Dr. Hogan says other symptoms to look out for are “feeling like your ears are full; difficulty understanding speech; having to ask people to repeat themselves; and having to turn the volume up on the TV or radio. If you notice any of these signs, get tested by a licensed audiologist.”

Even if you don’t — and especially if you use headphones a lot — Dr. Miller recommends getting tested to establish your baseline hearing, so you have a control to compare to later. Hearing safety might not be the height of rock ‘n’ roll, but take the careful approach now, and you can be tuning out the world with your headphones for years to come.

What headphones are your jam? Share them with us @BritandCo.

(Photos via Getty)