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Guidemaster: Best Earplugs for Better Sleep
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Guidemaster: Best Earplugs for Better Sleep

Part of our series on getting better sleep.

Nobody likes trying to sleep in a noisy spot. Each car zipping by at night and each screaming child on an airplane has the potential to rip you right out of your peaceful slumber.

Earplugs are one of those handy tools you really miss when you realize you don’t have them. But how much can earplugs actually improve sleep?

It turns out, a lot. Let’s see what the research has to say about earplugs for sleeping.

Most studies on using earplugs to improve sleep quality focus on noises in hospital environments, which can be very disruptive. As expected, research shows that noisy disruptions increase awakenings, brain activity, and heart rate. (And electronic noises are the worst offenders; make sure your phone is on silent!)1Sleep Disruption due to Hospital Noises: A Prospective Evaluation

Many of these studies show that the use of earplugs does increase sleep quality and reduce the number of awakenings.2Earplugs improve patients’ subjective experience of sleep in critical care In addition, sleep quality can be improved even more with the addition of a face mask.3Effects of earplugs and eye masks on nocturnal sleep, melatonin and cortisol in a simulated intensive care unit environment

So earplugs help to reduce noise, and in turn help to maintain deeper sleep. But how can this be true when you can still hear most noises through earplugs?

Noisey Thresholds

The human brain is designed to key in on quick, sharp changes in the environment.

For example, if someone flashes a camera in a dark room, you’re going to look for the source of that shocking contrast. However, if a camera flashes outside on a bright, sunny day, you may not even notice.

Similarly, when a noise interrupts a silent baseline, the brain focuses on it. But if that noise is quiet enough, the brain won’t take note. There’s not enough contrast from the baseline for the brain to think it’s important, just like the bright flash outside isn’t very noticeable compared to the sunshine.

Earplugs can’t completely eliminate sounds, but by reducing them closer to the baseline, they help the brain remain relaxed.

To double up on this effect, you can even raise that baseline by playing white noise through a speaker or earmuffs. Research has demonstrated that it’s not the noises themselves that wake people up, but rather how much louder they are compared to the baseline noise level.4The influence of white noise on sleep in subjects exposed to ICU noise

Through a combination of sleep earplugs, sleep earmuffs, and/or a white noise generator, you might just find the deep sleep you’re looking for.

a person trying to sleep with a pillow on their head
Reducing noise spikes by using earplugs, ear muffs, and/or white noise can help improve sleep quality.

Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)

One term that will often crop up when searching for the best earplugs for sleeping is NRR. This stands for Noise Reduction Rating, and indicates the potential for protection from noise, measured in decibels (dB). Most earplugs will vary in NRR rating from NRR 20 dB to NRR 33 dB, with higher ratings indicating more protection.

We’ll save the science and math behind NRR ratings for another time. For our purposes here, it’s important to understand that there is no earplug that can block out all noise.

Just know that every earplug has an NRR rating that you can use to decide whether it will reduce enough sound for you. Since peace and quiet are so important to sleep quality, it’s a good idea to stick with higher NRR ratings.

It should go without saying, but the NRR rating doesn’t matter a whole lot if the earplugs don’t fit. If you’re looking for the best earplugs for sleep, don’t stick with an awkwardly fitting pair just because they have a high NRR.

At the end of the guide, there are some recommendations on earplugs with a tight seal.

Double Duty: Earplugs and Earmuffs

If you want some extra sound dampening, you can combine high-NRR earplugs with high-NRR earmuffs. Although this doesn’t simply double the NRR, it does provide a little extra protection. Slipping on a pair of comfortable sleep earmuffs over a pair of well-fitting earplugs can really help to drift off to dreamland.

As mentioned above, throwing some white noise into the mix can help to prevent being woken up by noises. A combination of high-NRR earplugs and earmuffs with a white noise maker is the best way to block out as much sound as possible.

You might kill two birds with one stone by picking up a pair of high-NRR earmuffs with speakers for the white noise, but it might be tough to find a pair comfortable enough for sleep.

a woman uses her fingers as earplugs to block out sound
The higher then NRR (Noise Reduction Rating), the more sound a pair of earplugs or ear muffs can block out.

Types of Earplugs

Here’s a breakdown of the most common types of earplugs, arranged from most basic to most effective.

Foam Earplugs

Foam earplugs are the type people are most familiar with. These squishy little guys are super inexpensive, so they usually come in packs of 50 or more. And that’s not without reason; they aren’t meant to be very reusable.

For several reasons, foam earplugs should be discarded after a few uses.

  1. They aren’t very washable, so it’s difficult to keep them hygienic. You risk exposure to bacteria and other foreign bodies over time since you can’t wash them without them getting all spongy.
  2. They start to lose their moldability after a handful of uses. This makes them quickly spring back to their original shape, making it tough to squish into your ear.

But don’t worry—they’re cheap! Just grab a new pair from the pack.

Keep it Simple: Foam Earplugs

If you’ve only ever tried foam earplugs, you’re in for a treat! Here are some other great options.

Wax/Putty Earplugs

Wax earplugs and putty earplugs are another great budget option for sound dampening. They may seem a little strange if you’ve never used them before, but they’re easy to get used to.

To use wax earplugs, you just pinch off a small chunk of the wax or putty and press it into your ear. This produces an excellent seal, which can even be waterproof (depending on the exact material).

And although you should still dispose of the material after a few uses, it’s really nice not having to worry about these earplugs losing their shape.

Sound Sealing: Wax Earplugs

Although wax earplugs and putty earplugs are good budget options, reusable earplugs are much better for long-term use. And they’re more sustainable! Here are the most common types.

Reusable Silicone Earplugs

Silicone earplugs are the most inexpensive type of long-term reusable earplugs. The rubbery material is easy to wash and keeps its shape for a long time. And they come in lots of different colors!

If you want a high Noise Reduction Rating (NRR), silicone earplugs are the entry point.

While foam earplugs sport that short log design, silicone earplugs are typically molded with 3 or 4 little chambers to help dampen even more sound. In fact, most earplugs for construction workers, musicians, and other high-noise professionals are shaped this way. They’re a great for blocking a lot of sound!

High-End Silicone Earplugs

Custom Molded Earplugs

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If you’re really wanting the highest performance reusable earplugs, you can’t beat custom molded earplugs. They combine the best elements of all the above into one complete package.

Most custom molded earplugs will feature the aforementioned silicone construction for ideal sound dampening in the ear canal. The three- or fourfold conical chambers helps to dampen as much sound as possible.

A little farther out of the ear, custom molded earplugs usually sport a more malleable material for a tight seal. Depending on the product, you’ll likely have to heat up this component then press it into your ear to get the perfect seal. Make sure to follow the instructions for whichever custom molded earplug you choose.

If you’re already using high-end earplugs but still can’t block out enough noise to sleep deeply, don’t fret. Check out our sleep ear muffs guide for options on doubling up your noise isolation.