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Noise-cancelling headphones are good for our ears

As it turns out, while many of us are steadily destroying our hearing with unsafe listening practices, noise-cancellation might actually be our one saving grace, protecting us from the incessant din of the outside world and the neglected effects of this on our health.

I wear noise-cancelling headphones every single day, often for hours at a time.

As someone who’s prone to sensory overload, they’ve changed my life, making commuting to the office, walking down busy streets, and grocery shopping a great deal more bearable.

Before managing to save enough money to splurge on some AirPods, I would regularly struggle with the incessant din of urban life.

Based in London, exploring the city would constantly leave me heavily overstimulated and rushing back home to the quiet confines of my bedroom.

Now, however, with a quick press and hold, I can instantly block out the racket, and though I already knew this was beneficial for my sanity, what I didn’t know is how much it benefits my ears as well.

In 2023, parliament released a report titled ‘neglected pollutants: the effects of artificial light and noise on human health.’

In essence, it questioned what the increasing loudness of our world is doing to our bodies (answer: it’s not good).

Beyond disrupting sleep, heightening the risk of a stroke or heart disease, and even reducing our lifespan, – according to data from UKHSA a total of 130,000 healthy years of life are lost to noise pollution in Britain annually – as you can imagine it’s also wreaking havoc on our hearing.

To elaborate, you can safely listen to sounds at 85 decibels for up to eight hours, but because of the way hearing damage works, that time drops abruptly with small surges in volume from there.

‘If the sound goes up to 88 decibels, it is safe to listen to those same sounds for four hours,’ explains the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

‘And if the sound goes up to 91 decibels, you’re safe listening time is down to two hours’

This is why, as the World Health Organisation has warned, over a billion young adults are at risk of permanent, avoidable hearing loss.

Because they’re almost always blasting their music at full volume to overpower their surrounding environment and ignoring alerts that they’re ‘exceeding the recommended limit for audio exposure.’

This is where noise-cancelling headphones come in.

If you’re not one of those people partial to turning up the volume, these bad boys may well be your saving grace.

Though debates about whether or not this feature is harmful have been circulating ever since this new technology became available (and widely popular), I’m here to tell you that it’s not.

Active noise-cancellation – the kind where microphones on the headphones listen to the sound of the environment and mitigate it – actually protects your ears, generating sound waves that are the exact opposite of what the ambient environment is producing, and the two cancel each other out.

‘It doesn’t amplify the stuff hitting your ear,’ says Brent Butterworth, who’s spent eight years researching headphones. ‘It actually reduces it.’

But they aren’t perfect, especially if you’re counteracting all that juicy hearing-protection with loud music.

So, I’d suggest taking this revelation with a pinch of salt, and if you don’t want to spend your later life screaming ‘WHAT?!’ at your friends and family, please start paying more attention to those alerts.