There are many types of ear plugs available, sometimes making it hard to know which to buy. There are several things to take into account when choosing the best ear plugs for your purpose. Materials, cost, type of use and whether they are connected with a lanyard are all important. When deciding which ear plugs are right for you it is important to make sure they are suitable for your intended use.
If you are only an infrequent ear plug user then foam or wax ear plugs will probably do. They are cheaper to buy than moulded ear plugs but only last for a few uses so become expensive if you are a regular ear plug user and get through many pairs. Flanged rubber ear plugs and soft silicon ear plugs are good for use in water. Moulded ear plugs are more expensive but are more comfortable, more effective, don't fall out and are cheaper in the long run. Buy a pair connected by a lanyard if you are planning to use them whilst active. This is more important if you are somewhere you would lose them if they fell out, such as in the sea. This is particularly important with the more expensive moulded ear plugs. If you are diving, surfing or windsurfing you can tie the lanyard to the zip on your wetsuit so that if they come out you can still find them.
Foam Ear Plugs
Foam ear plugs are often made from soft silicon foam or silicon sponge.
- Advantages. Widely available and relatively cheap. Effective at blocking sound from your ears. They can be washed and reused several times and are available connected with a cord or lanyard.
- Disadvantages. Because they expand they press on the delicate skin lining the ear canal. This causes discomfort and pushes them out. This makes foam ear plugs potentially unsuitable for sleeping. Because they end up protruding from the ear they cause discomfort when lying on the side. They often fall out so the user is exposed to the noise they are trying to block and wake up. The foam can be abrasive, particularly after a couple of washes. This can damage the lining of the ear, causing discomfort and allowing bacteria to infect the ear. This can cause swimmers' ear (otitis externa ear infections). They are unsuitable for swimming or for other uses in water due to the fact they are porous and soak up water and do not prevent it entering the ears. Water-logging the ear canals softens the skin and increases the risk of otitis externa. This type tends to be unhygienic; because they are porous they accumulate wax and dead skin debris and harbour bacteria. They can be washed and reused but become hard after a few times, reducing their life span. They are hygienic if they are kept clean and only used a few times.
Wax Ear Plugs
These will be made from paraffin wax combined with cotton or man-made filaments to stop the wax from fragmenting. They are not available connected by a lanyard.
- Advantages. Wax ear plugs are comfortable and effective at keeping sound and water from the ears because they mould to the shape of the ear canal. They are less expensive than moulded ear plugs.
- Disadvantages. Because they are made of soft wax they do not retain their moulded shape and may need remoulding each time they are used. They can be messy as the wax can leave marks on clothing and carpets as well as residue on your hands and in your ears when you mould them. The wax quickly accumulates dirt, ear wax, hair and other dirt and need to be replaced after a few uses, otherwise they become unhygienic. They may fragment in the ears, leaving pieces behind in the ear canal.
Flanged Rubber Ear Plugs
These are made of either silicon or rubber and have handle surrounded by soft rings which form a seal with the ear canal. They are available for use on aeroplanes to reduce ear pain by slowing the change in air pressure on the ear drum. They do this by allowing air to seep slowly through a narrow channel into the ear canal. Flanged rubber ear plugs are available with a lanyard.
- Advantages. Flanged rubber ear plugs are effective at keeping water out of your ears making them good for swimming, surfing and snorkelling. They are washable, making them hygienic and increasing their life span.
- Disadvantages. The handle protrudes from the ears making them unsuitable for sleeping or snoring. This is because they dig in when you lie on your side. After a while the flanges tend to split and come off. The rigidity of the handle and pressure from the flanges make them uncomfortable.
Soft Silicon Ear Plugs
These have the consistency of putty and mould to the ear canal. They are not available connected on a cord.
- Advantages. Effectively seal the ears against sound and water. Comfortable.
- Disadvantages. Can be messy, staining clothes and carpet if trodden on. Soft silicon may fragment in the ear canal, particularly if the ear plugs are old. This type tends to accumulate dirt, hair and skin debris. They can't be washed clean so need to be thrown away at this point. Often expensive to buy with a high cost per use.
Hard Silicon Ear Plugs
This type are supplied as a two-part putty which is mixed by hand and moulded directly in the ear, hardening to form an ear plug. They can be connected with a cord.
- Advantages. Hard silicon ear plugs are comfortable as there is no pressure effect in the ear. They create a good seal and last for years of normal use. They are non-porous making them hygienic and good for use in the water. They can be wiped or washed clean and have a lower than average cost-per-use due to their longer life.
- Disadvantages. The user only gets one chance to mould this type; if they don't get it right first time another kit needs to be bought. They tend to protrude from the ears making them unsuitable for sleeping as they are uncomfortable when users lie on their side. The process is messy, residue is left on the hands and in the ears. May deteriorate, split or crack after time, especially if not stored properly.
Audiologically Moulded Ear Plugs
An audiologist takes a cast of the ear canal which is sent away to a factory where a reverse mould is made which is used to make them from silicon. It is usually possible for them to be connected with a cord, string or lead.
- Advantages. These are highly comfortable and effective. They are great for all uses, for sleeping, snoring and for swimmers. Last for hundreds of uses making the cost per use on the lower side. Non-porous so are hygienic, they can be washed or wiped clean.
- Disadvantages. These are the most expensive type, costing £60 or more, although their quality may reflect this. The process is time consuming, requiring visits to an audiology clinic. Sometimes people need to visit several times for fittings and refits if they don't fit the first time. Sometimes the plugs protrude from the ear which can make them uncomfortable when lying on your side in bed. If this is the case they may need to be remade by remoulding from scratch.
Thermoplastic Moulded Ear Plugs
ZenPlugs are made from a kit using a thermoplastic which softens in hot water and is formed directly in the ear. They can be connected with a cord or lanyard.
- Advantages. These are moulded to the ears so are comfortable and effective at blocking sound and water from the ears. Non-porous so are suitable for swimming and other water-sports, as well as being hygienic. ZenPlugs from http://zenplugs.com/molded-earplugs/ contain an antibacterial making them the most hygienic type listed. They reduce the risk of swimmers ear, otitis externa and other ear infections. Unlike hard silicon this type can be remoulded as many times as you like, so you don't have to get it right first time. Although there is a high initial cost this type lasts for many hundreds of uses and so has the lowest cost per use of all the types listed. These are ideal for regular, frequent and prolonged use. They do not deteriorate for many years with normal use. They are hard-wearing and resilient, can be carried in a pocket or bag or even trodden on without damaging them. The thermoplastic used is biodegradable and hypoallergenic.
- Disadvantages. These have a higher initial cost than foam and soft-silicon types. Despite this they have the lowest cost per use of all those listed so work out much cheaper in the long run.
Summary. There are many ear plug types available and most of them work well for occasional day-to-day use. If you are a regular user or are using them for a specific purpose it is worth buying a moulded pair. ZenPlugs have many advantages over other types of ear plugs and work out much cheaper in the long run.