Most people who own a hearing protection device do not know how to keep it clean. In fact, they probably haven’t cleaned it at all. This means every time they reuse their earplugs or earmuffs, they are placing old bacteria near their ears, asking for an infection.

What works best?
With all the varieties of earplugs, electronic and non-electronic earmuffs and bands in the marketplace, how do you know what is the best protection for you? First, know the environment where you will be using your HPD. Every model of HPD has a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) label on the package, which is a requirement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Your environment determines what NRR would be best suited for you. If you are working in a factory, or you are required to wear HP in your work environment, your company should inform you of the NRR required for your area.

The most common NRRs range from 19-33. The lower the NRR, the more decibels of sound get to your ear. Earplugs tend to have a higher NRR because they are inserted into the ear canal. Earmuffs surround the ear, making the NRRs slightly lower than that of a plug. The ear cup tends to be larger on earmuffs with a higher NRR.

If you find your hearing protection device does not baffle the sound of your work, another option is combining an earplug with an earmuff. This allows you to achieve a higher NRR rating with a slimmer ear cup size. Keep in mind that the higher the NRR, the harder it is to hear sounds around you. Make sure you have the ability to hear safety devices such as alarms or sirens.

Once you find the NRR you need, comfort is the second step. The temperature of your surroundings plays a large part in your HPD choice. An earmuff may not be as comfortable to wear in a warm environment, such as while mowing the lawn. Your body temperature rises as you are working. Earmuffs touch your skin and will increase your body temperature, while an earplug would not. Fit goes along with comfort. Earplugs come in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit many different users. Earmuffs also come in a wide range of ear cup shapes. You should not feel any discomfort after wearing your HPD for several hours.

Wash and wear
Always wash your hands before using earplugs. Anything that touches the earplug before insertion in the ear will make the earplug unsanitary. Foam earplugs are a single-use disposable protector; do not reuse to prevent infection. Multi-use earplugs are typically made of a flexible plastic such as silicone. To keep these plugs clean, wash with a mild soap and warm water, and dry with a soft towel. Most earplugs made for more than one use have a carrying case or small bag to store the plugs after use. To avoid bacteria getting into the case, wash the earplugs immediately after use before storing. Some multi-use earplugs also include a cord connecting the two plugs. Remember, the cord will get dirty, too. Clean the cord when cleaning your plugs to avoid contamination.

Keep earmuffs clean too. Once again, a mild soap and warm water can be used to clean the vinyl-coated foam cushion of the earmuff. Dry the earmuff with a soft towel. Use an alcohol wipe to clean and disinfect the area that comes in contact with your skin. Don’t forget the headband of the earmuff as well. This comes in contact with your head every day, which will result in oil buildup.

Replacing HPD
Disposable earplugs are the easiest — use once, then toss. Multi-use earplugs can last several weeks with proper cleaning when worn during a 40-hour work week. Inspect the flanges on the earplug — once you see some wear, it is time to replace. Earmuffs can last anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on how well you take care of them. Inspection is imperative to an earmuff’s life. Make sure the vinyl-covered foam has not come apart from the ear cup. Check for cracks in the headband to ensure a snug fit and to keep from breaking during wear. It is time to replace when visual inspection shows wear.

This information is generic for most hearing protection devices in the market. For specifics, please use the care instructions on the packaging of your HPD or contact the manufacturer. All HPD materials vary among companies, and only the manufacturer of your HPD can recommend the accurate way to maintain and care for your hearing protection device. For any other information regarding keeping your hearing protection clean, contact the Centers for Disease Control or go to: www.cdc.gov.