While some people wouldn’t mind going to bed with the TV on, many find sleeping in noisy environments an impossible feat. In fact, most fluctuate between unwinding with a podcast and wanting absolute silence. But since that kind of quiet is pretty hard to come by, they end up having to use all sorts of products to block out the surrounding sounds. In my experience, earplugs are one of the most contested solutions — which is why many people go looking for alternatives to earplugs for sleeping.
If you’re someone who can’t stand having blocked ear canals while you’re trying to catch some Zs, you’re not alone. Fortunately, you’ll see many viable substitutes below. However, before I tell you why I like each of them, let’s take a moment to discuss earplugs. Why do so many people use them and why would you want to avoid them?
What Are Earplugs?
Even though we’re going to be talking about products that could conceivably replace your earbuds, I thought I should start us off with a simple definition. But as it turns out, defining this category of products isn’t as simple as you might think. After all, earplugs come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and materials. So before you start looking for substitutes, you might want to consider trying all of the different kinds of earplugs.
Basic Silicone and Foam Earplugs
The cheapest and most widely available earplugs are the most basic silicone ones. They’re the kind you might get when you buy swimming goggles — I always think that they look somewhat like a child’s drawing of a Christmas tree. The stacked flexible cones allow these earplugs to achieve an airtight seal inside your ear canal.
If you’ve ever used silicone phone cases or kitchen tools, you’ll understand the main draw of these kinds of earplugs. Namely, they’re easy to keep clean, allowing you to reuse the same pair indefinitely. However, not all earplugs are reusable.
In any case, if you’re going to be sleeping with earplugs in, you might prefer using soft, foam ones instead. That kind usually comes in big jars containing twenty pairs or more, allowing you to throw the plugs out after each use. Eventually, that can become a bit pricey, so some people transition to more long-lasting yet still pliable options.
Moldable silicone earplugs can be used for up to five days before they lose their elasticity. More importantly, unlike the previous two types of earplugs I’ve mentioned, moldable silicone ones don’t enter your ear canal. Instead, they merely close off the ear by pressing against the external shell of the ear. However, as your earwax is incorporated into the silicone, it loses its flexibility, which is why you can’t use these earplugs indefinitely.
On the other hand, natural beeswax earplugs might perform similarly without suffering from the loss of elasticity. Since beeswax is compatible with the moisture we have in our ears, it won’t lose its pliancy as quickly as silicone might. So you could get away with wearing them every night for about a month.
There is one last material that could allow you to alter your earplugs according to the shape of your ear — thermoplastic. In the article I’ve linked to above, I’ve mentioned one product that uses both thermoplastic and silicone to achieve a complete seal. The thermoplastic adapts to the shape of your outer ear while the silicone flange enters the canal. As far as I know, you’d only be able to shape the thermoplastic once or twice before it sets.
But, why should you get earplugs instead of one of the alternatives I’ll present below? Or, conversely, what would entice you to retire your earplugs in favor of another sleep aid? Let’s find out.
The Pros and Cons of Sleeping With Earplugs in Your Ears
Even though I use earplugs from time to time, I understand why someone would want to avoid them. But before we talk about that, let’s see what makes them so useful to so many people.
The Benefits of Earplugs for Sleeping
Whether you’re trying to block out the sound of your night owl roommate or the thunderous snore of your partner, earplugs usually get the job done. I’d even say that they were your best bet, even taking into account the substitutes we’ll talk about later on. After all, most of the products I’ve suggested above do a pretty good job of closing the ear, which is often the only way to avoid sleep disturbances.
On top of that, earplugs can be pretty comfortable if you get the right pair for you. If the ones you already have are unbearable, I’d suggest checking out moldable earplugs before looking at alternative solutions. Even with basic foam plugs, there are always different shapes and sizes available, not to mention softer materials. Most basic earplugs are also cheap, which isn’t the case with all the items that could replace them.
What’s more, you don’t need to keep your earplugs in the bedroom. If you like to work or study in silence, you can wear them to the office or library. They could help you focus on your morning meditation, avoid loud sounds on your commute, and even prevent swimmer’s ear.
Why You Might Want to Avoid Earplugs Altogether
Now that we know why someone might like using earplugs, let’s see why people might avoid them. Unfortunately, the cons of using earplugs are just as numerous as the pros, if not more!
Sure, earplugs may block out the noise — but what if they make you miss your morning alarm? That would be the very definition of having too much of a good thing. And that’s if you consider falling asleep in a silent environment a positive in the first place! You may be one of those people who prefer to fall asleep to the sound of soothing noises.
I’ve also explained that some earplugs are exceedingly comfortable, but that’s not always the case. Many of the materials I’ve listed can be decidedly problematic. For example, foam earplugs often suck up the natural moisture our ears produce, making them dry and itchy.
On the other hand, silicone products can’t absorb any of that moisture. That often results in the earplugs slipping out due to the excess earwax.
To some people, even the feeling of having something inside their ear canals can be unbearable. If you’re one of them, you’ll be pleased to learn that most of the items on the following list won’t go anywhere near your ear canal.
Best Alternatives to Earplugs for Sleeping
So now that we know what some of the benefits and disadvantages of wearing earplugs to bed are, let’s see some products that could replace them.
Earbuds or In-Ear Noise-Canceling Headphones
Even though I just promised to recommend products that won’t come near your ear canal, I have to start us off with earbuds. After all, they’re the most similar products to earplugs, except they can play music. Depending on what you like or dislike about earplugs, that can be both a positive and a negative.
On the one hand, most in-ear headphones block noise in the same way earplugs do. Both products seal off your ear canal, providing passive noise insulation. But even if your earbuds don’t eliminate the surrounding noise, that’s not their primary purpose, anyway. The whole point of having headphones is to use them to listen to music.
Of course, some earbuds are just as uncomfortable as some earplugs, if not more. After all, unlike most earplugs, earbuds usually have hard metal and plastic parts going inside the ear, as well. So if you sleep on your side, you can expect the headphones to poke into your brain.
All jokes aside, you’ll have to be careful when choosing your earbuds. Some of them are nearly undetectable, while others will cause one hell of a headache. Just don’t wear the individual Bluetooth earbuds while you’re sleeping — at least not without a connector.
If your in-ear headphones have active noise-canceling technology, they could completely block out any surrounding noise. That feature means that your earbuds will record environmental sounds at all times. Then, they’ll play the inverted frequencies in your ear, in addition to the music you’ve selected. The result should be you hearing only the music, while the external noise is canceled out.
Over-Ear Noise-Canceling Headphones
Even though over-ear headphones wouldn’t be my first choice (fellow restless sleepers, skip this one), some people could wear them while they were sleeping. As long as you don’t toss and turn much, you won’t even feel the headphones on your head. If anything, they’ll be more comfortable than in-ear products because you wouldn’t have to stick anything inside your ears. That’s always a plus!
You see, over-ear headphones usually have a thick ring of foam all around the speakers. That foam creates a tight seal around your ears, especially if the headphone band is snug around your head.
Depending on the fit of the headphones, you might have to put up with some discomfort until you get used to them. As I’ve previously mentioned, I find them more comfortable than earbuds, at least. They’ll keep your ears toasty as well, though the way you feel about that will depend on the season.
Now, you’ll have noticed that I have yet to mention on-ear headphones or the kind that lays on your ears without creating an airtight seal. Usually, I think of them as inferior to earbuds and over-ear headphones as far as their noise-blocking capabilities are concerned. However, there is one way they might be useful if you’re trying to fall asleep.
Even though I wouldn’t recommend traditional on-ear headphones for sleeping, there’s a product that combines that design with earmuffs — which are the next items on my list. Headband headphones are ideal for both working out and resting. Because of the fabric headband that goes around your head and covers your ears, they should remain in place no matter what you’re doing.
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The headband has pockets on the inside that are just big enough to store flat speaker discs. That means that the speakers won’t shift in your sleep, but will instead fit snugly over your ears. You can see what these products might look like in my article about noise-canceling headphones and earbuds.
Since these are technically on-ear headphones, they’ll probably leak sound more than earbuds or over-ear headphones. So anyone near you will be able to hear what you’re listening to.
On top of that, you shouldn’t expect these headphones to block most external noise or have built-in noise-canceling technology. At best, the fabric headband will muffle some sounds, not prevent them from reaching your ears or leaking out. And if nothing else, these headphones will certainly be more comfortable than the other kinds I’ve mentioned.
As we have seen, the headphones I’ve just described are the less invasive version of earbuds and over-ear models. After all, they won’t go anywhere near your ear canals or compress the sides of your head.
Well, in my opinion, earmuffs have a similar correlation to earplugs. They muffle some, if not most, of the surrounding noise without entering your ear canal. So if that was your main grievance with earplugs, earmuffs are the perfect alternative.
Even though earmuffs aren’t as effective as earplugs, they’re much more comfortable, at least if you get the most basic kind. Like most things, earmuffs come in different shapes and sizes, so there are various levels of comfort and additional features you might get.
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For example, some earmuffs look exactly like over-ear headphones, which means that they wouldn’t be ideal for side-sleepers. Others only cover the ears, typically connected by a band that goes around the back of the head. But the best ones for sleeping are the ones that cover your eyes as well. I’ve reviewed all these different earmuffs in the article I’ve linked to above.
White Noise Sound Machines
If you don’t want anything touching your head while you’re sleeping, I have two more suggestions for you. Both of them rely on the principle of white noise, which is a mixture of all 20,000 frequencies humans can hear. The noise can effectively mask all other sounds within that range. So it should be able to distract your brain from registering surrounding sounds while you’re sleeping.
Now, white noise has other effects on the human brain in addition to that one, though I won’t get into them right now. Suffice it to say — it can help you sleep. Furthermore, tweaking that original sound can change its “color,” giving us pink and brown noise. In my opinion, those two are more conducive to sleep than regular white noise.
If you decide to use white noise, you can pick up a sound machine that has a white noise option in addition to other soothing audio tracks. I’ve previously written reviews of white noise machines for babies, dogs, and offices, so you can take your pick. But before you do, just make sure you know what kind of machine you want:
- An electric one that essentially plays recorded audio tracks (the cheap ones even have perceptible points when the tape starts from scratch)
- A mechanical one that produces the sound internally (as a result of a fan spinning inside the acoustic case of the machine)
Then again, as I have previously explained, you don’t have to stick to sound machines at all. Plenty of apps offer pretty much the same audio clips you’d get in a cheap sound machine. Alternatively, you could always just play a YouTube video of the noise you like. I’ve recently started listening to lo-fi beats like this one while working and sleeping, so start there.
White Noise Fans
Sometimes, wearing earplugs, headphones, or headbands to bed won’t be a viable option. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it in 90-degree weather, no matter how loud my surroundings were. Fortunately, I have just the thing to cool you off while providing a sound barrier against all environmental noise.
Most white noise fans aren’t specifically designed to make that soft whirring noise that could lull you to sleep. That’s usually just a side effect of having a powerful motor and fast-spinning blades. The shape of the blades may have something to do with it as well, as that can affect how loud or quiet a fan is.
Once again, you’ll be able to choose between different types of fans, from the smallest clip-on and table units to large standing or tower models.
Additional Tips for Making Your Bedroom Quiet
While we’re at it, there are some more ways to optimize your sleeping environment. For example, you could start with fencing off your bed with thick and dense fabric.
Installing room divider curtains around your bed can muffle most of the surrounding noise. It won’t help if the sounds you’re trying to block are coming from the person sleeping next to you, though. Additionally, it might make you feel a bit suffocated if you completely close off the bed. So I recommend leaving at least one side open.
And there’s another thing that could greatly reduce the amount of noise coming in from the street or the rest of the house. Of course, I’m talking about soundproofing your doors and windows. So how can you do that? Well, it’s pretty straightforward:
- Apply weatherstripping foam tape on the parts of the door/window frame the door/window panel connects to
- Use door sweeps (some of them could even work on windows, though they probably won’t be necessary if you apply the weatherstripping tape correctly)
- Thicken the door with curtains, blankets, MLV — whatever you have on hand
- Strengthen the window pane with plastic window soundproofing film, soundproof blinds, or curtains
- Make sure you close any gaps between the door or window frames and the surrounding wall with acoustic caulk
But not everybody has the time or patience to implement these changes. So if you don’t want to do all this, you can still just use some of the earplug substitutes I’ve mentioned above.
More on Finding the Best Alternatives to Earplugs for Sleeping
If you find earplugs annoying for any reason, you should know that you’re not alone. Plenty of people can’t stand them. Still, you shouldn’t have to put up with your neighbors’ arguments, your children’s video games, and the street traffic when you’re trying to get some shut-eye.
Fortunately, there are plenty of products that could block or at least muffle some of that noise. I’d go for earmuffs — they may not be as effective as earplugs, but they’re certainly more comfortable. However, if you prioritize some of the other benefits I’ve listed, or you’d prefer to be able to play music while you fall asleep, there are several options you can choose from.