Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Buying earplugs: sounds simple, but with a huge array of designs, styles and prices it can be a bit of a mission to pick the right set for your ears.
Do I need earplugs?
Some people swim without and don't have any trouble in the short term. But as the water temperature drops, the cold water in your ear canal can feel unpleasant and cause a few problems.
The ultimate cautionary tale is about a horrible condition called surfers' ear or auditory exostosis. It's caused by repeatedly exposing your ears to cold water over an extended period of time, and is found in year-round surfers. The low sea temperature and wind chill is thought to increase blood flow which stimulates bones inside the ear to grow. The result can be ear infections and hearing loss and one cure involves surgery and drilling - eek!
Surfers' ear is motivation enough to invest in a pair of earplugs. But they can also help reduce dizziness and protect your ears from infection. So what sort should you buy?
Types of earplug
There are a few types of earplug. Picking the right ones can be a matter of trial and error, but here's a rough guide.
1. Foam plugs
These are the cheap ones that you can buy pretty much everywhere. They look like fingertips and feel a bit like you've stuck your fingers in your ears.
+ They're cheap and easy to find. You can squish them up so that they expand to fit your ears.
- They're a bit one-size-fits-all and they often pop out when they expand so you lose them in the water. Not very eco-friendly.
Best for: Breaststroke swimmers or emergency purchases.
I actually like silicone putty earplugs a lot. They are squishy and mouldable, and unlike the foam earplugs, they stay moulded so they fit perfectly in your ears. They're great for blocking out water, but you can't hear with them in.
+ Fairly cheap, easy to mould and snug fitting. Block out a lot of water.
- Block out sound, get stuff stuck to them so they're not the most hygienic, and they're not infallible - I have lost a few to the bottom of the lake. They're a faff to remove with cold hands.
Best for: Front crawl swimmers and those who don't mind reduced sound.
3. Swim earplugs
These ridged numbers are specifically designed as swim earplugs, and often branded by big swim companies like Speedo or Zoggs. I have a Zoggs pair, which I think are great and they never fall out.
+ Still pretty inexpensive. The ridges mean that they tend to stay put, and they have nobbles to that you can easily remove them. They also have holes in them which means that they don't really compromise your hearing.
- You still get water in your ears, it just warms up a bit. They're one-size-fits-all, so may not fit you.
Best for: Swimmers who don't mind a bit of water ingress and those who need to hear.
4. Surf ears and custom earplugs
Right at the top end of the earplug market are the custom options. Surf ears are very high on my wish list. They come in sizes, which means getting out the ruler and potentially a complex about ear size. But that does mean that they'll fit like a dream. Go one step further, and you can get custom earplugs. For £139, you wouldn't want to lose these!
+ The fit is bang-on. Not matter how much you swim front crawl, you're not going to lose these bad boys. They're reusable, so better for the environment. They're going to do a very good job of protecting your ears.
- They're really expensive.
Best for: An investment. Serious year-round swimmers.
So which do I choose?
Before you buy, have a think about your stroke and your priorities. If you want to keep more plastic from the sea, it might be worth investing in a good fit - or at least a pair that comes on a cord that attaches to your goggles.
Are you doing lots of coached swims? Or swimming somewhere where you'll need to be able to hear while you swim? In which case, the ridged swimming earplugs might be the answer. But if you want cheap and reliable, you can't go wrong with ear putty - many experienced surfers actually swear by Blu-tac (applied properly).
And if you're a breaststroke swimmer who dips their head in and out or keeps it above the water entirely, the expanding foam earplugs will protect your ears from the wind.