Music has always been an integral part of society, evoking emotions and memories while providing an outlet that makes many of us feel less alone. However, playing music aloud is not always proper, especially when surrounded by others who may not want to hear it or would find it distracting.
Headphones have been immensely helpful in these situations to provide a private music experience that allows you to enjoy your music without disturbing others.
From the first headphones that required a wired connection to current headphones, such as AirPods, that are sans wire, it has undoubtedly become more convenient to privately listen to music without worrying about how far you can be from your device or working around a cord. However, headphones feed information directly to the brain and are placed very close to it, so it is only natural to wonder if they might negatively affect your head.
Wireless Headphones: How They Work
We all know that headphones play music directly into the ear, but have you ever stopped to consider how the headphones know what music to play, especially without a wire directly connected to it?
When you place both headphones in your ears, they send a few signals back and forth to see how long it takes for this message to be sent. Then, one of the earbuds pairs with the phone and receives the music signals for both earbuds. It then sends the other earbud its music signal, accounting for the delay in transmission that had initially been measured.
This signal from one wireless headphone to the other goes directly through the brain, since that is the closest path between the two.
Most of the potential danger of wireless headphones stems from their use of Bluetooth technology, which uses short-range radio frequency to connect devices within a certain distance.
To obtain this connection, Bluetooth devices also use radiofrequency radiation, which is a type of electromagnetic radiation (EMR).
The FDA lists Bluetooth technology as a form of non-ionizing radiation, which is less likely to cause cancer than the sun or an X-ray. However, in 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified non-ionizing radiation as a possible carcinogen when cell phone use was linked to increased brain cancer risk, so it still has the potential to harm the body.
Additionally, research from 2018 found that exposure to high levels of radiofrequency radiation could cause cancer in rats. While wireless headphones do give off smaller amounts of radiation compared to cell phones, the place at which they are used does cause some concern. This is because using them places them very close to the body and head, which increases the amount of radiation damage sustained by the body compared to a device that is further away.
The location at which wireless headphones are used, and namely how close they are to the body, is one area that has been overlooked by manufacturers and those setting standards for how much radiation a device can safely give off. For this reason, it is often better to look at how much radiation the body absorbs from a device, versus how much radiation the device emits, when considering if a device is safe to use.
Most of the concern with Bluetooth devices is that the standards they are held to may be outdated. The specific absorption rate (SAR) is the amount of radiofrequency the body absorbs from a device. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that wireless devices have SARs of 1.6 watts per kilogram or less, a requirement that was developed in the 1990s to protect consumers from short-term heating risks.
However, this number does not consider the risk of exposure to the body or how long-term use of these devices, even with radiation in small amounts, can still cause damage.
So, while Apple AirPods have a SAR of 0.466, well below the FCC cutoff, more research is needed to determine what SAR is safe to use for the duration for which AirPod users are wearing their wireless headphones.
Tips to Reduce Exposure
You can take some steps to reduce the amount of radiation sustained from Bluetooth headphones.
First, remove the wireless headphones whenever you are not using them.
To be even more careful, opt for wired headphones instead of wireless ones. Because wired headphones do not use Bluetooth technology to connect with your phone or other devices, they are less damaging to your body.
Ideally you could download your podcast or music and then place your phone on airplane mode to reduce your radiation exposure. Or better yet, throw your headphones in the trash and get rid of them for good. It is best to limit the amount of time you spend using headphones, no matter their type.
Children, in particular, should avoid extensive use of headphones since their bodies and brains are still developing and, thus, more sensitive to radiation. Children are also at a greater risk since they have thinner skulls, so any EMF radiating device is likely to cause more damage to their brains.
Beware the Risks of Wireless Headphones
When it comes to modern technology, we have been impressed with the advances that make them easier to use, yet some of these improvements may come at a cost.
While wireless headphones can be more convenient than their wired opponents, they come with EMF radiation exposure at a very close range to a sensitive part of the body, the brain. Until more research is done regarding what level of radiation is safe at this part of the body and for how long, it is best to limit your use of wireless headphones or bypass them entirely for wired headphones or speakers.
Radio Frequency Radiation and Cell Phones. (2020). https://www.fda.gov/radiation-emitting-products/cell-phones/radio-frequency-radiation-and-cell-phones
Radio Frequency Safety. (2022). https://www.fcc.gov/general/radio-frequency-safety-0
National Toxicology Program. (2020). Cellphone Radio Frequency Radiation Studies. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/cell_phone_radiofrequency_radiation_studies_508.pdf