After experiencing painful ears after surfing and other watersports over the last few years, especially in the winter, and having struggled with painful ears and infections, I decided to start using ear plugs as a preventative measure.
Whilst ear infections are unpleasant and painful, and can cause illness, I also want to avoid/worsen what appears to have befallen a lot of other fellow surfers… it seems like more and more often, surfers and other water sports enthusiasts are also complaining ‘surfers ear’.
Ear infections are typically caused by water staying in the ear canal for a long time, providing a moist environment for bacteria. Surfers ear meanwhile is caused by ‘exostosis’ – bony growth within the ear, caused by repeat exposure to cold wind and cold water. This can not only increase the chances of further ear infections but also cause loss of hearing and further pain. Leaving this too long can result in the need for surgery.
So, if like me you have been suffering from ear issues or simply want to avoid them, I thoroughly recommend you consider some earplugs for whenever you are surfing or doing activities in the sea. This is especially important when the sea is colder than around 20 °C or you’re exposed to wind – i.e. pretty much all of the time in the UK – but it is good practice to use them all the time.
I have tested these earplugs over the last year in all sorts of environments and conditions – from surfing small to decent-sized waves at home and abroad, as well as stormy windsurfing in the UK.
I considered what are the most important aspects for my earplugs. Style is not really an important issue here – earplugs do not need to look cool, but they need to be comfortable and they need to work for you. I, therefore, have judged a number of earplugs primarily on the following elements.
Earplugs need to be comfortable. The last thing you want is for the product to be causing you pain. This is likely to mean they’re not fitting properly, or could even be causing you further damage to your ears. You’re also unlikely to wear them if they hurt!
Water (& wind) protection
It is vital that your earplugs actually keep water out. If there isn’t a proper seal, water is likely to get in behind the plug and sit in your ear canal, which could cause the infections you’re trying to avoid in the first place. Wind is also a factor here to an extent.
Being able to hear other surfers, or friends you may be windsurfing, kitesurfing etc with is not only preferable, but important for everyone’s safety. Being able to chat in the line-up can be nice, and no one wants a collision!
Ear plugs that fall out are extremely frustrating. It is all well if your plugs stay in while sitting on your board or cruising along, but if they fall out when you wipe out then they’re not doing their job, and even finding them at the end of the string while in the white water is not easy or ideal.
Table of Contents
What are the best surf earplugs available in the UK?
EQ Seals Ear Plugs
Water (& wind) Protection: 5/5
Staying In: 5/5*
Average Score: 4.5
Pushing in the EQ Seals might feel unpleasant at first – they go right down to the thin part of your ear canal – however once they’re in and you get used to wearing them, you hardly notice them. I have even found myself checking the small end of the ‘stick’ is still there on occasion. There is an applicator for pushing them in, but I tend to just use my finger.
The EQ Seals definitely keep all water and wind out, with a perfect seal formed once in. I can’t fault their effectiveness at all. With respect to hearing, it does seem that sometimes water stays on the outside of the plug, affecting your hearing, but a soft flick-off can allow you to continue that chat in the line-up. This meant that I could leave these in from start to finish – ideal since you’d definitely lose one if you tried to take them out in the water.
These plugs definitely stay in, so no complaints with that regard, however I can see them being easily lost if trying to take them in and out on the beach as they are small and have no leash. I have tended to put them in in front of the mirror at home or in the car, and not removed them until I was back and had the small case in hand – worth bearing in mind depending on your habits.
Water (& wind) Protection: 4/5
Staying In: 2/5
Average Score: 3.5
SurfEars 3.0 come with a leash, a choice of outer wings, a choice of seal sizes and a good quality case on a carabiner. The leash can be tightened around your neck separately so you’re never at risk of losing them. Overall the package is pretty impressive and these seemed to be the top of the range ear plugs, so I splashed out.
SurfEars are pretty comfortable, with the wing sitting in your outer ear according to your preferred size as well as the best fitting seal. They also have minimal hearing interference, however I did find myself taking a plug out if trying to have a conversation in the line-up sometimes – a luxury not afforded with other plugs without a leash.
These plugs generally served me well in calmer conditions, but over time I found water was getting in or they’d fall out when I was doing wind sports, or surfing in rough or bigger conditions. I played around with the seal and wing size options but I couldn’t seem to find a combination that worked really well for me in all conditions.
Having asked around others that had used them I got mixed reviews – some love these plugs and can’t fault them whilst others have experienced similar issues. I reached out to SurfEars on social media, who explained that these plugs are made to work for a wide variety of surfers, but everyone’s ears are different sizes so in some rare cases they might not suit you. Ultimately, I decided to explore other plugs.
Mack’s Ear Seals
Water (& wind) Protection: 4/5
Staying In: 4/5
Average Score: 3.5
Mack’s Ear Seals come in one size, with a simple string leash between them, in a clear plastic case. They are a prime example of simple but effective. Mack’s plugs are not quite as comfortable as the two premium options, however once in and you’ve got used to the feel they aren’t that noticeable or cause any bother.
The leash is just a simple rope, with no way to tighten around your neck. I just tucked this into my wetsuit however, and was only really needed if I took one out to chat or when I was out of the water so they could hang around my neck. Mack’s plugs didn’t fall out once, even in bigger surf, however because they cut out slightly more sound than the others (it even says they can be used for loud events on land) I did find myself taking them out slightly more than the SurfEars.
In terms of effectiveness, I didn’t notice any water getting in at all, but I did notice a constant hum in my ear when it was windy. Overall I was satisfied with these plugs for their price.
Water (& wind) Protection: 2/5
Staying In: 2/5
Average Score: 2.5
From £5.50 – View on Boots
Mouldable plugs are often advised as a cheap, simple, disposable option and so I tried using these first, also being an occasional pool swimmer in the winter months. Whilst these are obviously comfortable as they squish to your ear shape, and form a waterproof and windproof seal in your ear easily, they are not suitable for anything other than pool swimming.
These plugs fall out easily in any surf conditions, meaning not only will you spend the majority of your session with your ears exposed to the elements, but you are introducing waste to the oceans.
I regret trying these out in the sea.
The same is to be said for other ‘pool swimming specific’ ear plugs such as Zoggs Aqua Plugs – work fine for their stated purpose but are not even worth trying in the sea.
About the author
Based at the Witterings in West Sussex, Dan is our resident surf expert here at Watersports Pro. A true action sports junkie, when there is no surf he'll be wakeboarding, windsurfing, running a marathon or completing an Iron Man.