Harmful Effects of White Noise

What is white noise and are there any harmful effects of white noise that we should be aware of?

Well yes and no. It all depends on the individual’s response to noise in general and how you expose yourself to it.

What Is White Noise?

By using colour we can describe different kinds of light. Similarly, we can use colour to describe differing noise types.

Just as White Light is an evened out  distribution of all the wave-lengths of light that a human can see within our range of everyday normal vision, White Noise is an evened out distribution of all the sound frequencies within the range of normal human hearing.

White noise is like a constant “shussh” sound – of the type you would get from an old fashioned TV set when the programs went off the air.

Maybe that’s why so many people fell asleep in front of the TV at the end of the night. After all, the major benefit and selling point of white noise machines has been to promote natural falling asleep and staying asleep.

How Does White Noise Work?

Where we use a white noise machine to help us sleep or concentrate, we say that it masks out other sounds. So how does it do that?

One of the things that disturbs us, keeps us awake, or breaks our concentration is the mind noticing changes in the background sound of the environment we are in.

No doubt during the stone-age, or any other time man had to defend himself, this ability helped keep our ancestors alive. It would alert them to the faint sound made by a predator or the enemy creeping through the woodland.

However, in the relative peace of the urban jungle, becoming alert to every tiny noise can be a problem, especially when it keeps us awake or constantly snaps us out of our concentration.

White noise changes the background sound and the level.

It creates an overall level of sound that is not only louder than the background noise but featureless. Therefore, the overall  threshold which other noise must pass across in order to be noticed is higher, and because white noise is also featureless it doesn’t present any details or distractions for the mind to latch onto and be distracted.

In other words the mind becomes attuned to this louder but featureless background droning noise.

The net result of this is that white noise has a soothing quality and allows the mind to relax because it is only focused on to the bland featureless background noise, and not all the mish-mash of car horns, sirens, aircraft and dogs barking.

That is why it is so good for promoting both concentration during work time, and sleep promotion when we retire at night (or during the day if you are a night worker)

how does white noise work. a selection of white noise machines
click for a selection of white noise machines

What are the harmful effects of white noise?

Hearing Damage

This very much depends on the volume you have the white noise set at.

Below 80db is reasonably safe (approximately the same noise level as using a hairdryer). Over that, or prolonged exposure can cause hearing damage like any other loud noise.

Spatial Conflict

According to a July 2009 article in Cerebral Cortex magazine early prolonged exposure to white noise might impair the brain’s ability to perceive the geographic location of the sound.

“Early continuous white noise exposure in infants alters auditory spatial sensitivity.”

According to WebMD,  a study by Shanghai based researchers suggests that exposing infants to continuous white noise — (commonly done to soothe or drown out other noises)– may delay hearing and possibly language development.

The researchers reared infant rat pups using a background of continuous white noise. They found that neurons in the auditory cortex which are responsible for spatial sensitivity were impaired by delayed development of the brain’s hearing centre.

What are the benefits?

It’s not all bad. Here are some interesting benefits that are associated with white noise, a few you should know about.

White noise makes babies feel relaxed –

Despite the study on rat pups, babies are familiar with white noise, being exposed to it in the womb. (This might be the constant heart beat of the mother, or the swishing noise of blood pumping around her body). If your baby tends to wake up with the slightest noise, they might be missing their soothing background noise.

Therefore, introducing white noise may help them sleep longer even when there are other background sounds going on.

how does white noise work. a selection of white noise machines
Soothe baby with a gentle white background noise

Masks tinnitus –

Many reports suggest that white noise helps with the suffering of tinnitus by masking the sound and giving the sufferer a different sound to focus on. Those who have tinnitus claim that playing white noise helps them fall asleep at night and gives them respite from the constant screeching or ringing in the ears.

According to the National Institutes of Health, white noise machines can be very efficient at this to the point where individuals using white noise machines might become unaware of their tinnitus condition.

However, it’s important for sufferers to remember that while many individuals experience  brief tinnitus because of loud ambient noises, frequent or prolonged tinnitus can reflect a larger problem such as high blood pressure or anaemia.

how does white noise work. tinnitus machines
Tinnitus relief sound machines

White Noise Conclusion

White noise has the ability to block other sounds that tend to disturb you when you sleep. Just make sure that it is at a reasonable level.
Whether you are aiming for pure white noise or generated sounds, this type of noise can be useful to help you get a good night’s rest.

As with any other condition, if you find that the symptoms are prolonged, or you have to keep increasing the level of treatment to achieve the same effect, then visit your health practitioner for an expert opinion.

What is white noise (Video)

13 thoughts on “Harmful Effects of White Noise”

  1. White noise i find is really annoying. I can not suffer it for even a short time.

    However, it was my lifesaver when my babies were small, so I was very grateful for all the white noise recordings on YouTube.

    Even today, whenever I dry my hair, I remember my twins finally falling to sleep with the noise of the hairdryer keeping them calm.

    On the whole, I do thing we are surrounded by too much noise all around us. Humans need silence so we can recharge and be ready for the following day. 

    • Hi Alenka,
      I couldn’t agree more.
      To sit in total silence and be undisturbed even for twenty minutes a day must be a wonderful experience.
      However, that is something that most people will never be able to experience.

      As you say, we are surrounded by too much noise in general, and I suppose for a lot of people, listening to white noise to drown everything else out is like taking aspirin to mask a headache.
      You shouldn’t have to take it but you need to.

      Anyway, I’m glad you found some positive use for white noise, and I believe hairdryers are really good!

      Thanks for reading and taking part.

  2. Thanks for this introduction to what white noise is! Learning these new types of information is great and slightly disappointing and makes me wonder how long the studies have been known facts.? If I had known this stuff when my kids were infants I would have protected them from this kind of stuff. This also makes me question whether the exposure to white noise could be relative to some specific learning disabilities as some sleepy time toys for babies are I think designed in this realm? What do you think. 

    Regards Rob

    • Hi Rob
      I suppose there are pros and cons to white noise. If you are a sleep deprived parent desperate to get your baby off to sleep, then white noise is a godsend.
      However, the flip side is the research revealing some children are suffering certain types of learning disabilities because the featureless sound of white noise may have robbed them from distinguishing between different sounds while their hearing was developing.
      Definitely a topic for some enthusiastic debate don’t you think?
      Thanks for your input.

  3. This is a very interesting article. I didn’t know why white noise was called white noise, and never really thought about explaining it in the way you did with the comparison to the visual spectrum, ie. white light.

    Of particular interest was the paragraph about tinnitus. I unfortunately suffer from this condition and it can be very annoying at times, especially during the night when everything is quiet. Playing white noise to mask it might be a solution and one i’m prepared to investigate further.

    My only concern about playing white noise in the bedroom is that my partner probably isn’t going to like it too much 😉



  4. This article was really enlightening. I suppose we are exposed to so much noise  including white noise that our hearing thresholds may have already been negatively affected. I have the air conditioner in office purring all the time and the fan at home and a blower as well. However loud noises such as horns of vehicles, loudspeakers from places of worship blaring religious songs, occasional live commentaries from village level cricket matches often disturb the peace and tranquility provided by my sources of white noise. I wonder what sort of remedies are available to mask these noises apart from wearing ear muffs?

  5. Hi,

    Quite interesting article to read, I’ve never heard about white noise before, I must say I didn’t know that noise has color or that noise is measure in colors.

    I’m a good sleeper and I don’t have any problem to get a good sleep at night, but my husband and my boss always have problem to get a good sleep at night, I think they will be interested to read your article.

    My boss is always talking about all the products (pillows, teas, pills, exercise, and many other things) she try to get a good sleep.

    I will forward your article to her, I’m sure she will love to try this and see if knowing about white noise help her to have a good night sleep and be more relaxed.

    Thanks for sharing good information. 

  6. Wow didn’t know that white noise can be a good thing, definitely be listening to that from now on!

    I’m easily distracted so I can’t really focus when people are talking, putting on music, or play games when I work which leaves me stressed and extremely ticked off because I can’t finish my task in time. I’ve always wondered how some people can work seamlessly as though they’re not hearing anything, now it’s my turn!

    Gonna put on my earplugs tomorrow and listen to low white noise while I rush to finish off my work. Heck, I can even read books in peace now too. Useful info man, thank for sharing this, you just turned my life around 🙂

  7. Interesting. Thank you for such interesting information you have provided in this post. I didn’t know that noise has colour lol, anyway i got the meaning of white house. I  didn’t know why i get asleep when the tv is in white mode but with this post i realised that white noise has effect on us especially sleeping effect.

    Is it advisable to let the white noise around the little baby? thank you

  8. This is a totally new phenomenon to me. I didn’t even know that the heartbeat noise for a newborn is white noise.  I have been listening to hypnosis and meditation recordings just before I go to bed.  Do you consider these as white noise too? Though I remember my kids used to sleep to the soothing music at the background.

  9. White noise is a new word to me. I’ve never heard of this. Somehow, I’m glad that I understand something about this now. I always love to learn new things to make me aware of what is going on around me or what causes of anything happenings. Is there a device that is producing this? I’m asking because you were saying that it is used for putting a person or baby to sleep. I’m really curious for this might be present at home that I’m not aware of.


Leave a comment