Southerners can sleep through anything as long as they have their fan on — at least that’s the stereotype associated with anyone living in the southern part of the United States. It may be a generalization, but I can attest from personal experience that unless I have my box fan on, I don’t seem to sleep well.
Many people depend on white noise as a sleep aid and the reasoning is simple — our lives are filled with noises and sounds. From traffic to loud neighbors and distant trains passing by, there are a lot of abrupt noises that can keep us from entering into deep, consistent sleep. The question isn't simply whether white noise is beneficial or not. Rather, it’s what the effect of sound on our sleep hygiene is.
Have you ever wondered why we use more noise (white or brown) to cancel out the bothersome sounds in our lives? Wouldn’t it be ideal to reduce all noise instead of using one noise to block out the rest? In this article, we’ll look into noise pollution, white noise and the impact that both have on sleep hygiene.
What Is Noise Pollution?
Noise is an unwanted or disturbing sound.1 In 1990, a law called the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments was passed that added a new subchapter to Title IV — which was originally about acid deposition control — to include specific verbiage about noise pollution. The shortened version of this amendment established the guidelines and authority the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) follows regarding violations of excessive noise.
Noise pollution is more than just negative or annoying sounds associated with our environment, however. With regards to personal health, noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the most commonly correlated health effect, though it isn’t the only one.1
Imagine you come home from working a long night shift, get cleaned up, turned out the lights, turned on a fan or sound machine, put on your continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine and shut your eyes only to hear the blaring sound of your overzealous neighbor cranking up their obnoxiously loud lawnmower just when you were about to doze off. Not only does your blood pressure rise due to frustration, you now have a prolonged sleep onset, and arguably do not get a good quality day's sleep. This leads to increased fatigue and drowsiness as you prepare for your shift the following night, and is a prime example of the effects of noise pollution on one’s sleep hygiene.
What Is White Noise?
Entering white noise into a search engine produces an almost inconceivable amount of research, articles and forums discussing the pros and cons of it. The great debate on whether white noise is good or bad can be found in almost every online search result, and inadvertently, most results share alternatives to consider that are comparatively better for your sleep health.
The first order of business is for sleep-care professionals to have an agreed-upon definition of white noise. White noise is defined as a specific noise that contains all the frequencies of sound that we can hear. The reason for this name being that the collection of certain frequencies is associated with a specific color, depending on the frequency ranges. Therefore, similar to how white light includes all the colors on the spectrum, white noise contains all the frequencies of sound that we can hear. Some people describe white noise as having a similar sound to static from a television or radio.2 In contrast, black noise is the absence of sound.
In the Sleep Quality Survey 2022,3 68% of participants utilized some sort of noise as a sleep aid. From playing music, using white noise machines or even sleep applications on their mobile device, the widespread use of noise to help sleep is astonishing. But why is that?
As mentioned before, we live noisy lives — even at home. A study in BMC Public Health4 found that 11.9% of participants (5,775) reported noise disturbance in general at home, with noise being worse for participants who rented apartments and or lived above the ground floor. There seemed to be a strong correlation between where someone lives and the level of noise pollution affecting them. This is also interesting because it shows a possible correlation between the increased use of white noise devices associated with the living conditions of individuals of varying socioeconomic statuses and geographical locations.5 Further research may support the theory of a possible disparity of individuals affected by increased noise pollution dependent on these factors.
Is it the Sounds of Sleep or Just Noise?
Is white noise healthy? Is it a placebo or a science-based sleep aid option? Do sounds affect one sleep stage differently than another? Is the effect of sound on the body more widespread than just sleep? Well, the number of pages that I would have to write to convey that information in an academically proficient way would be more than you are willing to read in a single sitting. However, I will say this: white noise is arguably beneficial in masking unwanted sound or noise in our environment due to it covering a wide range of frequencies. While it may help mask the problem, it is not the best solution to addressing noise pollution.
The best solution is to find ways to reduce one’s environmental noise so that they are not dependent on white noise to get truly restful sleep. Therefore, I encourage everyone to seek out ways to get a good night’s sleep by doing research on alternatives to reducing noise in your life. Whether you incorporate the use of earplugs, add insulation to your walls or roof, move to a quieter neighborhood or have a heart-to-heart with your overzealous lawn-mowing neighbor, make sure you are listening to your body and listening for the sounds of sleep.
- EPA. Clean Air Act Title IV - Noise Pollution [webpage]. 11 Aug 2022. Retrieved from www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/cleanair-act-title-iv-noise-pollution
- Grimes B. What Is White Noise? All You Need to Know about Sounds Named after Colors. Interesting Engineering. 29 Nov 2022. Retrieved from www.interestingengineering.com/science/white-noise-sounds-named-after-colors
- Black L. U.S. News & World Report Sleep Quality Survey 2022. U.S. News. 9 Aug 2022. Retrieved from www.usnews.com/360-reviews/sleep/americans-sleep-quality-habits-survey
- Wang J & Norback D. Home Environment and Noise Disturbance in a National Sample of Multi-Family Buildings in Sweden-associations with Medical Symptoms. BMC Public Health. Retrieved from https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-021-12069-w
- Israel B. Noise pollution loudest in black neighborhoods, segregated cities. 25 Jul 2017. Retrieved from https://news.berkeley.edu/2017/07/25/noise-pollution-loudest-inblack-neighborhoods-segregated-cities
- Berg RE. Noise Pollution. Encyclopædia Britannica. 5 July 2023. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/science/noise-pollution
- Cafasso J. Binaural Beats: Sleep, Therapy, and Meditation. Healthline. 28 Mar 2023. Retrieved from www.healthline.com/health/binaural-beats
- Pacheco D. Is Sleeping with a Fan a Good Idea? Sleep Foundation. 6 Jan 2023. Retrieved from www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-faqs/is-sleeping-with-a-fan-on-bad-for-you
- National Geographic Society. Noise Pollution. Retrieved from www.education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/noise-pollution
- Spencer JA et al. White Noise and Sleep Induction. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Jan 1990. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1792397
- Summer J & Rehman A. What Is White Noise? Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from www.sleepfoundation.org/noise-and-sleep/white-noise
- Summer J. Binaural Beats for Sleep. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from www.sleepfoundation.org/noise-and-sleep/binaural-beats
- Cambridge Dictionary. White Noise. Retrieved from www.dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/white-noise
- World Health Organization. Noise. 27 Apr 2010. Retrieved from www.who.int/europe/news-room/fact-sheets/item/noise