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White Noise vs. Brown Noise: Which One Is Best for Sleep?
Studies show that listening to these colored sounds can promote better sleep quality and reduce sleep latency. Here's what to know.
McKenzie, a Certified Sleep Science Coach and proclaimed mattress expert, has been writing sleep content in the wellness space for over four years. After earning her certification from the Spencer Institute and dedicating hundreds of hours to sleep research, she has extensive knowledge on the topic and how to improve your quality of rest.
Having more experience with lying on mattresses than most, McKenzie has reviewed over 150 beds and a variety of different sleep products including pillows, mattress toppers and sheets. McKenzie has also been a guest on multiple radio shows including WGN Chicago as a sleep expert and contributed sleep advice to over 50 different websites.
Sleep is a fragile state that can be disrupted by loud or quiet sounds, from a creaky door to pets playing, or sirens and heavy winds outside. If you're waking up more than four times a night, you prevent yourself from getting the proper restorative sleep you need for your mental and physical health. Not to mention, you don't feel as refreshed as quality sleep would make you feel.
Playing gentle and relaxing sounds in the background while you sleep can help cover abrupt noises that occur during the night that would otherwise wake you from your slumber.
It's not necessarily noise that keeps you awake, it's the sudden change in noise that's most likely to wake you up. That's where white and brown noise come in. These are sounds of specific frequencies with their own unique benefits, including the ability to mask disruptive sounds, improve thinking skills, promote better sleep and more.
Which type of sound is best for sleep, white noise or brown noise? Here's what the research says and the best real-world descriptions of each noise.
White noise is a combination of all frequencies on the spectrum with a high-pitch, staticky sound. It's the best known of the color noises, and doesn't typically occur in nature. It includes noises like:
Brown noise is a deeper, low-frequency sound with more of a bass tone and less of a hiss than white noise. Brown noise plays low-frequency sounds and omits high-frequency sounds like white noise, making it smoother and more manageable for some. This includes sounds like:
A shower with strong water pressure
The best colored noise for sleep
White noise vs. brown noise
TikTok saw a lot of chatter about brown noise recently, as users, particularly those with ADHD, said listening to brown noise helped calm their mind and promoted better sleep quality. However, if you ask the scientific community on the benefits of brown noise for sleep, they'd say there needs to be more research.
As for white noise, while findings aren't 100% conclusive, there is positive research to back its possible sleep-promoting benefits.
A 2017 study found that broadband sound (aka white noise) played at 46 decibels helped reduce the time participants spent trying to fall asleep by 38% and improved overall sleep quality.
A more recent 2021 study conducted in New York City found participants who cited their noisy environment as the reason for their poor sleep quality significantly improved their sleep after listening to white noise at bedtime.
Another study involving ICU patients in India saw similar results; white noise helped promote better sleep quality for participants trying to sleep in a noisy setting.
These studies demonstrate that white noise can be effective in drowning out distracting, unpleasant sounds in the background of your environment and promote better sleep.
This isn't to say that brown noise isn't going to help you fall asleep. It means there needs to be more intensive studies completed before we can give it science's stamp of approval. But brown noise sounds more natural and can be easier on the ears, especially if you're sensitive to sound.
Some experts say it ultimately comes down to personal preference – maybe you like the sound of a running fan to fall asleep (white noise), or you prefer the sound of waves crashing against the shore (brown).
I use my Hatch sunrise alarm clock to play calming campfire sounds before I go to bed. I've found it not only lulls me to sleep, but keeps my mind from focusing on other nighttime noises. It ultimately depends which sounds you find most relaxing and helpful for sleep.
Tips for using sound to fall asleep
Whether you choose to listen to white or brown noise, here are ways you can get the most out of utilizing sound for sleep.
Be mindful of volume when listening to sounds to fall asleep. Not only can it wake you up and end up being disruptive to your sleep, but constantly listening to loud music can be harmful to your hearing. Try to keep your white noise volume to 50 decibels or lower.
Set a timer if you can. Too much noise consistently while you sleep may be disruptive to your sleep quality and hearing abilities. Apps like White Noise Generator and Dark Noise have timers so your sounds won't play through the whole night.
Trial and error. If white noise doesn't seem to make you sleep better, make the switch to brown noise. Try listening to white or brown noise using a pair of headphones meant for sleeping. If you don't sleep well with headphones, you can try a white noise machine that goes on your bedside instead.
Keep your lights off and temperature low to prevent other disruptions from harming your sleep. Light can delay your body's melatonin production and keep you from being sleepy while a room that's too hot can make it too difficult to fall asleep.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.