Can White Noise Help You Sleep? A Sleep MD Debunks the Myths

White noise may help you sleep, but there’s not enough research backing it up. Try science-backed sleep hygiene instead to get a good night’s sleep.
Updated
2024-01-06
20 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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Whether you’re laying in bed listening to a barking dog or laying in silence listening to your racing thoughts, both noise and the lack of it can keep you up at night. 

This is when many of us turn to white noise machines or sound apps on our phones, which promise to help us drift off and get a good night’s sleep. 

But we know noise in general is bad for sleep. It can stop you from falling asleep, wake you up in the night, and research suggests noise pollution can lead to everything from increased cortisol levels to heart attacks. Your brain continues processing sounds even as you sleep, and this sound can cause micro-awakenings you might not even notice. 

So, is white noise good or bad for your sleep? 

Below, we’ll dive into whether white noise can help you sleep and how to use it to drift off. Plus, we’ll share how the RISE app can help you get a better night’s sleep without relying on white noise, and give you white noise options if you decide they’re right for you. 

Advice from a sleep doctor:

“White noise can block out sounds that may wake you up at night and can help you relax and fall asleep. But there’s not much science behind it. Silence is the holy grail when it comes to sleep. So I’d recommend silence first, or as quiet as you can get, and then experimenting with white noise if it helps.”

Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu

What is White Noise?

White noise is the term used to describe a constant patternless noise that contains all audible frequencies on the sound spectrum in equal intensity. It’s often called broadband noise because it spans across all bands of sound (although some research separates white noise and broadband noise). 

It’s called white noise as it’s similar to white light, which contains all colors in the spectrum. 

You can get white noise from a white noise machine, a white noise app, or an online recording, or from a constantly running fan, air conditioner, air purifier, or radio static.   

The RISE app also has white noise recordings, including that of a fan, car interior, and propeller plane. You can set these recordings on a timer to play for 15, 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.

As white noise provides a constant sound, it can be useful for blocking out noises you don’t want to hear, such as outside noises from traffic, a barking dog, or a loud neighbor. And some sleepers use white noise as a sleep aid to help them drift off when they’re in a quiet environment. 

White noise isn’t just useful for sleep. Research suggests listening to white noise while learning something new can improve recall memory. It may improve cognitive performance and help people focus, including those with ADHD.

Beyond white noise, there are different colors of noise out there.

Pink Noise 

Pink noise is also a constant patternless noise, but it sounds deeper than white noise as the higher frequencies are reduced. This lower pitch can be more relaxing for some. 

Again, you can get pink noise from a dedicated machine or a recording, or think of ambient sounds like ocean waves, a waterfall, or rustling leaves. 

RISE has sound recordings of the ocean, a waterfall, and rainfall. You can choose whether your chosen sound plays all night or turns off after 15, 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. 

Pink noise may also be useful for sleep. It can mask noise and research shows it can reduce brain wave complexity and help people wake up less often throughout the night. 

Brown Noise 

Brown noise, also known as red noise, is yet another constant noise, but it contains even lower frequencies than pink and white noise and so sounds deeper. Think of heavy rain, a strong shower, or rumbling thunder. 

RISE has a Rain & Thunder sound recording. You can choose whether it plays all night or turns off after 15, 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. 

Want to learn more about how these sounds can help you sleep? We’ve covered the best sleep sounds here.

Can White Noise Help You Sleep?

Many people say white noise helps them sleep, but is there any science backing it up? The short answer is more research needs to be done. There are some promising studies out there, but this research comes with a few problems. 

Here are the theories behind why white noise could help you sleep and the science we have behind them.

1. It Masks Disturbing Noises

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have.

White noise can mask any sudden noises in your environment, like a dog barking or your partner snoring. This is known as auditory masking. When there’s one constant background noise, so-called “peak noises,” like the dog or the snoring, are less likely to wake you up or disturb you. 

Auditory masking raises your arousal threshold, or how easily you’re awoken from sleep, helping you get more sleep overall.  

In one study, participants slept with a recorded ICU noise with and without white noise. When they slept with the ICU recording without white noise, they woke up more often during the night. The study concluded that it wasn’t how loud the noise was that disturbed sleep, it was whether there was a change in background noise and peak noise. 

White noise can therefore reduce the difference between background noise and any peak noise coming from inside your home or from the street outside. So it can be useful for those living in busy cities, those with noisy neighbors or bed partners, or those working night shifts and trying to sleep during the day.

Waking up briefly in the night because of peak noises may not sound too disruptive, but to feel your best, you want consolidated sleep — or as much unbroken sleep as possible. And once you’ve been woken up by a noise, you may find it hard to fall back asleep

All this sleep disruption can lead to sleep debt, which is the measure of how much sleep you owe your body. And high sleep debt impacts everything from your energy levels to your mood, your focus to your overall health. 

RISE can work out how much sleep you need, known as your sleep need, and how much sleep debt you have.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.

2. It Can Help You Fall Asleep Faster 

Beyond keeping you asleep, white noise may help you fall asleep in the first place. 

A small 2017 study with 18 participants found white noise reduced sleep onset latency (the time taken to fall asleep) by 38%. In those who usually struggled to fall asleep at home, white noise improved their subjective sleep quality and the number of times they were woken up from sleep.

A 2021 study looked at 10 people in New York City who couldn’t sleep due to a noisy environment. They used a white noise machine to block out sounds while sleeping and reported falling asleep faster and waking up less often during the night. 

It wasn’t just self-reported improvements, though. Their sleep efficiency (the time spent actually sleeping in bed) was measured with a device and this improved, too. 

Even more interesting was that nighttime awakenings remained lower in the week after the experiment when participants had stopped using a white noise machine. More research needs to be done, but this may be because the brain becomes less sensitive to sounds. It’s also not clear how long this effect would last. 

3. It May Improve Your Sleep Quality  

Once you’re asleep, white noise may be able to improve your sleep beyond stopping sounds from waking you up. 

One study looked at how white noise in the form of ocean noises helped patients sleep in the ICU. It found when patients slept with white noise they reported deeper sleep, less nighttime awakenings, improved time returning to sleep, and better sleep quality. 

While promising, this study did use self-reported data, so it may not be accurate, and it used patients in hospital after surgery, so it’s not clear if white noise could improve your sleep at home. And one more thing to be aware of: there isn’t a set definition for sleep quality yet. 

But these results have been found in other research. A 2021 study also found white noise improved the sleep quality of patients in the ICU. 

4. It Gives You a Bedtime Routine

There’s not much research behind this theory, but some say using a white noise machine or white noise app as part of their bedtime routine can help them fall asleep. 

The white noise may act as a cue as your brain associates it with winding down and getting ready for sleep.

It may also help you sleep if you turn on some white noise and then do a relaxing activity like journaling or yoga before climbing into bed. This would be especially useful if you do this activity instead of watching TV or scrolling social media, which can keep you up. 

We’ve covered more on how screen time affects sleep here.

5. It May Lower Anxiety 

While some use white noise to mask noise, others use it even when they’ve got complete silence. This is because you may find yourself awake in bed with anxious thoughts and white noise can be a soothing sound to help you fall asleep. 

Again, there’s not much research behind this theory, but it’s easy to see how white noise — especially nature sounds — could be relaxing. And it may also help lower anxiety and improve overall wellness simply by blocking out stressful sounds, like traffic. 

One 2016 study looked at 60 patients in the ICU who listened to white noise for three nights. The noise improved patients’ sleep quality and the researchers noted white noise could improve sleep quality and quantity by “reducing the effects of noise and inducing relaxation.” 

While anxiety wasn’t measured, it was noted that it seems white noise like ocean sounds could lead “to the individual’s relaxation and this leads to the improvement of the patient’s sleep quality.”

Racing thoughts keeping you up? We’ve covered more advice on how to sleep with anxiety here and breathing exercises before bed here.

The Final Verdict 

There are many theories behind why white noise could help you sleep and a few studies with promising results. So should you add white noise to your pre-bed routine? Unfortunately, there’s not enough evidence to say. 

A 2021 systematic review looked at 38 studies on white noise and sleep and concluded: “Conventional wisdom contends that continuous noise, such as so-called “white noise machines”, may improve sleep. After systematically reviewing published scientific literature, we conclude that the quality of evidence supporting this assertion is very low.” 

It added that while some benefits were seen (like reduced sleep latency and reduced sleep fragmentation, or awakenings) there wasn’t enough of a difference to be statistically significant. Many of the studies looked at were also small and used self-reported data, which can be inaccurate.

In research outside of this review, studies on white noise and sleep are often small or short in duration, done on participants in hospitals or on young participants, use self-reported data, or use different intensities and volumes of white noise. And some called it white noise when it was a different type of noise altogether. 

That’s not even considering the fact that it’s hard to blind these studies as participants know if they’re hearing white noise as they fall asleep or not.

All this means we have to take the results with a grain of salt. 

For a final take, we asked our sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, whether he recommends white noise for sleep: 

“White noise can block out sounds that may wake you up at night and can help you relax and fall asleep. But there’s not much science behind it. Silence is the holy grail when it comes to sleep. So I’d recommend silence first, or as quiet as you can get, and then experimenting with white noise if it helps.” Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu

Is Using White Noise for Sleep Harmful?

There are some downsides to using white noise sounds for sleep. More research needs to be done to fully understand the drawbacks, but here’s what we know: 

  • It can mask sounds you want to hear: Such as a crying baby or your alarm clock the next day. 
  • It may cause hearing loss if it’s too loud and constant sound may cause damage: The human ear may need downtime to rest and recover at night, although more research is needed on this theory.   
  • It’s not recommended for those with tinnitus: While white noise can help to mask ringing in your ears, research suggests it can cause damage to the brain. Speak to your healthcare provider if you’re looking into white noise because of tinnitus.
  • It may reduce deep sleep and REM sleep: Noise at night may change your sleep architecture, or how your body moves through sleep stages. Long-term exposure to sound during sleep has been linked to less deep sleep and less rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM sleep). It’s not clear whether white noise could cause this, but one older study found high-intensity white noise decreased REM sleep.
  • You may get used to it: White noise might help you sleep at first, but you could get used to it over time and lose the benefits. So you may be better off finding long-term fixes like improving your sleep hygiene (more on that soon). 
  • It may not work for everyone: A 2019 study looked at how white noise from an air conditioner impacts sleep. It found that sleep duration was about 12 minutes shorter when sleeping with the air conditioner white noise compared to sleeping without. Participants did fall asleep faster, but only by about four minutes, and there was no real difference in sleep efficiency.   

White noise — or any noise at night — may be safe as a short-term solution, though. A 2022 systematic review looked at white noise, pink noise, and music for sleep. It concluded, “although there was no strong evidence to support use of auditory stimulation, none of the studies reported any adverse effects with short-term application of auditory stimulation during sleep.” 

So, if a neighbor is throwing a party or you’re traveling for work, using white noise to help you sleep on a few occasions may be safe. But, again, more research is needed here.

Should I Play White Noise All Night?

We don’t know if playing white noise — or any sound for that matter — all night is harmful or not. There is a theory that our ears need to rest and recover overnight and listening to constant sound could cause damage. 

To be on the safe side, consider using a timer so white noise stops playing after a set period of time.

If you’re using white noise to mask sounds at night, consider wearing earplugs or insulating your home and bedroom against noise pollution. More tips on this below. 

Improving your sleep hygiene can also help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often, so noise may not bother you as much. More on what to do soon. 

How to Use White Noise to Sleep?

RISE app screenshot showing range of background sounds
The RISE app has a range of relaxing sleep sounds and a timer.

Want to try white noise for yourself? Here are some tips to get the most from it. 

  • Use a timer: It’s not clear whether all-night white noise could be harmful. Try listening to white noise to fall asleep and set a timer for it to switch off after a set period of time. 
  • Set it to as low a volume as you can: Reduce the chances of hearing damage by keeping the volume low. Noises above 47 decibels may make auditory masking ineffective and disturb sleep. If you need it loud to mask noises, try wearing earplugs as well. 
  • Choose a sound machine that doesn’t emit any light: If you’re buying a white noise machine over an app or recording, make sure the machine doesn’t emit any light that could keep you up. We’ve covered what color light is best for sleep here. 
  • Keep an eye on your sleep debt: Use the RISE app to keep track of your sleep debt to make sure white noise isn’t causing sleep loss. 
  • Experiment to find what works for you: Research hasn’t found the best sounds for sleep, so experiment with different sounds to find what works for you. RISE has a range of sleep sounds to try like a fan, a crackling fire, or ocean sounds. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.

How to Reduce Noise Without a White Noise Machine?

Considering there’s not much science behind it, you might be looking for other ways to get a quiet night’s sleep. Here’s what you can try: 

  • Use earplugs: Block out sound without adding any more noises with earplugs (we recommend these). Earplugs rated to 32 decibels can help to block disruptive noise but still allow you to hear your alarm or crying child. They can also stop early morning sounds waking you up too early — useful if you play white noise on a timer, instead of all night. One study found using earplugs and an eye mask helped participants listening to ICU sounds get more REM sleep, wake up less often at night, and have higher melatonin levels, which is your natural sleep hormone. 
  • Move your bed away from a window or outside wall: Or move your bedroom into a quieter room if possible. 
  • Bring more soft furnishings into your bedroom: Heavy curtains, rugs, and cushions can help to absorb sound.
  • Improve your arousal threshold: The lower your arousal threshold, the easier sounds will be able to wake you up. Surprising things can lower your threshold like mouth breathing and caffeine. Speak to a doctor if you regularly wake up to rule out health conditions and sleep disorders like sleep apnea

How to Get Better Sleep?

RISE app screenshot showing when to get and avoid bright light
The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

Noise is just one part of the sleep puzzle. To get a good night’s sleep, you need to focus on sleep hygiene as a whole. Sleep hygiene is the name for the set of daily habits you can do to help you fall and stay asleep at night. 

White noise can only do so much, especially if you’re drinking coffee late into the day or getting too much pre-bed blue light, for example. Improving your sleep hygiene may even fix the root cause of your poor sleep.

Here’s what good sleep hygiene looks like: 

  • Get bright light first thing: Light in the morning resets your body clock for the day, keeping your sleep schedule in check and helping you feel sleepy come bedtime. Aim for at least 10 minutes of light as soon as possible after waking up and 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window. 
  • Avoid light close to bedtime: Bright light can keep you up at night. Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses about 90 minutes before bed (we recommend these).
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, intense exercise, and alcohol too late in the day: All four can keep you up or wake you up during the night, leaving you awake longer with disruptive noises or anxious thoughts. Check RISE for when to avoid each one daily.
  • Do a calming bedtime routine: If anxiety keeps you up and makes you turn to a white noise machine, try a calming bedtime routine to slow your brain and body for sleep. Reading, listening to music, journaling, or doing yoga before bed may help. RISE can also walk you through science-backed relaxation techniques for sleep
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet: Aim for 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, use blackout curtains, and wear earplugs and an eye mask for the perfect sleep environment. If possible, keep sounds in your bedroom below 35 decibels, which is about the sound of a whisper.

To make these habits stick, RISE can remind you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene behaviors each day. Getting the timing right will also make them more effective.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.

Get a Quiet Night’s Sleep 

Sleep is essential for energy, health, and well-being, but all too often, environmental noise can make it hard to get.

While recent studies are promising, there’s simply not enough research to fully recommend white noise for sleep yet. There may also be a few dangers like hearing damage or changes to your sleep architecture. 

Our advice? Try masking sounds in your environment with earplugs, reducing anxiety with a relaxing bedtime routine, and improving your sleep hygiene to help you fall and stay asleep. And turn to white noise — perhaps on a timer — if you find it helps you get a better night’s sleep. 

The RISE app can help by guiding you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day and walking you through relaxation techniques before bed. There are also sleep sounds if you decide to add these to your bedtime routine. 

Summary FAQs

Is it better to sleep with silence or with white noise?

Research suggests it’s better to sleep with silence, but that’s not always possible. White noise can help to mask noises and help you fall asleep and stay asleep if you live in a noisy area.

Is white noise good for the brain?

White noise may be good for the brain. It can improve memory and help some people focus, including those with ADHD. But at night, silence (or as quiet as you can get it) seems to be best.

What are the negative effects of white noise?

White noise can cause hearing loss if it’s too loud, change your sleep architecture (or how you move through natural sleep stages), and it may be harmful for those with tinnitus. You may also get used to it over time or it can mask important sounds like your alarm clock or crying child.

What white noise is best for sleeping?

There’s not enough research to say what white noise is best for sleeping. It may be personal preference as some may find listening to a fan more calming than radio static. If you’re using white noise to sleep, set it on a low volume and consider using a timer so you’re not listening to noise all night.

Is it OK to sleep with white noise every night?

More research needs to be done to say whether it’s OK to sleep with white noise every night. You may get used to the effects, so it could only be a short-term fix. Consider using a timer, so you only listen to it while falling asleep instead of all night, or only listen to white noise on noisy nights, like when traveling.

Is it OK to leave white noise on all night?

More research needs to be done to say whether it’s OK to sleep with white noise all night. Our ears may need downtime to rest and recover at night. Consider using a timer, so you only listen to it while falling asleep instead of all night, or only listen to white noise on noisy nights, like when traveling.

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