When sleep doesn’t come easily, it impacts every aspect of your life. Your mood deteriorates, your focus droops, and without a quadruple espresso in the morning, you can’t even function. We’ve all had nights like that, when the dog won’t stop barking, the neighbors love a party, or your loved one’s snoring has you questioning your life choices.
One well-known way to combat these nightly noises and soothe you to sleep is with white noise. Like a blanket, it smothers disturbing noises in the night and lulls you into a deep and peaceful sleep.
There are two main ways to create white noise. The first is with a white noise machine, and the other is a little DIY – using the electric fan you probably already own.
In this guide, we’re going to explain the benefits and disadvantages of both and compare them thoroughly.
How Noise (Or Lack of It) Helps Us Sleep
Loud noises wake us up. There’s no getting around this! We’ve evolved to wake up from sleep when there’s a loud noise, whether it’s a baby crying or the fire alarm blaring. It’s important that we can wake up quickly to deal with any present dangers.
But when the noise that wakes you up isn’t life threatening and doesn’t require your attention, it is incredibly frustrating. And it doesn’t even need to be that loud of a noise. One study looking into sleep quality and length in hospitals found that for parents, sleep efficiency was at 77.1% in the hospital vs 88.9% at home… even though the average volume was only slightly increased. It was 48.6 dBA compared with the 34.7 dBA they experience at home.
FYI, the World Health Organization recommends keeping it at 30 dB for the best sleep experience.
This is a big problem. The more background noise there is, the harder it is to sleep. This impacts your health in ways you might not have realized:
- Nearly all mood and anxiety disorders co-occur with one or more sleep abnormalities,
- Circadian cycles (wake and sleep cycles) impact genes and cellular structures that control cell functions that impact whole organs in your body!
- The study concludes that due to the importance of healthy circadian cycles, “sleep impacts memory, learning, mood, behavior, immunological responses, metabolism, hormone levels, digestive process and many more physiological functions.”
So, creating white noise can mask disruptive sounds that are bad for your sleep and bad for your health. But should you choose a fan or white noise machine to get the job done?
White Noise Machine
A white noise machine is purposely built to create white noise, pink noise (see FAQs), and other blanket noises that mask disruptive sounds in your bedroom during the night. It can be used to create a static noise when silence is bothering you, or quiet noises at specific frequencies and pitches.
You can use it to drone out high pitched squeaking, loud barking, deep snoring, conversations, etc. Many people use white noise to study as well as sleep, because it aids focus.
The key attraction to white noise machines is that they’re adjustable. You can tweak the settings to get a sound that’s at the perfect volume and pitch. Many white noise machines also have settings like the auto-switch off and timer features, and multiple white noise “sounds” to choose from.
As light sleepers, we prefer the basic white noise setting, but you might like to play around with ocean and forest sounds too!
- Very effective at blocking sounds,
- Adjustable settings for volume and pitch,
- Choose the white noise that works best for you,
- Multiple charging/power options,
- Perfect for traveling.
- Only has 1 purpose – blocking sound,
- Slightly more expensive than fans,
- Won’t keep you cool in the summer, so you may end up using a fan regardless.
Electric Fan for Sleep
While the white noise machine was purposely designed to create white noise, a fan is the opposite. These electric fans are designed to circulate air around the room, thus cooling you down. The fact that they create a reliable humming sound that acts as a white noise is a total coincidence.
Many people choose to use a fan as a white noise because they’re already accustomed to fan noises overnight. If it’s 3 am and you can’t sleep, it’s easier to just switch on a fan than go to Amazon and order a white noise machine.
Typically, more modern fans are quieter than older fans. Some people have solutions to make the fan noisier, including placing it on a hard surface and attaching a plastic bag over the fan attachment… but this is dangerous, and we do not recommend it.
Nonetheless, fans are great devices during the summer. They cool your body, which is very important. Along with sound, temperature and humidity are also important factors to getting better sleep. If the humidity and temperature are too high, your body will struggle to sleep.
By circulating the air, the fan creates a blanket noise, reduces humidity, and cools your body down. The only problem is that they’re not very effective at blocking all sounds.
Fans are typically good for blocking noise that is similar to the fan sound, e.g., traffic noises, footsteps, and other dull droning sounds. But a sudden yap from next door’s terrier is going to cut through it like a warm knife through butter.
- Blocks quiet to moderate sounds,
- Has multiple purposes – air circulation, etc.,
- Cheap models available.
- Limited “sound” settings,
- Blasts air around and disturbs dust,
- Too chilly for winter months,
- Dries out your skin and eyes,
- Ineffective for louder sounds.
Also Read: Sleeping with A Fan On (3 Pros And 6 Cons)
White Noise Machine vs Fan for Better Sleep
White noise machines are more effective than fans, when you look at reducing noise disruption only. When you look at how each device creates an optimal sleeping condition, the fan’s versatility wins because it keeps you cool as well.
If there is no specific noise that you need to block out, then both the white noise machine and fan are equally effective. They both create a steady and consistent noise that will help you sleep.
However, when it comes to specifically blocking out a noise for better sleep, then the fan is not effective. Unlike the white noise machine, the fan cannot be adjusted to the right volume and frequency to block out the noise completely – you’re just relying on the sheer noise of the fan to be louder than the sounds around you.
Most fans have very limited features:
- On/off button,
- 3 speed settings,
- Rotating or fixed head,
- Cord and electrical plug.
These features are very basic, but they enable the device to operate as a cooling device, dehumidifier (via increased air circulation), and sound-blocker for sleeping.
In comparison, a white noise machine will have more features, but they’ll all be focused on just one purpose (blocking out noise to help you sleep or focus):
- Multiple soundtracks (white noise, rainforest, pink noise, etc…),
- Looping and non-looping tracks,
- Adjustable volume,
- Adjustable frequency,
- Auto-off timers.
Depending on the price (see price estimates below) some white noise machines will have all these features, and others will just have one or two. Furthermore, some are specifically suited to helping babies sleep, cut through the neighbor’s barking dog, etc.
Keep an eye out for other devices that include a white noise setting too. It’s not uncommon to find white noise machine abilities on nightlights and alarm clocks.
Pricewise, electric fans are cheaper and more cost effective. They can be used as white noise machines and to cool down your house during the summer. You can even use them to reduce air humidity as well.
At the time of writing, most electric fans on Amazon are priced from $15 to $70.
White noise machines may have a wider range of features to help you sleep, but they cannot do much else. If you only need to block out construction workers for a few weeks during the night, then you cannot use the white noise machine beyond that.
At the time of writing, most white noise machines on Amazon are priced from $20 to $50.
To get a good noise-blocking effect from a fan, you typically need a large and noisy fan… which doesn’t travel well. You may be able to pack a small desk fan in your luggage, but it’s not going to do the trick from the other side of a hotel room.
In general, fans don’t travel well.
White noise machines, on the other hand, are great. There are even models that are designed to travel. They are typically smaller than a fan and many are battery operated, so it’s okay if you need to use that single electrical socket in your hotel room to charge your phone instead.
White noise machines are great for travel as a result and can ensure you get a good night’s sleep even in the noisiest of motels.
5. Power Source & Consumption
Most fans need to be plugged into the mains. There are a few battery-operated models, but they tend to be really small and quiet, as they’re designed for work desks. This is a problem for travel and also room design, if there are no free power sockets by your bed.
In terms of power consumption, the Amazon Basics 3-Speed Fan uses 55W. To compare, most white noise machines use up to 10W. So, white noise machines are more energy efficient.
Furthermore, white noise machines can be powered by USB (plug into your laptop) or run on batteries. This makes them much more versatile for people who travel frequently.
If getting to sleep is a long-term issue for you then the white noise machine is the better choice. It’s the most effective and efficient way to successfully create the perfect, quiet atmosphere for sleeping.
However, if you only need to block out sounds every now and then, a fan will suffice. Fans are also better value for money as they can be used to keep you cool in the summer, regardless of how noisy it is at night. Just bear in mind that you cannot travel with one easily!
Is pink noise the same as white noise?
White noise features the same intensity no matter the frequency. So, a very high frequency (high pitched noise) will feel very loud and intense to your ears. Pink noise, on the other hand, has less intensity at higher frequencies. Pink noise is more common in nature – waves lapping at the shore, for example.
How do white noise machines work?
White noise machines produce a non-repeating sound at a specific frequency, either via a synthesizer or small fan. By choosing a volume and frequency setting that’s like the noise you’re experiencing, the white noise machine can block it out.
Can a fan be used to create white noise?
Yes, a fan is a popular choice for creating white noise, although it’s not as effective as a white noise machine.
Is it safe to sleep with a white noise machine on?
Generally, yes. The white noise machine should be quiet enough to block out background noise (e.g., traffic outside your window) but won’t stop you from hearing the loud shrill of the fire or burglar alarm. If you are worried, test your alarms to see how well you can hear them when the white noise machine is operating.
Are white noise machines more effective than ear plugs?
If ear plugs are uncomfortable, then yes. Many people find that a combination of ear plugs and white noise machine is the most effective.
What is the best white noise machine for sleep?
There are hundreds of white noise machine models, but we personally recommend the HoMedics White Noise Machine. It’s one of the most affordable models and is great for travel, plus it has a decent range of features considering the price.