If you have long hair or swim in competition, you’ve probably had to wear a swim cap at some point in your life. Although they may look simple, putting on a swim cap is not as obvious as one would think. The foremost area of curiosity is whether or not swim caps are actually meant to cover the ears.
Swim caps are designed to cover the majority of the ear to make a swimmer more hydrodynamic in the water. When the ears protrude outward, this hydrodynamic effect is reduced, which slows down a swimmer’s pace. The ears are usually only partially covered, however, as swim caps aren’t meant to be ear plugs.
We’ll delve into the exact reasons why swim caps are constructed to cover the ears in the subsequent sections. Read further to discover whether the swim cap should completely cover or partially cover the ears, along with information regarding how effective swim caps are at keeping water out of the ear canals.
Why Swim Caps are Designed to Go Over the Ears
To the untrained eye, wearing a swim cap with ears covered versus uncovered seems very trivial. After all, how much of a difference can it make?
The answer is that it can make a significant difference in pace, comfort, and even appearance. In order to understand why swim caps are meant to be worn over the ears, it’s necessary to have a basic grasp of the swim cap’s true purpose.
The Purpose of Wearing a Swim Cap
If you think about it, the crown of your head is the very first point of contact that the water has with the body as you move through the water. The less resistance that the water meets at this point of contact, the faster you’ll go. You can imagine the crown of your head as a metal bullet shooting underwater.
Believe it or not, hair strands do interact with the water and present a solid form of resistance. This resulting friction, prevents a swimmer from slicing through the water at maximal speeds.
Casual swimmers may have a difficult time noticing any difference, but competitive swimmers are well aware of this phenomenon. This is the reason why competitive swimmers choose to shave off any excess body hair prior to events. By shaving their hair off, they also shave seconds off their race times.
Not many recreational swimmers are willing to go bald for the sake of swimming laps a bit faster, but wearing a swim cap is a healthy alternative.
Aside from the primary benefit of reduced friction, swim caps also serve a variety of other functions, including (source):
- Securing Loose Hair Strands – Long-haired individuals often don’t want to have to deal with their hair in the middle of a workout. Wearing a swim cap keeps their hair safely tucked away, preventing any unwanted interruptions during their swim session.
- Protecting Hair from Chlorine Effects – Prolonged exposure to the chlorine found in pool water can gradually weaken the integrity of the hair strands. A swim cap can help to minimize this negative exposure by acting as a physical barrier.
- Increasing Visibility in Open Water – Open water swimmers may not be as distinguishable from shore as they’d like to be. Under these circumstances, a colorful swim cap can help to make an open water swimmer more conspicuous if there’s ever a need for rescue.
These additional functions are important to know, but they’re not the major reason behind why the swim cap is meant to cover the ears. The underlying reason that swim caps are intended to cover the ears has to do with the aforementioned reduction in water drag.
How the Swim Cap’s Purpose Affects How It’s Worn
Since optimizing for hydrodynamics is the main priority of the swim cap, crafting the swim cap in such a way to leave the ears exposed would be counterintuitive.
The whole point of the swim cap is to make the crown of the head as streamlined as possible. If the ears were left exposed, that would leave two additional bulges for the water to interact with. This extra resistance would negate any of the frictional benefits that the swim cap is supposed to offer.
Let’s revisit the bullet analogy. Which do you think would go faster: a smooth, slick bullet or a roughly made, bumpy bullet?
The answer’s simple. The smooth, slick bullet would move at greater speeds because it’s more aerodynamic. This same basic premise holds true for swim caps. A person that wears their swim cap over their ears will have a much smoother, slicker leading edge, which ultimately makes them more hydrodynamic compared to a swimmer that leaves the tops of their ears exposed.
It should also be noted that not wearing a swim cap over the ears looks rather silly. Swimmers that decide against wearing their swim cap over their ears stick out like a sore thumb in the pool. It looks much more natural for swimmers to wear a swim cap so that the tops of their ears are concealed underneath.
Should a Swim Cap Completely Cover or Partially Cover the Ears?
The majority of people wear their swim cap so that it only offers partial coverage over the ears. Specifically, the top portion of the ears are covered, while the ear canal and ear lobes are left exposed. Even some of the most successful swimmers in the world adopt this tactic, as you can see with Michael Phelps in the image below:
However, how much of the ears that the swim cap covers is entirely dependent on an individual’s preferences. Not everyone has the same ear size nor placement, so the swim cap may sit differently on the ears for one person relative to another.
As a general rule of thumb, you should wear your swim cap in whatever way that’s most comfortable for you. If you’re still on the fence as to whether you should completely cover or partially cover your ears, I put together a list of pros and cons for each style so that you can make an informed decision:
Pros of Complete Ear Coverage
- Pure Silence Underwater – Some swimmers find the quietness of complete ear coverage to be calming. This serene feeling may help you to move through your swimming sets with a measure of unparalleled concentration.
- Slightly More Hydrodynamic – Full coverage of the ears also plasters the ears to the side of your head, leaving no room for any frictional hindrances as you move underwater.
Cons of Complete Ear Coverage
- Discomfort from Compressed Ears – Some swimmers never get accustomed to the feeling of the entire ear being smashed up against the side of their head. This discomfort detracts from their focus and performance, so they opt to go the partial coverage route instead.
- Swishing Water Trapped Within – Water tends to find a way to trickle in to the cap over the course of a swimming session and get penned in. As you swim, you’ll feel this water swishing around your ear, which can be both annoying and distracting.
Pros of Partial Ear Coverage
- Can Easily Hear Other People – If you swim with a partner or team, you likely communicate with them throughout your workout. Partial ear coverage makes it less troublesome to listen to your peers.
- Higher Degree of Comfort (In Most Cases) – Partial ear coverage reduces the discomfort caused by ear compression. Consequently, you’ll be less focused on your ears and more focused on executing your swimming strokes.
Cons of Partial Ear Coverage
- Less Hydrodynamic – With the bottom halves of the ears exposed, you’re presented with slightly more friction underwater. Whether or not this slows you down ultimately comes down to the trade-off between comfort and hydrodynamics.
One disadvantage that many swimmers associate with partial ear coverage is an increased risk for ear infection, since the ear canal is left completely exposed to pool water. The problem with this line of thought is that it makes the assumption that swim caps are crafted for the purpose of keeping water out of the ears.
Do Swim Caps Cover the Ears to Keep Water Out?
Contrary to popular opinion, swim caps are not designed to preserve the dryness of the ears and block off pool water from entering the ear canal (source). Swim caps are purely meant for the functions discussed earlier in the article.
For this reason, many experienced swimmers opt to wear ear plugs in conjunction with swim caps. Ear plugs are specifically tailored to decreasing the risk of ear infection by acting as a physical barrier to water, unlike the swim cap. Ear bands are another viable option for water stoppage if you don’t like the feel of ear plugs.
So if you’re worried about contracting swimmer’s ear, don’t rely on your swim cap alone. Ear plugs and ear bands are much more effective at protecting your ears from water because that’s what they were made to do.
If you still feel like you need an additional layer over the ears, however, there are ways to secure a swim cap over the ears—namely swimming chin straps.
Swim caps that come with built-in chinstraps will help to pull the material right over your ears to help quell any doubts that you may have about the effectiveness of your ear plugs. Plus, it will keep your swim cap from shifting as you go about swimming laps.
The Bottom Line
You should wear your swim cap over your ears. Whether they’re completely covered or partially covered is ultimately dependent on your own personal comfort levels. Just know that swim caps are not meant for keeping water out. If water stoppage is your main concern, you should consider investing in ear plugs or an ear band instead.