Insomnia was a problem for plenty of people before the pandemic. Now, there’s a new term: "COVID-somnia." "From what we know anecdotally, the increase is enormous,” says Angela Drak, a UC Davis Health clinical professor who treats sleep disorders. A study done at the start of the pandemic in China found that 20% of people were suffering from insomnia; 16% from acute stress; 19% from anxiety; and 25% from depression. This data suggests a 37% increase in the rates of clinical insomnia (from 15 to 20%). Fortunately, there’s also a new(ish) treatment that doesn’t involve doctors at all: pink noise. No, not white noise. This time, it’s pink noise.
It’s the latest in a long line of sleep solutions being marketed to help people get sleep. Heath Fradkoff, a Brooklyn-based principal of Ward 6 Marketing, had been experimenting with devices to help him sleep long before the pandemic arrived. Fradkoff started with room fans. When those didn’t suffice, and were too cold in the winter, he recorded an .mp3 of his fan, tweaked it to boost the lower frequencies and tried that approach. Then, he switched to a sound machine. “I’ve always had a bad case of FOMO at night and never wanted to go to bed when I could hear activity going on, so I started blocking it out,” Fradkoff said.
Today, the sound of pink noise fills his bedroom—along with his snores. Both colors—white and pink—contain every frequency people can hear. But pink noise’s intensity goes down as the frequency goes up, says Michelle Drerup, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center. That’s why white noise sounds like TV static or a radio when it’s between frequencies, while pink noise resembles steady rainfall sans thunder, or wind—and it’s often described as more soothing, Drerup says.
Pink noise is nothing new, it’s just not very well known... yet. Here's what you need to know about pink noise, and how it stacks up versus white noise.
What Is White Noise?
First, let’s start with white noise, which is often a go-to when it comes to muffling external noises. Technically, white noise is a blend of low, medium, and high frequency sounds played together at the same intensity level, according to the Sleep Foundation. It masks other sounds, so if a car honks, a dog barks, or if someone is speaking in another room—t’ll be less likely to jar you out of your sleep. White noise consists of every single audible frequency.
“White noise has been the standard because it was more easily available—the sound of the ceiling fan—but now with technology and numerous sound apps, the choices are endless,” Drerup says.
What Is Pink Noise?
Pink noise has the same job as white noise: It aims to mask all those jarring sounds that may wake you up. But it does its job differently, and some believe it does its job better than white noise. Rather than playing all the sounds at the same intensity, pink noise focuses on the lower sounds. This replicates the way we hear sounds normally: high frequencies are less intense (i.e. our ears are sensitive to high frequencies like the sound of a shrill microphone or screech).
So as opposed to white noise, which may sound like the hushing sound that we’ve all come to love—pink noise sounds more like steady wind or rain. In other words, pink noise is the gentler white noise. And it appears to just the ointment people need right now.
Northwestern researchers found pink noise actually enhanced deep sleep for anyone with mild cognitive impairment, according to a recent study.
And in another recent small study, researchers at Northwestern University found pink noise may even improve memory if used during specific periods of sleep. After the pink noise application, word recall was significantly better, the study found.
“Pink noise has been shown to enhance slow wave sleep, which improves memory retention,” said Roneil Malkani, senior author on the 2019 study, co-author of the 2017 study and assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University. The study didn’t compare pink noise versus white noise, but Malkani said that just a few days of using pink noise appears to benefit slow wave sleep.
The Bottom Line
Not everyone is totally convinced, however. Bart Wolbers, a Netherlands-based researcher and chief science writer at Alexfergus.com, which investigates the scientific validity of health interventions, said some of his clients have been using pink noise to improve sleep quality, but he’s not persuaded.
If your sleeping environment is loud, then pink noise or white noise would help you get some rest, Wolbers conceded. But the best sleep happens in a silent bedroom, he laments. “Many government institutions such as those in the US and the EU prescribed sound levels of 35 and 40 decibels for optimal sleep,” Wolbers says.
Unfortunately, some people don’t have that luxury. In New York, for example, where midtown traffic rings in at a lovely 70 to 85 dB(A)—and a jackhammer or power saw (essentially the backdrop of NYC life) is 110 dB(A) according to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection—we may not have access to a silent bedroom. Living near or on top of a restaurant or bar? Commercial establishments that play music must limit the level to 42 decibels when measured from inside a nearby residence. So there goes your silence. As a result, sleep machines, apps and other sleeping products have quickly jumped onto the pink noise bandwagon, offering everything from a pink and white mix to purely pink noise.
Drerup suggested trying them all to see what works for your child, as this is a personal decision. “The right color of noise is different for everyone,” she said.
Morin CM, Carrier J. The acute effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on insomnia and psychological symptoms. Sleep Med. 2021;77:346-347.
Pink noise boosts deep sleep in mild cognitive impairment patients: Sound stimulation in deep sleep improved recall for some in small pilot study. ScienceDaily.
Papalambros NA, Santostasi G, Malkani RG, et al. Acoustic enhancement of sleep slow oscillations and concomitant memory improvement in older adults. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:109.