Why You Should Be Using a Sleep Mask Every Single Night

Seriously, a simple eye mask can block out artificial light and score you a better, more restful night's sleep.

nine different sleeping masks including fox and panda face sleeping masks, pink and black striped sleeping masks, and sleeping masks that say "zzzzz" and "sweet dreams"
Photo: Shutterstock / Julia August.

If you've ever powered through a full workday after a restless night, you're intimately aware of how important it is to get enough sleep in order to, you know, function. But it's also imperative to your health — not getting enough zzz's is linked to chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, depression, and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And a third of American adults report getting less than the recommended amount of sleep, according to the CDC.

It's a serious issue, which is why it may seem silly that there's one small, simple suggestion that could genuinely help you get a better night's sleep: Wear a sleep mask. You can get some impressive sleep benefits from wearing one of these things, according to experts.

Why You Should Sleep In the Dark

Although some aspects of how and why humans sleep are still a mystery, doctors do have a basic framework for how sleep works. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, there are two processes that heavily influence the desire to sleep. One is a compound called adenosine, which increases in your brain while you're awake and tells your body it's time to sleep when it peaks (before then beginning to break down).

The second process is the "body clock," also known as your circadian rhythm — and light (natural or otherwise) is a major element that helps your body clock figure out whether it's time to be awake or go to sleep. Basically, it works like this: If there's a lot of light flooding in, then your circadian rhythm thinks it's time to be awake, so it suppresses a myriad of chemicals, including big-time player melatonin.

If it's dark, then more melatonin is produced and your circadian rhythm thinks it's time for bed. In addition to making you feel sleepy, "the amount in your body [also] increases as you sleep to push you farther into the sleep cycle," explains Chris Brantner, a certified sleep science coach and founder of mattress review site SleepZoo (now owned by EachNight). A 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism noted that exposure to light suppressed the onset of subjects' melatonin by about 90 minutes — that's a big chunk of time to not be sleeping when you're supposed to be.

Increased exposure to light could have other consequences, too. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology linked nighttime light exposure to depression in elderly people, even when it was adjusted to account for other sleeping parameters. Even more, a study from Northwestern University found that sleeping in a moderately lit room for even one night can have health effects. Researchers found that light exposure "can impair glucose and cardiovascular regulation, which are risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome," noted senior study author Phyllis Zee, M.D., Ph.D.

Some experts have even gone so far as to suggest that it's not a lack of sleep that's the issue, but a lack of darkness. Researchers analyzed sleep patterns in Tanzania, Namibia, and Bolivia, and found that they slept an average of 5.7 hours a night. Despite it being less than what's recommended by the CDC, it seemed to be working for them, and researchers hypothesized it was because they slept in significantly more darkness — without artificial lighting — resulting in better quality sleep.

Benefits of Eye Masks for Sleep

So, if it's impossible to erase all of that modern artificial lighting, are you likely to get any real benefits from sleep masks? Short answer: Yes.

Although sleep experts would still encourage you to put away your phone before bed and not fall asleep watching television, a study published in Critical Care found that patients in simulated ICU units who wore earplugs and eye masks got more REM sleep and had elevated melatonin levels. So it's no joke that this tiny change can have a huge impact on how you sleep. "Light is one of the primary things we can control to minimize sleep disruption," notes Brantner.

So what kind of eye mask should you look for? First, you want one that actually blocks light, meaning it needs to properly fit your face, says Brantner. Options that have the nose carved out or that lie flush against your cheek and brow bones will probably work best. If you're worried about the fit, an adjustable sleep mask — this silk one, (Buy It, $15, target.com) for example — might be your best bet. You'll also want to find a fabric that feels comforting to you. Brantner prefers silk, but velvet, faux fur, and fleece are other popular options.

To block out both sound and light, there are also wrap-around eye masks such as this satin option (Buy It, $18, ulta.com) that help muffle noise while you're immersed in total darkness. Weighted sleep masks exist too — such as this fleece one (Buy It, $34, nordstrom.com) — and the gentle pressure they provide can help ease headaches and sinus issues.

Even if you don't notice major changes in your sleep habits right away, you may enjoy the mask anyway, says Alex Dimitriu, M.D., board-certified sleep medicine and psychiatry expert based in Menlo Park, California. "There's something also very soothing about having a soft mask over the eyes, [and it] can have a calming effect for some," he adds. So yes, with all these sleep mask benefits at your disposal, you should definitely embrace the comfort. Your body will thank you for it. (You might also want to try using CBD for sleep.)

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