Sleep masks can improve your sleep and health
What are sleep masks?
A sleep mask, sometimes called an eye mask, is a simple, inexpensive accessory that blocks out light to help improve sleep. Light, especially artificial light at night, suppresses the body’s natural melatonin and can impair sleep. Melatonin signals your brain that it’s time to go to sleep.
Sleep disturbances are common, and almost everybody has trouble sleeping from time to time. Chronic insomnia — defined as sleep disturbances occurring at least three nights a week for more than three months — may affect as many as a third of all adults.
If you have trouble sleeping and want a simple, natural solution, a sleep mask may be one approach to try.
How do sleep masks work?
Your body follows a 24-hour circadian rhythm that regulates many bodily functions, including when you sleep and wake. This natural circadian rhythm is regulated in part by the rising and setting of the sun. The circadian rhythm can be disturbed by stress, jet lag and exposure to artificial light at night, all common issues these days.
The world is lit up at night — from street lights outside to the blue light spilling from smartphones, TVs, tablets and computer screens. Even a small amount of light from a smartphone in a dark bedroom can temporarily suppress the release of melatonin and result in sleep disturbances and insomnia.
Sleep masks offer an inexpensive, natural way to restore circadian rhythms. They were patented in the U.S. as long ago as 1933. Back then, the first sleep mask was simple: black cloth with a strap that fit around the head.
Today, sleep masks come in a variety of colors, shapes and materials — with enough variety to suit everyone. You can find sleep masks made of silk and cotton, contoured with foam or filled with beads, or even combined with headphones. Some are designed to help keep your eyes moist, and some masks are weighted to help you feel calm, relaxed and safe.
What are the health effects of light exposure at night?
Exposure to artificial light at night can have wide-ranging health effects. Individuals who sleep with their bedside lights on have shallower periods of sleep and less deep, restorative sleep. Other health problems associated with long-term exposure to light at night include negative effects on mental health, cardiovascular health and metabolism.
Sleep disturbances and chronic insomnia increase the risk of:
One common form of sleep disturbance, sleep apnea, can cause you to wake up many times a night because you are having trouble breathing.
Research shows that sleep masks are effective. One interesting study of healthy individuals recreated the light and noise of a hospital intensive care unit.
The study participants who used a sleep mask and earplugs had longer periods of quality sleep and higher levels of melatonin. They also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
In a different study on actual ICU patients, sleep masks and earplugs worked better to improve the quality of sleep than soothing ocean sounds.
The basic benefits of a sleep mask
Sleep masks have many benefits as a potential solution to insomnia, including:
Sleep masks are not addictive or habit-forming. They are safe without significant side effects, and some people find them as effective as medication for sleep disturbances.
Sleep masks can help protect the skin around your eyes.
Sleep masks are inexpensive and easy to use. If you want your bedroom completely dark, you may have to buy expensive blackout curtains. You might also have to remove all electronics, including digital clocks and chargers. The cost of a sleep mask is much less.
Sleep masks may help with some cases of eye dryness — though they are not recommended for those with dry eye syndrome. Dry eyes can get worse with dust, pollen and dry air. A sleep mask can help keep eyes protected and moist.
Sleep masks are good for traveling on planes, buses and cars (as long as you aren’t the driver).
SEE RELATED: Effects of sleep deprivation on the eyes
What are sleep masks made of?
Sleep masks are made out of many different materials, including:
Cotton, which is breathable, and can in some cases be organic (free of pesticides). Cotton is good for hot summer days.
Satin or silk, both of which are soft and slippery and can be ideal for those who are sensitive to the feeling of fabric on their face.
Polyester masks are inexpensive and lightweight. They are not as breathable as cotton or silk, and can cause sweating.
Some masks contain memory foam; beads; or natural husks, rice or seeds inside.
Other mask materials include velvet, faux fur and fleece.
What are some common types of sleep masks?
There are many different types of sleep masks. Almost all have adjustable elastic straps to ensure the fit is not too tight or too loose. You should be able to open your eyes with the mask on and blink comfortably. Here are the most common types:
Simple, flat masks made of soft, smooth, breathable fibers such as cotton or silk.
Contoured masks that fit around the eyes but don’t press on the bridge of the nose or the eyelids. Contoured masks are particularly good at keeping light from seeping in through the sides of the mask.
Travel masks are often paired with neck pillows and earplugs.
Quilted cotton masks are extra soft yet still breathable.
Very large masks are good for side sleepers since they still block out light.
Weighted masks can be more calming for some people. Often made of warm fleece, they are filled with beads, rice or other grains, adding a gentle pressure that is relaxing. Weighted masks usually weigh about 400 grams, and some will have soothing aromatherapy scents inside. A weighted sleep mask is like a hug, and due to its gentle pressure, can be relaxing and calming.
Some masks with rice or other grains inside can be heated in the microwave, while others have gel inserts that can be cooled in the fridge.
Finding the right sleep mask may take a little bit of trial and error. There are so many excellent offerings that the right, comfortable mask is just a purchase away.
READ NEXT: Sleep mask buyers' guide
Melatonin for sleep—does it work? Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed July 2021.
Prevalence of chronic insomnia in adult patients and its correlation with medical comorbidities. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care. Oct-Dec 2016.
Circadian rhythm. Sleep Foundation. September 2020.
Sleep eye shade. Google Patents. Accessed September 2021.
Let there be no light: the effect of bedside light on sleep quality and background electroencephalographic rhythms. Sleep Medicine. December 2013.
Bedroom light exposure at night and the incidence of depressive symptoms: A longitudinal study of the HEIJO-KYO cohort. American Journal of Epidemiology. March 2018.
Light exposure at night. Breast Cancer. April 2021.
Effects of artificial light at night on human health: A literature review of observational and experimental studies applied to exposure assessment. Chronobiology International. September 2015.
Extent and health consequences of chronic sleep loss and sleep disorders. In: Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. National Academies Press. 2006.
Sleep promotion among critically ill patients: Earplugs/Eye mask versus ocean sound—a randomized controlled trial study. Critical Care Research and Practice. December 2020.
Eye masks and sleep: do eye masks improve sleep quality? American Sleep Association. Accessed July 2021.
Do eye masks work for dry eyes? MedicalNewsToday. July 2021.
A psychologist’s guide to weighted sleep masks: Do they work and why? Parenting Pod. Accessed July 2021.
The case for wearing a sleep mask. Cleveland Clinic. March 2021.
Page published on Wednesday, September 15, 2021