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Why Using a Sleep Mask Could Improve Your Sleep

Relaxed woman with hands behind head sleeping on bed
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One of the most common recommendations for creating a sleep-conducive space is to keep it cool, dark and quiet. Whether you sleep during daylight hours, your bedroom has ambient light, or a partner keeps you awake, light can be one of the hardest factors to eliminate. The answer could be as easy as slipping on a sleep mask.

How Does Light Affect Sleep?

Circadian rhythms control our sleep cycles, and one of the biggest zeitgebers controlling those cycles is light. When the sun sets, our brain perceives from the dimming light that it's time for sleep. When the sun rises, that dawn light triggers our brain to wake up. Our sleep cycle is controlled through this cycle. The brain recognizes a pattern, and our body becomes accustomed to the timing of being awake versus asleep.

Light plays a critical role in the cycle. Our eyes send signals to our brains based on perceived light. Darkness cues the pineal gland in the brain to release melatonin, known as the sleepiness hormone. “Darkness promotes the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, leading to improved sleep,” explains Marissa Moore, a counselor and mental health consultant. When the brain receives signals that it's light, the production of melatonin decreases, and cortisol increases, helping the body prepare for activity.

In some situations, like shift work, traveling, or dealing with jet lag, the circadian rhythm gets thrown off because the body’s normal cycle does not coincide with the local time or light exposure. This is when it’s important to use sunlight lamps or blackout mechanisms, like curtains or a mask, to create light and darkness.

What Are the Benefits Of Using A Sleep Mask?

When used correctly, sleep masks can improve your sleep environment and positively impact your physical and mental well-being.

“Sleep is essential for our overall well-being. Good sleep can help improve our mental health, and using a sleep mask can enhance our quality of sleep,” Moore says.

“A sleep mask can create a dark environment that can help block out external light sources, such as streetlights or early morning sunlight,” Moore adds. “A mask can also reduce eye strain by providing a gentle, soothing pressure over the eyes, which can help relax the eye muscles — a bonus for those of us who spend a lot of time working with screens or gaming. Plus, covering the eyes creates a sense of privacy, which can be especially useful in shared sleeping spaces or during travel. They also provide a cozy and comforting sensation, promoting relaxation and a sense of security.”

A sleep mask promotes relaxation, reduces anxiety, improves your ability to fall and stay asleep, as well as makes you more alert and ready to learn while awake.

“Using a sleep mask can allow for deep, restorative sleep, which is essential for maintaining optimal physical and mental health,” says Alex Reijnierse, founder and stress expert at Paleo Stress Management. It may also improve your sleep quality by increasing melatonin production, allowing you to get deeper, longer, more restful sleep.

Since light can be a trigger for headaches and migraines, a loose but secure sleep mask may have positive effects for anyone who suffers from them. Sleep masks offer a darkened space, shielding your eyes from bright lights and reducing the pain intensity.

Who Can Benefit From A Sleep Mask?

Shift workers: Those who work at night and sleep during the day can use a mask to block light and help cue their bodies to rest.

Travelers: Even when a plane, train, or other transportation method is dark, vehicles can be a distracting place to sleep, whether due to the light from devices or movements nearby. A sleep mask can help block light and dissuade you from the tendency to open your eyes.

Hospital patients: In a study of patients in the ICU, those who used sleep masks and earplugs had significantly improved sleep quality. Another study found that patients who used an ergonomic sleep mask had significantly improved sleep.

Nappers: If you need to take a quick power nap during a busy day or some downtime while traveling, sleep masks help notify your brain that it's time to rest. By blocking out visual stimulation and light, they promote relaxation and allow you to recharge.

What are the drawbacks of sleeping with a sleep mask?

Using a sleep mask may not be for everyone. Some downsides to sleep masks are:

  • Discomfort
  • It may be too hot or cause sweating.
  • If not properly cleaned, it can irritate your skin and eyes.
  • It may move during the night and disrupt sleep.
  • It may not be appropriate for all sleep positions.
  • You could become dependent on its use and not address the actual sleep problem if one is present.

What Are the Qualities of a Good Sleep Mask?

Choosing the right sleep mask is important. There are a wide variety of types, and not every mask will make you comfortable. So, what should you look for in a mask?

“Choose a sleep mask made from a soft, opaque and light-blocking material,” Moore recommends. “Look for masks that are specifically designed to block out light, ensuring that they cover the eyes completely and fit snugly to prevent light from sneaking in.”

“Ensure the sleep mask is made of soft, comfortable material such as silk, satin, or cotton that doesn't cause irritation to the skin,” recommends Reijnierse. “An adjustable strap and a comfortable fit will help it stay in place throughout the night. Be sure that it doesn’t gap around the nose.”

It’s also important to be sure the mask does not apply pressure to your eyes.

Reijnierse also advises choosing a sleep mask that is machine washable or can be easily hand-washed. Keeping your mask clean and bacteria-free is necessary for your eye health.

People often find the most comfortable sleep masks are soft, breathable and hypoallergenic. Check out some more sleep mask features to look for below.

What to Avoid in a Sleep Mask

Now you know what you need to look for in a good sleep mask, but what do you want to avoid?

Reijnierse suggests staying away from sleep masks made from synthetic materials, as they tend to be less breathable and can cause irritation for those with sensitive skin.

Be sure it’s comfortable and adjustable so it’s not too tight, adds Moore. A poorly fitting mask will disrupt your sleep and be ineffective. Avoid low-quality masks that can deteriorate quickly or masks with strong odors.

What Kind of Sleep Mask Should I Get?

Masks come in a number of styles, colors and materials. Select the one that makes you feel the best. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a good mask, just choose the features that make you feel good.

  • Silk sleep masks have a luxurious feel and smooth texture. They are gentle on the skin, hypoallergenic, reduce friction and skin irritation, and are also breathable and excellent at temperature regulation, keeping you cool during hot nights.
  • Cotton sleep masks are soft, lightweight and breathable. They are hypoallergenic and good for those with sensitive skin. Cotton masks are also machine-washable, making them easy to clean and maintain.
  • Satin sleep masks have a silky texture similar to silk but are usually made from synthetic materials like polyester. They are smooth and comfortable, lightweight and reduce friction on the skin and hair. Satin masks can be a more affordable alternative to silk.
  • Memory foam sleep masks are known for their excellent light-blocking properties. They conform to the contours of your face for a snug, comfortable fit, effectively blocking light from all angles with pressure relief around the eyes.
  • Gel or foam-filled sleep masks have a soft gel or foam layer that contours to your face, providing gentle pressure and a soothing effect. These masks can reduce puffy eyes or sinus pressure. Some can be chilled or heated for added therapeutic benefits.

You can also consider getting techy with added features:

  • Light therapy sleep masks combine the benefits of light therapy with the comfort of a sleep mask. With gentle LED lights that simulate natural light, they may regulate sleep-wake cycles and boost mood.
  • Heated sleep masks provide soothing warmth to promote relaxation, relieve tension around the eyes, and can be beneficial for relieving dry eyes, sinus congestion and headaches.
  • Cooling sleep masks are designed to provide a refreshing cooling sensation to the area around the eyes. This may be helpful for eye puffiness, allergies, or migraines to reduce inflammation, soothe tired eyes and promote relaxation.
  • Sound therapy sleep masks combine the benefits of a sleep mask with built-in speakers or Bluetooth connectivity to deliver calming sounds or white noise. These masks are ideal for people who find it difficult to fall asleep in a noisy environment or prefer to listen to soothing sounds or guided meditation before sleep.
  • Smart sleep masks often use advanced technologies like sleep tracking, sleep stage analysis and integrated mobile apps to monitor your sleep patterns, sleep quality, duration and other relevant metrics.

In a world full of distractions and endless to-do lists, finding a way to improve your sleep quality is key to waking up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. Sleep masks can work wonders for improving your sleep quality and creating the perfect atmosphere for some serious shut-eye. These beauties block out annoying light and help you relax, especially if you're a night owl, a frequent traveler, or someone struggling with sleep issues. When on the hunt for your perfect sleep mask, take a moment to consider the material, fit and how well it blocks out light. Adding a sleep mask to your sleep routine could be the answer you’re looking for.

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