The Surprising Way That Sleep Can Wreak Havoc On Your Skin

It’s time to prioritize better rest — for many reasons.

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A woman with her hands above her head and a black sleeping mask over her eyes  before sleep

Sleep is essential to your overall health and can affect everything from your mood to your productivity levels, but does the urban legend of “beauty sleep”, aka getting better sleep to improve your skin — which is entirely different from a nighttime beauty routine — actually have some truth to it? Spoiler alert: absolutely.

First off: if you’re catching less than eight hours of sleep each night, welcome to the club. With that being said, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that you should really try to strive for at least seven full hours of sleep. However, internal physician Dr. Spencer Kroll suggests going beyond the seven-hour minimum with your nightly sleep routine.

“Sleep is a vital part of each person’s health and well-being,” says Dr. Kroll. “Sleep is important because it enables the body to repair itself and ready for another day. It is important that people make an effort to get enough sleep regularly.” He elaborates, stating that for most adults adequate sleep means 7-9 hours per night, while some people, like athletes, may benefit from 10 hours. For the average person, that amount may seem far from doable — but what does that lack of sleep mean for your body, and particularly your skin?

A 2020 study from the University of Manchester found that a healthy sleep pattern has a beneficial relationship to your body’s extracellular matrix, which basically acts as the microscopic scaffolding for your cells. Think of the extracellular matrix as the foundation that holds your cells together, making sure everything stays within the cell in its proper place. This crucial part of your body’s cells is made up of quite a few things — think water, proteins, and polysaccharides — but one of the proteins that solidify the extracellular matrix is probably already hiding in your skin care routine: collagen.

What does collagen actually contribute to your beauty routine? Well, everything: according to Cedars-Sinai, collagen is actually one of the main building blocks of your bones, skin, hair, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It’s also the main component that keeps your skin from sagging, but unfortunately, collagen levels decrease with age, which is why you may lose that elasticity and bounce to your skin as your get older.

The lead author of the 2020 University of Manchester study, Professor Karl Kadler, is quoted stating that these thin collagen fibers help maintain the body’s matrix get destroyed daily as a “sacrificial element,” only to be replenished during your sleep cycle. He says to think of your overall extracellular matrix as “the bricks in the walls of a room,” which are permanent and sturdy, whereas the collagen fibers can be considered the “paint on the walls” that needs to be replenished every so often. If these fibers don’t get the proper replenishment they need, you’ll start to lose that “scaffolding” effect that keeps your skin — and the rest of your body, for that matter — youthful. Research shows that depletion and breakdown of collagen are even linked to health issues like weakening of joints.

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On top of collagen fiber repair being compromised by lack of sleep, Dr. Harold Lancer, celebrity dermatologist and creator of Lancer Skincare, also notes that your skin’s retention of hyaluronic acid is also sacrificed. “During sleep, hydration in our skin rebalances, and without adequate sleep, inflammation breaks down hyaluronic acid, skin’s natural source of moisture,” he says. “This loss of hyaluronic acid weakens the skin’s barrier function, leading trans-epidermal water loss, where the skin appears dry and dull.”

Obviously, not sleeping enough can lead to lackluster skin, but what is actually happening during the sleeping process to help prolong and improve skin health? Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green explains that there is a direct relationship between the amount and quality of sleep that you’re getting each night and the overall health of your skin. As she says, “During sleep, skin cells enter recovery mode, when the most intense skin cell repair occurs.”

Dr. Green also notes that, due to your natural circadian rhythm cycle, your body’s natural melatonin and growth hormone levels are boosted in the evening about two hours before and during sleep. What do these hormones have to do with anything? Well, she explains that these hormones significantly advance the process of skin regeneration by counteracting UV damage and increasing cell turnover. She adds that by getting enough sleep, our body won’t produce a cortisol spike (like say, during an all-nighter) which can prompt higher levels of sebum product. Low sebum means you’re at less of a risk for pimples, whiteheads, and blackheads. “Cortisol is associated with inflammatory responses, and giving the skin a break [during sleep] can help control acne breakouts and maintain a clear, beautiful, refreshed complexion,” she says.

But of course, the benefits of a good night’s sleep don’t end there for your beauty routine. Dr. Green also explains that when you’re asleep, your skin’s temperature actually rises (which is why you probably feel hotter at night, by the way) due to increased blood flow, which makes it more permeable to certain products. Long story short: a better night’s sleep actually makes your skin care products work better. Says Dr. Green, “This makes nighttime ideal for using rich moisturizers and ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid.”

But if a late night seems to be in your cards, you’re not fully out of luck. Below are a few tips to make every minute of beauty sleep count and help improve the look and feel of your skin.

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How To Get Better Sleep For Your Skin: Pick The Right Nighttime Products

Though the nightly rise in your skin’s temperature may make it a better canvas for absorbing heavier, richer skin care products, Dr. Green says that picking the right products for your skin type is ultimately essential for the best results.

As she says, “Even though sebum production decreases at night, if you have oily skin, you won’t necessarily want to use a thick, creamy moisturizer because it could contribute to acne formation.”

Though Dr. Green did previously note that actives like retinol and glycolic acid are better suited for your nighttime routine, remember that sensitive skin types are more prone to irritation with these products, especially with nightly use. However, if your skin can handle retinol, then New York-based dermatologist Dr. Diane Madfes recommends pairing it with a moisturizer that includes ingredients like DNA repair enzymes and peptides, which will work to repair and restore your skin overnight.

How To Get Better Sleep For Your Skin: Your Sleeping Position Matters

If you didn’t already know, certain sleep positions can lead to wrinkles — apologies to anyone who likes to sleep on their stomach with their faced smashed into the pillow. But as much as you may not enjoy it, Dr. Green says that you should try your best to sleep on your back every night for the entire night to prevent wrinkles on your face and body.

Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jenna Queller also agrees that your sleep position can play a big part in facial and body wrinkles, but there’s another culprit during your rest cycle that’s causing skin issues: your pillowcase. “Sleeping on a rough cotton surface can irritate your skin and compress your face for long hours at a time, resulting in wrinkles,” she says. “While most wrinkles are caused by the expressions we make while we are awake, wrinkles on the face and chest can result from sleeping on our stomachs or sides.”

The easiest fix here is sleeping on your back, but it’s nearly impossible to control your body movements when you’re deep in your REM cycle. So, the next best thing that Dr. Queller recommends is to invest in a skin-friendly pillowcase. “A satin or silk pillowcase minimizes skin irritation and compression while copper-oxide pillowcases may reduce fine lines and wrinkles on your forehead and around your eyes,” says Dr. Queller.

Lastly, Dr, Queller says elevating your head allows you to stay asleep and assists in reducing a few skin concerns, especially around your eyes. “Elevating your head has been proven to help with snoring, acid reflux, and nasal drip — all issues that can disturb the quality of your sleep, and therefore your skin,” she says. “Moreover, it can help reduce circles under your eyes as well as bags or swelling under your eyes by improving blood flow and preventing blood from pooling.”

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How To Get Better Sleep For Your Skin: Block Out The Blue Light

It’s easy to fall into the social media matrix while you’re getting ready to go to bed, but Dr. Kara Hartl, an ophthalmologist with an extensive background studying the relationship between the human body and blue light, says that this is one of the many factors contributing to a terrible night’s sleep.

“The fact is that blue light has a major impact on your circadian rhythm, which helps regulate a wide range of functions, including your natural sleep-wake cycle. Evening exposure to blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that signals that it’s time for bed, helps you sleep, and even plays a role in preventing cancer,” says Dr. Hartl. She says to stray away entirely from any electronic devices (phones, TVs, computers, and any tech gadget that emits blue light) for at least two hours before you hit the hay so that your body can release adequate levels of melatonin.

If you just can’t seem to stray away from a quick social media or Netflix binge before bed, Dr. Hartl says to consider wearing a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses. “Some studies have confirmed their benefits, including enhanced sleep and improved mood — but keep in mind that they need to be dark yellow/amber colored in order to receive the benefits,” she says.

How To Get Better Sleep For Your Skin: Establish Healthy Sleep Habits

Colorado-based licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Jodi De Luca says that establishing sleep-enforcing habits at nighttime is key to creating a better sleep environment, which helps condition our brains to know when to power up and wind down.

“In the morning we prepare for the day ahead of us by engaging in routines such as showering, brushing our teeth, shaving, having breakfast, and so on,” says Dr. De Luca. “Conversely, winding-down routines to prepare for the end of the day and sleep may include a hot bath, brushing our teeth, getting into bed, reading a book, working on a crossword puzzle, and other similar relaxing and minimally mental and physical activities.”

How To Get Better Sleep For Your Skin: Spot The Sleep Triggers

Dr. De Luca says identifying triggers that keep you awake is also an extremely important step towards getting better sleep. Just about anything can disrupt your sleep cycle: the firmness of your mattress, a snoring partner (or pet), bedroom temperature, stress, and much more. So to give yourself peace of mind, Dr. De Luca suggests addressing those triggers the best way you can in order to improve your sleep.

Speaking of sleep triggers, most experts recommended staying away from this sleep-disrupting trifecta before bed: caffeine, alcohol, and large meals. “It’s best to stay away from alcohol and/or caffeine a few hours before bedtime as these can greatly disrupt the sleep cycle,” says Dr. Lancer.

Additionally, Dr. Kroll says he does not recommend pharmaceutical sleep aides, unless absolutely necessary and prescribed under the care of a medical professional, due to the addictive qualities of them. “Pharmaceutical sleep aids should be avoided because they can be addictive and do not allow the body to achieve the different levels that are required of sleep,” he says. “I recommend a nonprescription alternative, such as Good Pharma’s Rest Assured herbal and jujube seed tea, which is a caffeine-free infusion that supports restorative sleep.”

How To Get Better Sleep For Your Skin: Don’t Force It

Sometimes the actual effort of trying to go to bed can be stressful, which in turn can make you lie awake in bed longer, according to Dr. De Luca. If that’s the case for you, she suggests simply getting out of bed and stop forcing yourself to sleep. “If you find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated at the fact that you can't fall asleep, stop trying! Get up, leave the bedroom, and do something that doesn't require too much physical or mental energy such as reading, listening to an audiobook, working on a puzzle, writing in a journal, or working on a hobby,” she says.

If you’ve had prolonged periods of insomnia, Dr. De Luca says to consider asking a professional for help to get your sleep back on track.

How To Get Better Sleep For Your Skin: Expert Recommendations

Clearly your beauty routine is literally begging you for a good night’s rest. So, why not oblige? Below, check out a few TZR-approved beauty buys to lull you into the sweetest dreams, and a rested, dewy complexion.

We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.