Sleep and Skin Health: Why Sleep is So Important for Healthy Skin

The science behind beauty sleep and how to sleep your way to better skin.

By Ashley Little

Jun 9th, 2022

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Expert Insights from Dr. Elma Baron, Professor of Dermatology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Director of the Skin Study Center at UH Cleveland Medical Center.

Medical professionals across a number of fields agree that sleep is essential for overall health and wellness. Unfortunately, the average person (ahem, you and me) fails to realize that sleep impacts every function of the body, including abstract functions we don’t think about — like our skin and hair.

Many of us don’t take care of our skin as religiously as we watch what we eat or prioritize going to the gym, even though skin happens to be the largest organ of the body. Just as every organ needs attentive care, so does the organ whose number one role is to protect us.

At Mattress Advisor, we set out to understand the is beauty sleep real and if so, how to sleep our way to better skin. We didn’t have all the answers, so we called on the expertise of Dr. Elma Baron, Professor of Dermatology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Director of the Skin Study Center at UH Cleveland Medical Center. In 2013, Dr. Baron led a research project commissioned by Estee Lauder on the link between sleep deprivation and skin aging. We had the chance to speak with her about the findings of her clinical study, the science behind beauty sleep and the skincare rituals we should adopt in our nightly routine.

How the Skin Works

Before diving into the effects of sleep deprivation on the skin, it’s important to understand its primary role.

One of the organ’s largest responsibilities is called skin barrier function. That means keeping the bad things out, like dirt and toxins, and keeping the good things in, like moisture. Dr. Baron explained it like this:

“One of the most important roles of the skin is to hold moisture. You don’t want a lot of moisture evaporating through the skin because that results in dry skin. This leads to problematic skin conditions like irritation, itching and, eczema.”

Now that we have knowledge of the skin’s number one job, we can discuss how lack of sleep hinders this function.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Skin

Poor sleep wreaks havoc on skin cells. There are two primary ways our skin is impacted by sleep:

1. Decreased Skin Barrier Function

In Dr. Baron’s clinical study, her team found a statistically significant difference in the skin barrier function of women who got an adequate amount of sleep (more than seven hours) and those who did not. In other words, poor sleepers failed to retain moisture as well as good sleepers.

2. Slowed Healing from Sun Damage

In the same study, Dr. Baron’s team found statistically significant evidence that individuals who were poor sleepers took longer to recover from sun damage. In an interview with Fox News, Dr. Baron pointed out that “the problem with lingering sun damage it increases the likelihood of skin cancer and aging.”

This isn’t surprising, knowing that sleep is the body’s time to rest and repair.

Like other systems in the body, “the skin is also an organ that has to rejuvenate, repair and replenish, and that takes place during sleep,” Dr. Baron shares with us.

Are dark circles under the eyes caused by lack of sleep?

You’ve probably heard at some point those pesky under-eye circles you fight to cover with concealer every morning are a result of sleep loss. But according to Dr. Baron that might not be the case:

“We often think dark under-eye circles can be associated with lack of sleep. Although, that it is probably not unreasonable to think, there is no data to prove that theory,” Dr. Baron explains.

In her clinical study, Dr. Baron did not find a statistically significant association between sleep loss and the formation of dark under-eye circles. “In my perspective, it’s probably because there are many other factors that contribute to these circles, like genetics, allergies, etc. So, unfortunately, it’s very hard to pin it down on lack of sleep.”

She did mention larger studies could possibly determine for sure if there is a correlation or not, but within the scientific literature currently available, there is still no data to support that claim. So for now, we’ll have to stick to concealer… but that doesn’t mean adequate shut-eye still isn’t important!

How Your Sleeping Position Could Impact Skin Aging

Did you know your sleeping position could be causing aggravation to your skin? Well, it’s possible.

“What we know is that there are certain lines [on the face] that tend to be aggravated when sleeping on the side,” Dr. Baron tells us. Don’t panic. We aren’t talking about your normal laugh lines (aka the nasolabial creases), but rather areas on the upper part of the face near the temple which are more subtle.

People sleep on their side for a variety of reasons, including medical conditions such as acid reflux or back pain. That’s why Dr. Baron does not routinely advise her patients to change their sleeping position for the sole purpose of preventing the formation of these lines.

Is Beauty Sleep Real?

Admit it — we’ve all tried sneaking in a few more hours of sleep in the hopes that we would somehow wake up with zero breakouts and a flawless morning glow. But is there actual science to prove the cultural phenomenon of getting your beauty sleep? We asked Dr. Baron her professional opinion on this subject. Here’s what she said:

“It’s hard to measure, in the short term, the effects of a good night’s sleep. What we do know is that if you look at objective photographs of people who are good sleepers and objective photographs of people who are poor sleepers, there is a trend toward looking more tired and aged if you are a poor sleeper.”

But these are just trends. Dr. Baron iterated that there is no research that supports quantifying beauty sleep. Meaning doctors can’t tell you a certain amount of sleep will cause or prevent things like acne, wrinkles or anti-aging. After all, many other factors play a role in skin quality – such as genetics, skin care routine, and diet. Sleep is only a piece of overall skin health.

For all those clinging to the promises of beauty sleep, Dr. Baron simply offers the recommendations of sleep specialists – try and get at least seven hours of sleep every night.

Advice on Sleeping Your Way to Better Skin

Although there is no playbook for waking up flawless, there are some things you can do to get one step closer to healthier skin.

1. Use a Moisturizing Cleanser at Night

Dr. Baron recommends using skin care products like a mild makeup remover and gentle moisturizing cleanser at bedtime. Contrary to popular belief, cleansing is important even if you don’t wear makeup; if you do wear makeup, you definitely need to cleanse (see #2)! This is because your skin encounters many external elements throughout the day (think dirt, pollution, weather and then some). That’s why we cleanse—for basic hygiene.

Why use a moisturizing cleanser?

A moisturizing cleanser has the ability to cleanse out dirt and other materials on the skin without leaving it dry. As opposed to something abrasive or exfoliating that may strip your skin of lipids (not good!), a moisturizing cleanser is more gentle.

2. Avoid Sleeping in Makeup

The rule of thumb for those that wear makeup is to avoid unnecessary contact if possible. At the end of the day, your cosmetics have served their purpose. Go ahead and remove them from your skin to avoid clogged pores and breakouts.

There have been internet rumors that sleeping in makeup can result in your skin absorbing metals. We asked Dr. Baron about this theory. Here were her thoughts: “For the most part, we know our skin is a good barrier and makeup stays on the surface of your skin.” So if you accidentally fall asleep in your makeup one night, don’t worry – it’s not the end of the world! Just make sure to cleanse in the morning.

3. For Women Over 35 – Use A Night Treatment With Antioxidants

As we age, our ability to repair oxidative damage decreases. At this point in life, there has been more UVA exposure and damage to the skin. Dr. Baron recommends using a moisturizer with a good antioxidant.

“There are so many things in the market, I am not partial to anything as long as it has been proven effective in scientific literature.”

Taking Dr. Baron’s advice to heart, we should do our best to protect the organ whose primary job is to protect us! For some of us, that starts in bed.

Expert Bio

Elma Baron

Dr. Elma Baron, M.D. received her doctorate in Dermatology from University of the Philippines, College of Medicine. She joined University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center in 2003 and is now Director of Photomedicine and the Core and Skin Study Center at the school. She is also a Professor of Dermatology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. In 2013, she led a research project commissioned by Estée Lauder on the connection between sleep deprivation and skin aging.