After her airline eye mask freebie became a bedtime essential, writer Lisa Bowman decided to explore the science behind their benefits. If you’re struggling to sleep right now, make this your essential reading.
I’ve been sleeping with an eye mask for years now and have amassed quite the collection, ranging from cheap airline masks to a fancy silk number and a ridiculous-looking yet super-soft and comfy sloth sleep mask. My sleep is way more restful when I wear one.
The most obvious benefit of an eye mask is that it blocks out any light that may be in your bedroom, like street lights blazing through the curtains or a hallway light leaking under the door.
“Blocking out light is important, as exposure to light is stimulating to our brain and can make it harder for us to fall asleep,” advises Dr Clara Russell, a GP experienced in sleep medicine and founder of Noggin Brain.
“Light implies daytime, which in turn implies being awake and alert, so having as much darkness in your bedroom as possible is important for good sleep, especially as you wind down for bed.”
This is all down to melatonin, a hormone that’s released in response to darkness to control our body’s sleep-wake cycle.
“Melatonin begins to prepare our body for sleep,” explains Russell.
“Exposure to light – including blue light from screens – can reduce our natural melatonin production and inhibit our sleep cycle. When we wake in the night, if we are in darkness, it’s easier for us to fall back to sleep.”
This is why if you rely on an eye mask to block out light, it’s important to find one that stays in place while sleeping. If you don’t already use an eye mask but have trouble falling or staying asleep, it may be worth trying one out.
“Using an eye mask should help you fall asleep faster than normal, increase the quality and the amount of REM sleep that you get and also allow you to sleep in lighter environments,” advises Chloe Baxter, in-house sleep expert at Mattressman.
“This is especially useful for shift workers and new parents who need to catch up on sleep in the day.”
Multiple studies on ICU and coronary patients confirm that eye masks benefit sleep as they increase melatonin levels and the amount of REM sleep and reduce the number of arousals.
Vanessa Della Libera started using an eye mask while travelling, as she was used to a pitch black sleeping environment. “Back home in Italy, we have shutters which block out all the light, so the light in rooms while travelling was waking me up way too early for my liking,” she tells Stylist.
“An eye mask was the only thing that kept me asleep in bright places. In the beginning, it wasn’t comfortable and felt weird, but I soon got used to it, and now can’t travel without one.”
But the benefits of wearing an eye mask aren’t limited to light exposure.
SLEEP MASKS CAN ACT AS A SOURCE OF COMFORT
I love a well-fitted eye mask as the light pressure feels comforting, like a little hug for my head.
“The pressure from the weight of the mask can help with relaxation and can mimic acupressure,” explains Russell.
“Placing a sleep mask over your eyes is also a clear way of blocking out the rest of the world from you as you prepare to fall into slumber and can signify to both ourselves – and any sleep partner – that we are switching off and letting our brain begin its all-important night-time work.”
New mum Herbie Rassi found an eye mask invaluable when giving birth to her daughter: “I had my mask on for the duration of my 16-hour labour, even wearing it in the car on the way to the hospital. I only took it off to look at Zizi’s face when she was out – it really helped me be in my own world without any visual distractions. It’s my number one ‘gadget’ for labour.”
The only thing to be aware of, if you want to try a mask, is wearing them too tightly.
“A major downfall for sleeping masks is if they’re worn too tight,” says Baxter.
“A mask that’s too tight could leave marks on your skin and also leave you waking up with blurry vision from where your lashes have pressed against your eyes for too long.
“One easy solution to that is buying a new eye mask that fits you properly or loosens so it can be adjusted. Silk eye masks have also become all the rage recently, with many reporting that they’re great for the skin.”
Obviously, if you have serious issues sleeping, a mask is unlikely to solve them, so speak to a professional if you need medical advice.
5 of the best eye masks to buy
If you’re in the market for an eye mask and want something chicer than an airline freebie, we’ve rounded up five of the best.
Aroma Home Scented Time Out Eye Mask
Get ready for total relaxation with this eye mask that’s infused with the scent of rose, and made with soft material for ultimate comfort.
Slip Silk Eye Mask
If it’s luxury you’re after, look no further than this 100% silk eye mask, made from the highest-grade long fibre mulberry silk, with a silk-covered elastic, which won’t rough up your hair or skin. It’s pricey but durable – I’ve had mine for years.
Divine Trash Sloth Eye Mask
This eye mask not only looks cute but also blocks out light and feels soft on your face, thanks to the fluffy fabric. It has an elasticated strap for the perfect fit.
Desmond & Dempsey Leopard Silk Eye Mask
Another luxury option, if you’re feeling fancy. This oversized eye mask with elastic strap will block out all light and won’t drag on your precious skin.
Tempur Padded Sleep Mask
This padded mask from mattress experts Tempur is filled with material that moulds to your face to block out light and gives a weighted feeling for added relaxation.
Images: Getty; courtesy of brands