The term ‘sleep mask’ refers to any sleep aid that acts as a blindfold, covering both eyes in order to block out light and improve overall sleep quality. Sleep masks are considered highly effective, and are normally available for $20 or less. They are normally made from natural or synthetic fabrics, such as cotton, silk, or polyester, and some also feature foam components.
This sleep mask guide will explore how sleep masks function, discuss benefits and disadvantages of using them, and provide recommendations for top-rated products.
Sleep masks are completely opaque, and designed to fit snugly over both eyes. They are typically made from one or more of the following materials:
- Natural fibers, such as cotton and silk. These fabrics are light, breathable, and hypoallergenic, as well as machine washable. One notable downside of sleep masks made of natural fibers: they tend to degrade quickly after repeated washing cycles.
- Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and silk. Synthetic fabrics are not as breathable as natural fibers, but they are usually just as soft and lightweight — and like sleep masks made of cotton and silk, those made of polyester or satin typically wear out over time.
- Foam materials, such as polyfoam. Foam sleep masks are designed to conform to the wearer’s face; this slight pressure can alleviate pain and pressure in people with certain conditions, such as chronic migraines or sinus problems. Foam sleep masks often come with recessed eye cavities, which prevent the eyes from coming in direct contact with the mask; this can reduce irritation and discomfort.
Sleep masks are usually designed with elastic bands that fit over the head for added comfort, and some feature side vents to improve air circulation. Sleep masks are designed to be worn with earplugs, and some models come with earplugs.
Most sleep masks sold today can block 90% to 99% of outside light. By blocking light, sleep masks aid with sleep in three ways:
Improved melatonin levels: Melatonin is a natural hormone helps control the circadian sleep cycle in humans. Melatonin is produced during periods of darkness; the hormone creates feelings of drowsiness that make it easier to fall and remain asleep. Daylight and artificial light slow the melatonin production process, as does excessive use of ‘blue light-emitting devices’ (such as smartphones, tablets, and televisions) before bedtime.
Sleep masks can effectively regulate melatonin production for people who are trying to sleep during periods of daylight. These include individuals who work at night, as well as those who are attempting to sleep under unusual circumstances (while flying, for instance) or reset their sleep cycle after traveling through different time zones.
Sleep restoration: A sufficient amount of deep REM sleep each night can improve one’s focus and alleviate stress the following day, as well as lower the risk of accidents at work or on the road. An insufficient amount of deep REM sleep can have the opposite effect, leaving people feeling groggy and unable to concentrate. Improved sleep cycles can benefit people who are recovering from an illness or injury, as well.
Sleep masks promote more restorative sleep by regulating melatonin production and helping people remain asleep throughout the night.
Pressure relief: By molding to the face and applying light weight and pressure to the head and nose, some sleep masks may be able to alleviate discomfort in people who experience migraines, tension headaches, or sinus problems. Generally, pain and pressure relief can have a positive effect on both sleep onset and sleep maintenance.
Some advantages of sleep masks include:
- Low cost: Most sleep masks on the market today are available for $20 or less, including shipping costs from online retailers. This makes them a much less expensive way to block and control light compared to other options, such as motion-sensing night lights and blackout curtains.
- Lightweight and portable: Most sleep masks weigh less than one pound, and are designed to be folded up for easier portability. Many come with carrying cases.
- Easy to clean: Sleep masks are usually machine washable or can be washed by hand, and never need to be dry cleaned or specialty cleaned.
- Customizable fit: Sleep masks usually feature an elastic band with buckles or fasteners that can be adjusted for a more comfortable fit.
- Breathable: Some common sleep mask materials, such as silk and cotton, are naturally breathable. Additionally, some sleep mask models are designed with vents to improve air circulation into and out of the mask.
Disadvantages of sleep masks may include:
- Adjustment period: Sleepers normally require several nights to acclimate themselves to the sleep mask. The adjustment period may be even longer for some individuals, and this can result in poor sleep cycles in the meantime.
- Not built to last: Sleep masks should be cleaned frequently, and repeated wash cycles can cause the materials to degrade quickly. Generally, masks with higher price-points have longer lifespans than those with lower price-points — but this may come down to material, as well.
- Uncomfortable side-sleeping: Some sleep masks feature small plastic or metal fasteners on the side of the strap that can cause pain or discomfort for side sleepers, although other models forego these parts in order to provide comfort regardless of sleep position.
- Difficulty waking: Some sleep masks are so effective at helping people sleep that they interfere with production of cortisol, a hormone linked to increases in light levels. This can, in turn, make it harder to wake up for some people.
- Visible effects from wearing them, such as:
- Wear lines around the eyes and cheeks
- Smears from dyes in the fabric
- Smudged makeup
- Messy hair
When shopping for a new sleep mask and comparing different brands and models, here are a few factors to keep in mind:
- Composition: Sleep masks made of natural fibers will feel differently than those made of synthetic fibers, and the same is true of foam-based models.
- Effectiveness: Although the difference may seem slight, a sleep mask that blocks out 90% of light will be far less effective than one that blocks out 95% to 99% of light.
- Portability: If the shopper plans to use the sleep mask for traveling, a lightweight model that comes with a carrying case may be the best option.
- Eye protection: Some sleep mask wearers don’t mind if their eyes come into contact with the mask, but for those who experience irritation and discomfort, a mask with recessed eye cavities will usually be best.
- Band adjusters: For side-sleepers, a mask with plastic or metal band adjusters may cause discomfort by pressing into the side of their head.
- Medical history: People with migraines, sinus problems, and other conditions that cause excess pain and discomfort in the head and face may be most satisfied with heavier, foam-based masks that apply slight pressure and alleviates these symptoms.