Is ‘Beauty Sleep’ a Real Thing?

There’s a proven connection between your skin and what happens during sleep.

Woman applying beauty sleep cream.
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You’ve heard the adage. Maybe it came from an aunt or your favorite lifestyle influencer: “Get your beauty sleep.” And though it may have been said in jest or come off as a trite piece of recycled advice, there is some truth to the old saying. In short, yes, beauty sleep is real. 

“It’s not that our cells aren’t constantly turning over during the day, it’s just that they have more to worry about then,” says Dr. Heather Rogers, board certified dermatologist and co-owner of Modern Dermatology in Seattle. She compares the process to crossing items off our to-do lists.

During the day, our cells are busy prioritizing and re-prioritizing tasks that are essential to our ability to function, but at night, they finally have the bandwidth to focus on more complex projects, like repair and regeneration. This is when the body gets to work fixing whatever damage the skin may have incurred from a day’s worth of external stressors, like UV exposure, or internal stressors (We’re talking to you stress!).

Read on to learn what your skin can look like after a good night of sleep, and how to take advantage of your routine to give your skin a pre-bedtime boost.

Benefits of sleep for the skin….

“What we do know is that our skin goes into the renewal and repair phase as we sleep,” says Dr. Ted Lain, board-certified dermatologist at Sanova Dermatology. “This is when cell division is at its highest.”

Good sleep can help liven up your skin and make it look less sallow, dull, or swollen. This is because our skin follows its own circadian rhythm, leaning into the nighttime to repair and renew itself. Sleep is also when you may notice a rosier glow and plumpness to your visage, thanks to the circadian rhythms that influence blood flow and other aspects of skin barrier functioning at night.

...and the risks of not enough sleep

Poor sleep, on the other hand, could lead to sagging skin, wrinkles, darkened under-eye skin (or circles), and pale under tones. Numerous studies show that a few nights of bad or little sleep can wreak havoc on the skin. Research also shows that chronic poor sleep increases skin aging, ruins the skin barrier, and lowers your skin’s defenses against the sun — which is not great news if you’re prone to sunburns.

Some skin symptoms may also be a result of stress levels, which are known to change the pH of our skin. Unbalanced pH levels can cause an overgrowth of bacteria and acne, including painful cystic acne. Out of sync circadian rhythms can also increase transepidermal water loss (TEWL) occurs, which can result in visibly dry, flaky skin.

7 ways to boost your skin’s glow while you sleep

Woman washing her face as part of bedtime beauty sleep routine.
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Wash your face before bed

“It’s not just makeup, but all of the things that accumulate on your skin during the day — SPF, any serums or moisturizers you use,” explains Rogers. Those products can leave a residue that blocks pores and builds up. Plus, some makeups or topicals contain irritating ingredients, which people with sensitive skin won’t want to keep on overnight.

“You want to harness what happens at night,” says Lain. “If you have makeup on, it’s going to inhibit it.”

There’s no need to chastise yourself if you do forget though, as our skin is resilient.

Rest your face on a clean surface

Keeping the skin clean also means resting it on a clean surface.

“We sweat and produce oil during the night. You don’t want to sleep on that [too many nights in a row],” Lain says.

He recommends changing your pillowcase two to three times per week to make sure you are sleeping on a clean surface. And if it’s been more than a year, we suggest getting a whole new pillow.

Sleep on a copper or silk pillowcase

We hate to say it, but when it comes to our skin, not all fabrics are created equal. Cotton can create friction for both our skin and hair, leading to split ends, irritation, and yes, even wrinkles. That’s hardly the case with copper, satin, or silk.

One study showed that pillows containing copper-oxide led to a reduction in the depth of wrinkles and an overall improvement in skin appearance. For people with kinkier, tighter hair textures, silk hair wraps and pillowcases are an open secret for making sure natural oils stay intact, strands maintain moisture, and hair styles are preserved.

Sleep on your back

Woman stretching after getting a night of beauty sleep.
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“Sleep lines are real and they suck,” says Rogers. Unlike our laugh, smile, or squint lines they aren’t caused by facial expressions or activity, and they can’t be modified with neuromodulators (like Botox). Though experts say there’s no confirmed data on the flattening of facial contours due to side or stomach sleeping, Lain says you may still see swelling that could last up to a few hours.

So, the best position for beauty sleep? Lying on your back, slightly elevated. That will help with both lines and puffiness. In fact, lying on your back is considered one of the best sleep positions in general, as it supports spinal alignment and distributes weight evenly across the body.

We are human, though, and sometimes our bodies naturally gravitate toward a different sleeping position than the one we decided upon while awake. Luckily, there are plenty of tips and tricks for helping you maintain your desired sleep position.

Apply rejuvenating skin products

Both doctors agree that there are certain products you should apply before bed to aid in the skin’s overnight restoration process.

  • Retinoids: A derivative of Vitamin A, retinoids have been shown in clinical data to help decrease fine lines and wrinkles. You’ll want to apply these at night because retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun. UV rays can potentially break down the product as well. 
  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): If you are going to use a product containing glycolic acid, be sure to only use it at night, as it increases the skin’s sensitivity to the sun.   
  • Growth factor serum: Although there isn’t as much data available on the efficacy of growth factor serum as there is for retinoids, it’s best to use this serum at night. It can be used in conjunction with retinoids or, if your skin is too sensitive for that, the growth serum factor can be used by itself.  

Beware, though, as certain products can counteract each other. Growth factors and AHAs, for example, don’t mix.

“If you layer seven things at night, it’s hard to get to the good stuff,” says Rogers. In fact, too much product layering may damage your skin barrier and cause dehydration, rough texture, and even more lines. For the same reason, you don’t want to be using any skin resurfacing actives every night either.

You’ll also want to talk to a dermatologist about finding the right kind of moisturizer for your skin type.

Drink more water

“Drink enough water” is almost as trite as “get your beauty sleep,” but the best, universal advice has always been kind of boring. Getting adequate amounts of the basics – like sleep and water – are undefeated when it comes to restoring and regenerating our bodies. Especially for those who are already deprived of one or both.

One 2015 study showed that higher water intake could positively impact the skin, but this is mostly the case for people who have low daily levels of water consumption (dehydration). For those who are already adequately hydrated, excessive water drinking may actually disrupt your sleep via overnight bathroom breaks. Balance is key!

Avoid sleeping in direct sunlight

Though most of us sleep with the moon, sometimes we have to get our Zzz’s while the sun is up. Taking an afternoon beauty nap? Be sure to lie away from windows or other openings that expose you to direct sunlight.

You should also position your bed away from areas that receive the most sunlight, so those rays aren’t beating down on your skin in the mornings. For shift workers, artists, or anyone else who sleeps during the day, blackout curtains could be a solid investment for blocking light while you sleep.

Don’t forget: Beauty is beyond skin deep

Consistently repeating a set of uplifting affirmations before bed can go a long way in creating a more pleasant and, dare we say, beautiful outlook on life.

Affirmations are often associated with self-esteem and mental health, but more broadly, it’s a practice of intentionally inviting beauty and positivity into your space, including your sleep space.

There’s some science behind affirmations, too. One 2019 study found that psychological threats can challenge people’s innate need to view themselves as worthy. Researchers identified self-affirmation as one of the most effective (and free!) tools for reversing the effects of negativity and all manner of unseen ugliness.

Not only that, but affirmations can also motivate us and boost executive function; help us combat the pressures of conforming to unrealistic beauty standards; and help improve our confidence when dealing with the ebb and flow of chronic skin conditions.

So go get your beauty sleep, inside and out.