Sleep Sprays: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Sleep sprays are supposed to help calm nerves and help you drift off to sleep sooner. However, sleep experts suggest managing your expectations.

A blue spray bottle on a light blue sheet with lavender flowers scattered around it.
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Move over, nightstand candles — the latest bedroom aroma is a pillow spritz meant to help you sleep or dream better. The idea of a sleep spray has evolved from a hippie niche product into a mainstay of the cosmetic industry, with top brands selling aromatic spritzes that promise to do everything from reduce anxiety to enhance dreams. But can a pleasant-smelling spray really do all that?

Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, advisor, and author of “The Rested Child” and “The Sleep Solution,” says that while he’s not aware of any specific chemicals in sleep sprays that would enhance dreaming or REM sleep, he hypothesizes that the novel smell of these products might trigger users to wake up with more awareness of their slumber.

“Have you ever been camping and felt like you were dreaming all night long? Sometimes the foreign nature of the tent (which has a distinctive smell), the feel of the sleeping bag, the sound of the crickets, etc. makes you feel like you were dreaming all night long,” he muses. “Perhaps a scent could do the same. Many people dream more when they simply write down their dreams, so that awareness is meaningful.”

Aside from claims of more vivid dreams, sleep sprays often claim to help calm nerves, reduce the amount of time it takes to doze off, and improve the overall quality of sleep. So what’s the deal with sleep sprays?

What is in sleep spray?

Many sleep sprays include essential oils — concentrated plant extracts — on the ingredient list. These oils are produced through mechanical pressing or distillation, and while dozens of aromatic options exist, some of the most common include lavender, eucalyptus, and lemon. Each essential oil has a distinctive chemical makeup, which influences its aroma and the effect it may have on the body. While essential oil users may incorporate these products into a variety of wellness practices, one of the most common modern uses may be to influence mood, enhance focus, or — as sleep spray advocates claim — to incite feelings of tranquility and relaxation.

What does the research say?

While there is some preliminary research on the impact of essential oils and scent on sleep, Winter says these studies aren’t necessarily robust enough to offer definitive answers, as more data is needed. One small 2005 study found that the scent of lavender helped improve insomnia symptoms in volunteers, but the researchers stated that “a larger trial is required to draw definitive conclusions.”

While many sleep sprays on the market contain other scents like vanilla, jasmine, and eucalyptus, lavender does seem to be the leading sleep-inducing winner in other existing research. A 2015 study that specifically examined the use of aromatherapy in intensive care units (ICUs) also found that lavender essential oil “increased quality of sleep and reduced level of anxiety in patients with coronary artery disease,” and another study from that year found that when paired with good sleep hygiene, lavender helped improve sleep quality for college students with self-reported sleep issues.

Winter says that lavender spray is a product that he occasionally recommends to patients, not because of any intrinsic chemical property, but more as a “zeitgeber,” or an environmental cue that helps align the circadian rhythm to the ideal times to sleep or rest. “It's great to use when you travel to bring that familiar nighttime scent to your hotel,” he says. “Brains tie olfaction (i.e., smell) very closely to memory, so that smell can become very triggering — in a good way — for sleep.”

How to choose a sleep spray

If you’re curious to try an over-the-counter sleep spray (and you’ve set your expectations accordingly, given the lack of robust research), you might want to explore your options. Lavender has the best data-driven track record so far and is the most popular in the sleep space (Mattress Firm even sells a lavender-infused pillow). But if that specific scent isn’t working for you, here are some other potential sleep-supporting ingredients to seek out:

  • Bergamot: A 2015 survey found that 64% of participants reported an improvement in sleep quality when they were given an inhaler that included bergamot and sandalwood, and a 2019 study found that cardiac rehab patients who inhaled a mixture of bergamot, lavender, and ylang-ylang reported better rest than those who inhaled a placebo.
  • Chamomile: Often found in tea, chamomile had some potential success in sleep research as one of several ingredients in an inhaled essential oil blend. One 2013 study found that intensive care unit patients who inhaled a mix of chamomile, lavender, and neroli experienced reduced anxiety levels and increased sleep quality compared to a control group.
  • Valerian: While there’s not much research on this flower in its inhaled form, a 2020 meta-analysis found that when taken as an internal tincture, valerian improved overall sleep quality, helped reduce anxiety, and shortened the amount of time it took users to fall asleep.

So what’s the bottom line on sleep sprays? Can anything like a pleasant-smelling spritz really influence your ability to sleep better, dream more vividly, or feel more rested in the morning? Unfortunately, science hasn’t backed up claims that these sprays can induce dreams. “Not that I'm aware of in a scientifically provable way,” Winter says. “That does not mean it won't influence an individual, though.” However, using these sprays or essential oils can be a great way to add mindfulness to your nighttime routine, with a fragrance that reminds you to destress and unwind.