And what you can do about it.
Is there anything better than getting into a comfortable bed at the end of a long day, flipping the light switch and settling in for a cozy night of...sleeplessness? Unfortunately, for millions of people, not getting a good night’s sleep is a regular occurrence. In fact, a staggering one-third of adults in the U.S. get less than the recommended nightly amount of sleep. And this lack of sleep does more damage than you think. It can lead to a range of issues, like diabetes, hypertension, depression, and anxiety.
Oh, and lack of sleep can also lead to the development (or worsening) of acne. If your nights spent tossing and turning are starting to get on your nerves—and show up on your skin—or you simply want to learn more about the connection between sleep and acne to prevent said connection before it happens, keep reading for four surprising ways sleep is impacting your complexion.
1. Not getting enough sleep can boost excess oil production and contribute to acne
“Lack of sleep is a big stress to the system,” says Dr. Robin Schaffran, BalmLabs Chief Dermatologist. “This stress can contribute to acne flare-ups or worsening acne via increased cortisol levels.” Cortisol depletes beneficial oils, weakens the skin barrier (thus allowing moisture to escape) and stimulates the overproduction of acne-causing sebum. And since cortisol (one of the main stress hormones) is the root of most cases of stress-induced adult acne, we’re guessing you’d rather not add another way to boost your probably-already-high cortisol levels—so get to snoozin’.
2. What time you go to bed can affect acne, too
A 2020 study on the relationship between sleep quality and acne severity found that “sleeping too late can cause a person to lack sleep, [which] can cause an increase in inflammatory factors [...] and affect the incidence and exacerbation of acne.” So if you’re in the habit of staying up until the wee hours of the night, you may want to rethink your sleep schedule. The same study showed that just “staying up late can cause an increase in the activity of androgen hormones, [which] causes an increase in sebum production, causing the skin to be more oily,” potentially leading to the development of acne.
3. And it’s not just acne, either
“Lack of sleep, as mentioned above, can worsen acne,” says Dr. Schaffran, “but it can also lead to dark circles under the eyes and an overall dull appearance to the skin.” Dark and/or puffy under-eye bags are caused by fluid retention due to lack of hydration (another symptom of poor sleep quality), while that telltale dull, pale complexion after a night of poor sleep is due to a lack of oxygen in your blood (a common effect of tiredness), resulting in a seriously less-than-radiant complexion.
4. It’s a two-way street: Poor sleep quality can cause acne, but acne can also cause poor sleep quality
We know that acne can have significant effects on mental health. People with acne have a 46% higher risk of developing a major depressive disorder. And their negative perception of how others will view their acne is linked not only to sleep impairment but also to increased symptoms of psychological distress, headaches, and even digestive issues. But according to this study conducted in 2019, which looked at the correlation between sleep quality and acne severity, there’s also a strong correlation between having acne and feeling fatigued upon waking up (which is a common sign of poor sleep quality). No, really! “Although fatigue may be a symptom of depression and patients whose quality of life has been more severely impacted by acne are more stressed,” reads the study. Even when controlling for depressive symptoms and quality of life impact, research shows that “subjectively worse sleep quality is associated with objectively worse acne.”
Now that we’ve gotten the bad news out of the way, here’s the good news: there are many ways to improve your sleep quality and start making a good night’s sleep a regular part of your life, once and for all. Below are some of our tried-and-true (by sleep experts and the Balm team!) ways to get a better night’s sleep.
If acne is the cause of your poor sleep cycle, it may help to better understand the connection between acne and mental health. You can read more about that here. We also recommend checking out the following free resources for mental health support:
MatthewTraube.com - Traube is a licensed clinical therapist who specializes in psychodermatology (a niche field focused on the psychological stress of dealing with skin issues)
Cystic and Severe Acne Support Facebook Group - This group boasts over 10,000 members and offers support for those struggling with severe acne.
CIMHS: Bliss Interactive Therapy - CIMHS is a free online therapy program based in Toronto that’s available to anyone, regardless of location.
Whether you’re concerned about your sleep quality or amount (there’s no proven number of hours of sleep for optimal skin health, by the way, but Dr. Schaffran recommends getting “at least 8 hours a night”), we suggest looking into the following resources:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTi) is proven to be effective in 6-8 sessions, but sometimes as little as 2 (!).
Headspace offers a 10-day meditation course designed specifically for dealing with insomnia.
Studies have shown that the use of white noise machines can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep by up to 40%.
Of course, your best bet is to speak with your doctor if your sleep schedule (or lack thereof) is affecting your day-to-day life. Insomnia is also a common symptom of perimenopause and menopause (61% of menopausal women experience insomnia), and your doctor can recommend ways you can catch some more Zs.
Remember: you snooze, you lose are rewarded with a brighter, more radiant complexion and lower stress levels.