Do Sleep Masks Really Work?

August 15, 2017 |


Investing in a sleep mask might seem like a silly thing to do, but there is nothing funny about trying to improve your sleep. In fact, it’s probably in your best interest to do everything you can to increase the quality and duration of your sleep. Sleep loss is linked to numerous health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and heart disease.

A sleep mask is designed to help you rest in total darkness, which stimulates the production of melatonin to help you feel sleepy. They can also be heated or cooled to provide relaxing health benefits. Research supports wearing a sleep mask for improving sleep. You can even invest in a cute sleep mask that you don’t hate wearing every night or make your own! Here’s what the science says about whether or not sleep masks really work.

Health Benefits of a Sleep Mask

Sleep loss is a common problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 19 percent of American adults don’t get the rest they need every day (1). Sleep deprivation is linked to many health problems, such as kidney and heart diseases, diabetes, stroke, obesity, depression and high blood pressure.  

Sleep loss is associated with an increased risk of injuries in people of all ages. Sleepy drivers are more likely to get in accidents while older adults are more prone to falls and fractures. You need proper sleep for just about every aspect of your mental and physical well being. Not getting enough sleep puts you and others at risk of dangerous consequences.

Sleep masks can be made of a variety of different substances. They can be plastic and filled with gel or made of cloth and packed with herbs. Some are made of cotton or contain fluids inside. The simplest forms of eye masks are made with a thin sheet of black fabric to keep the light out of your eyes. They generally contain a stretchy strap that loops around the back of the head to keep it in place on your eyes.

Generally, an eye mask will cover your eyes, temples, and cheeks. They are created so you can lay down with them and fall asleep without having them moving around. Sleep masks have been shown to provide the following health benefits:

1. Sleep masks reduce swelling.

Applying a soothing, cooling mask to your eyes can help reduce swelling and puffiness. Many masks can be kept in the refrigerator or freezer and taken out when needed. Resting with a cold mask on your eyes for ten to 20 minutes or until the mask no longer feels cool can help reduce swelling. You may also feel refreshed after resting with a cooling mask that contains invigorating herbs such as mint and yerba mate.

2. Sleep masks relieve sinus pressure.

A mask that covers your nasal cavity can help reduce some of the pressure associated with a sinus infection or the common cold. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, you can treat chronic sinus congestion by using pressure and heat (2). Applying a warm mask can help alleviate the pain and open up nasal passageways.

To heat a gel mask, place it in a pot of hot water for a few minutes until it’s heated to the touch. Some cloth covers can be heated up in the microwave and then applied to the face for the same soothing effect. You can also use a cold mask while lying down to help relieve sinus pain. The decision to warm or cool your mask is up to you!

3. Sleep masks can block light.

Research supports using a sleep mask to block out light that might keep you awake (2). Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain to help you feel sleepy. When you’re exposed to light, your brain sends messages to your brain to stop production. On the other hand, when your eyes sense that there is total darkness, it tells the brain to produce melatonin to help you fall asleep.

You can use an eye mask to help simulate night when it’s not possible for you otherwise. Night shift workers may benefit from using an eye mask to block out the light so they can sleep during the day. Sleeping with a partner who stays up late on their phone or turns on a light to read can keep you awake. An eye mask can help tune out the light emitted from a dim light, television, electronic device, or a blinking light from inside your room.

According to a 2010 study, subjects who utilized eye masks and earplugs to tune out light and noise associated with being admitted to the intensive care unit of a hospital improved their hormonal imbalance and rested better (2). The study showed that patients who used eye masks and earplugs increased their REM sleep time, enhanced the amount of time it took to reach REM sleep, reduced their sleep arousal, and increased their melatonin levels (3).

Another study in 2015 analyzed the sleep patterns of patients in the intensive care unit. Results showed that patients who were given eye masks and earplugs and exposed to relaxing music for 30 minutes significantly improve their sleep. Specifically, patients experienced better sleep depth, fewer awakenings, and increased their time falling asleep again after waking in the night. They also experienced better sleep quality and reduced the time it took them to fall asleep (4).

Researchers of the study concluded that non-pharmaceutical interventions could be used to improve the sleep of adult patients in the intensive care unit. The good news is that you don’t have to be an ICU patient to benefit from these sleep treatments. If it’s noisy in your home, investing in a good set of earplugs and an eye mask of your choice can do the trick.

sleep mask

4. Sleep masks may improve insomnia due to related heart conditions.

Research shows that cardiovascular diseases are one of the main factors of insomnia by causing patients to wake up in the middle of the night, which reduces their sleep time. It also causes mental and physical fatigue, restlessness, aggression, and physical tension (5). Hospital patients being treated for their heart-related conditions are usually kept longer because of the side effects due to their insomnia. It's also noisy in the hospital and patients are subject to excessive light exposure all night long.

On the other hand, lack of sleep is a risk factor for many heart-related diseases, including a heart attack (5). Conditions such as myocardial infarction, irregular heartbeat, and angina pectoris have also been linked to sleep disorders (5). Many people with coronary heart disease complain of sleep loss, but they are unable to take prescription medications that might interfere with their heart condition or the current medications they are already on.

According to a 2012 study, a sleep mask can help these patients. The study found that using an eye mask substantially improved sleep habits of patients with acute coronary syndrome who were admitted to the coronary care unit. Authors of the study concluded that eye masks could be used as an alternative treatment method instead of prescription medication (5).

A 2015 study supported these results by concluding similar findings. Participants who used an eye mask in the hospital had fewer awakenings at night, improved sleep quality and anxiety levels, and it took them less time to fall asleep (6). Using an eye mask may also be able to help regulate melatonin production by blocking out light and increasing feelings of relaxation.

5. Sleep masks reduce stress.

According to a 2016 study, a lavender floral-water eye mask provided a relaxing scent that was soothing to the autonomic nervous system (7).

The study investigated whether floral-water eye mask aromatherapy was better than traditional essential aromatherapy at calming down the nervous system. Researchers gave 22 students with long term stress an eye mask with aromatherapy treatment. The eye masks were made with cotton sheets that were softened with lavender floral water. The students had their heart rate variability measured to determine how their autonomic nervous system responded to the treatment.

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for the way you respond to stress and other stimuli. It also has influence over your mood and whether or not you feel too wired to go to sleep at night. Calming your nervous system helps you relax so you can fall asleep.

Results of the study found that the nervous system changed 1.6 to 9.1 times after the students were given the eye mask aromatherapy. Additionally, the student’s physical stress dropped by 33.5 percent and their heart rate variability increased by 44.5 percent as a result of stress relief. Researchers concluded that after the students were given the lavender eye mask, their nervous system became as balanced as that of a healthy, non-stressed person (7).

Tips For Picking Out The Right Sleep Mask

The best sleep mask is one that you like and one that helps improve your sleep. You might need to try out a few before finding the one you enjoy most. Some sleep masks contain calming and sedative herbs to help you relax, such as lavender. You can also choose the material that’s right for you, such as cotton, gel-filled or plastic.

Sleep masks are inexpensive and easy to use. Most drug stores sell them for $5, to as much as $30. If you’re looking for a sleep mask to block out light, pick out a simple mask that covers your eyes and doesn’t let any light creep in through the sides of the mask. If you need a mask for napping or while taking a quick break at the office, you might not need one that is so advanced. Try on a few different pairs for fit and feel. You might not know how well the mask blocks out light until you try it at home or in the office, so make sure the mask you buy has a return policy that works for you.

To block out as much light as possible, look for a mask that fits snugly around your nose as light can sneak in this area. High-quality masks usually come with a small flap of fabric around the nose to help fit the unique shape of your face. Pay attention to the amount of pressure the masks puts on your eyes. A heavier mask that presses against your eyes might keep you awake. It can also cause you to wake up with a headache or sinus pressure. Look for a mask that has eye recesses or eye cavities to avoid touching your eyes if they are sensitive. A mask with a thin sheet of fabric should also work.

Lastly, pick the material that works for you. Masks can be made of cotton, memory foam, silk or satin. If you’re a side sleeper, you’ll want to pick a mask that is soft and doesn’t dig into the side of your face.

How To Make Your Own Relaxing Sleep Mask

If you can’t find any you like, try making your own sleep mask at home. You can look online and print off your own pattern or visit a fabric store and design your own cute sleep mask. Aromatherapy masks can be used to help you relax before sleep or anytime you need a short nap during the day.

Here’s what you’ll need for a basic aromatherapy mask:


  • Two cups of dry rice
  • 10 to 20 drops of your favorite essential oil (lavender or eucalyptus work well)
  • One ten inch tube sock


Combine the rice with the essential oil and spread evenly on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. Take out of the oven and let cool. Fill the tube sock with the rice and tie or sew it at the opening, so the rice doesn't fall out. Place the mask over your eyes while it’s still slightly warm. Rest with the sleep mask for ten minutes.

While this mask is ideal for relaxation, it’s probably too heavy to sleep with all night long. You can use it as part of your nighttime routine to help prepare your mind and body for sleep. The relaxing essential oil should help you calm down while lying down will help distribute your core body temperature to prepare you for sleep. Take the mask off after ten minutes and head to bed or use it when you need a quick break during the day.