4 ways a lack of sleep affects your skin–and how to keep it glowing

·9-min read
Photo credit: katiafonti
Photo credit: katiafonti

Right now, as ever, sleep is a hot topic. That’s because most of aren't getting enough of it. If the UK's unwavering hot weather has caused you more sleepless nights than you'd care to admit, know that you are not alone. According to Google Trends, 'how to sleep in hot weather' is up 950% in the past week.

Meanwhile, studies show that the impact of the pandemic and rising stress levels (cost of living crisis, anyone?) are also affecting our sleep quality more than ever before. According to global market research platform Mintel, around 75% of people have experienced more stress than usual since the start of the acute outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, with 61% saying they have struggled to sleep as a result.

While you can reel off the impact of a shuteye shortage on one hand–irritability, shoddy concentration, the urge to devour anything sugar-y–there's one other impact you should be aware of. Sleeplessness has a knock-on effect on your skin, too.

What happens when we sleep?

Let's start from the beginning, shall we? Put simply, sleep is our natural way to repair and recharge; a good night's sleep gives us the energy to perform at our best the following day.

But drifting off into slumber isn't all the peaceful dreaming and R&R it's cracked up to be. ‘Despite appearances, sleep is a highly active phase of our lives involving a complex mix of repeated cycles of sleep stages, biological processes, as well as chemical reactions impacting every cell in our body,’ says Dr Guy Meadows, Clinical Lead and Co-Founder of Sleep School. ‘Incredibly, some areas of the brain are more active when we sleep than they are during the day.’

In fact, he adds, it's more what doesn't happen when we sleep. 'During sleep our bodies create antibodies boosting the strength of our immune system. Sleep also regulates our appetite hormones helping us with weight management; it keeps our blood pressure low, improves the health of our hearts, [and also] keeps our brains healthy by washing out harmful toxins.'

And just like every biological function in the body, sleep plays a huge part when it comes to our skin too.

How exactly does sleep affect our skin?

You've likely been bored with the old 'beauty sleep' adage before – but getting enough sleep is crucial for skin health. It all starts with understanding the discrepancies in our skin during the day versus at night.

'Skin is a dynamic organ and provides an interface between the body and external environment; what our skin endures during the day is very different from what it faces at night,’ explains Dr Anjali Mahto, dermatologist and WH Collective expert, who cites higher risks of physical injury, exposure to ultraviolet radiation and temperature extremes during the day. 'So, naturally, it follows that the skin may work differently depending on the time of day,' she adds.

In fact, says Dr Mahto, there is a study from the year 2000 which demonstrates that skin cells have their own internal clock, in addition to the brain’s 'master clock.'

'This includes many skin cell types; stem cells as well as cells that make collagen (fibroblasts) and pigment (melanocytes). These work together and in conjunction with the brain to produce rhythmic changes in the skin.'

As for some key changes in the skin during the night, these include increased water loss, a more permeable skin barrier function (that's the outermost layer of skin that locks in moisture) along with skin repair and regeneration which, according to research, is highest at night.

'The first third of our sleep (when we get the deepest sleep) is suggested to be the most helpful [for skin repair] due to a sharp increase in growth hormone, which is responsible for skin cell reproduction and regeneration,' Dr Meadows explains. ‘If you want to assist in your skin’s recovery process, it makes biological sense to ensure you get biological sleep needed every night.’

4 ways lack of sleep affects your skin

Sleep deprivation causes puffiness

It's not just knocking back a few Merlots chased with a slab of cheddar before bed that can cause puffiness – sleep deprivation also causes the skin under the eyes to become puffy and swollen, says Dr Meadows. 'Scientists are unsure as to why exactly this happens, but it may be because of an increase in retention of blood and fluid around the eyes,' he adds.

It accelerates the ageing process

As if a poor night's sleep wasn't punishment enough, it may also mean more fine lines in the long run, too. Sleep and recovery go hand in hand, says Dr Meadows. ‘Since sleep is the body’s opportunity to grow and repair itself, cutting sleep short therefore means less time to heal – and that goes for your skin cells, too.’

He adds: 'It’s during sleep that skin makes new collagen, the protein responsible for keeping our skin strong and elastic and therefore youthful-looking,' so any reduced sleep may directly interfere with collagen production.

It causes dehydration

'The skin loses more water content as we sleep compared to the day,' says Dr Mahto, which can be problematic for those with dehydrated or dry skin types in the first place.

Our skin, clever as it is, has a solution, though. 'To prevent water loss during sleep the body produces a hormone called vasopressin that aids water retention,' says Dr Meadows. 'If sleep is disturbed or shortened then the process doesn’t work as effectively leading to greater levels of dehydration.'

There is also a bulk of research to support the correlation between lack of sleep and dehydration. 'In one study, people who slept for only 6 hours per night versus 8 hours had worse levels of dehydration,' says Dr Meadows.

Lack of sleep disrupts the skin barrier

'The skin’s circadian rhythm affects nearly all of its functions. This includes skin hydration and water loss, oil or sebum production, blood flow, skin cell division and barrier function,' says Dr Mahto. 'These processes do not proceed at the same rate during the day and show peaks and troughs of activity.'

This is really important to know for two reasons: Firstly, this indicates when you should be using certain types of skincare treatments in order to get the best results.

Secondly, and possibly most importantly, 'chronic lack of sleep will disrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythm, possibly through the generation of free radicals due to being metabolically active at unexpected times,' says Dr Mahto. This, unfortunately, can lead to a weakened barrier function of the skin, resulting in premature ageing, dryness and irritation.

Is there any way I can help my skin, after a poor night's sleep?

Look, the very best ways to get your sleep back on track are the tried and true methods: keeping a regular sleep and wake time, avoiding the glare of blue light from tech in the hours before bed, creating a wind-down routine...you know the drill.

Need a list of expert-approved tips for getting to sleep? Walk this way.

Plus, if you are struggling with insomnia, as opposed to odd bad night here and there, then platforms such as Sleep School and Sleepio offer programmes designed to help–you can also check in with your GP to request cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) designed for troubled sleepers. (One thing it's vital to note is that most of us will experience trouble sleeping at some point in life–it's very normal. What matters is seeking help, so that you swerve longer-term ramifications.)

When it comes to the morning after, however, there are steps you can take to give your skin the illusion of a restful night. Sure, there is no ingredient or magic cream that can undo seven hours worth of tossing and turning. However, there are plenty of skincare ingredients whose sole purpose exists to brighten up your complexion.

Cue antioxidants, AHAs, and niacinamide...

Manuka honey

Don’t underestimate the natural power of Manuka honey. Its benefits? Not only is it a great solution for acne given its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, but it’s also a powerhouse ingredient for radiance. Product-wise, Naturopathica’s Manuka Honey Cleansing Balm is our ultimate go-to.

Niacinamide

A do-it-all ingredient with endless benefits, niacinamide (or vitamin B3) is known to reduce redness and pigmentation, help strengthen the skin barrier and the best part: it's an all-round winner for brightening up tired faces too. Hurrah.

Vitamin C

A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C protects your skin from free radicals caused by UV exposure and external aggressors, all while keeping skin looking perky and awake. 'This moisturiser can near eradicate my dark circles thanks to its brightening blend of vitamins and hyaluronic acid,' says WH Acting Beauty Editor Amelia Bell.

AHAs

Sometimes, brightening up the complexion topically isn't enough; it needs the work of AHAs to slough away the dead skin cells and reveal the fresh, radiant skin underneath. Enter: REN's Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic. A cult hero with good reason.

Oils

They often get a bad rap for being comedogenic (likely to block pores and cause blackheads) but, when used correctly, oils can be real-life miracle workers for boosting skin's luminosity. Give yours a luxe overhaul by pairing your favourite oil with the Sensory Retreats Divine Glow Self-Heating Face Mask to help increase blood flow and circulation and regain that glow.

The best sleep products to try

A sleep product that can lull you to sleep in seconds simply doesn't exist, period. And to reiterate, if you are experiencing difficulty getting to sleep regularly, or are often waking up in the night and find yourself unable to drift off, then do flag it with your GP.

That said, if you're well acquainted with the odd night or two of restlessness, in which your mind insists on thinking about the to-do lists and next day's chores while your body longs for deep, restful sleep (team WH nods their head), you could think about trying one of these long-loved natural remedies before bed.

Acupressure mats

Not only do acupressure mats help to alleviate ‘tech neck’ after a long day slouched over my laptop, but lying on one before bed targets pressure points and releases endorphins, which really helps relax the mind and body after work. The WH team reckons that the OG Bed Of Nails is the best out there.

A weighted blanket

Similar to an acupressure mat, weighted blankets work by providing deep touch stimulation. Better yet, the cotton Mela Weighted Blanket is as cosy as they come, with an irresistibly soft albeit heavy blanket that moulds to your body shape and feels like a big hug.

Sleep patches

Harnessing the power of aromatherapy (which works by tapping into our senses via essential oils to help boost your mood, aid stress levels and induce sleep), these handy sleep inhalation patches help quiet the mind after a long day. Simply apply one on your collar bone before bed and try some breathing techniques.

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