Lack of Sleep Is Skin's Worst Nightmare

May 17 , 2021

Amher Delancel

Lack of Sleep Is Skin's Worst Nightmare

Why the face looks tired when tired

Lack of Sleep Is Skin's Worst Nightmare

Everyone knows what a tired face looks like, right. Draping eyelids, dark circles under the eyes, pale skin, droopy mouth corners, wrinkles, and fine lines—were some of the cues a group of volunteers interviewed during a study associated with tiredness. The participants showed photos of 10 individuals, each photographed while well-rested and while sleep-deprived. They were able to judge with a fair amount of precision the people's fatigue in the headshots.

It should not come as a surprise that lack of sleep has such a visible impact on one's face—more specifically on the skin. Sleep is our most crucial behaviour, occupying most time and is responsible for maintaining the internal balance, a state called homeostasis. Moreover, the skin is the largest organ in the human body, so it is affected when sleep is disturbed. 

As our society becomes chronically sleep-deprived, with one in three adults not getting the recommended seven hours or more a night, researchers are beginning to investigate what exactly happens to people's skin when they do not sleep enough.

A Korean study from 2017 evaluated the skin condition of 24 healthy women in two situations: after a night of normal sleep and after being kept awake for 24 hours. In the sleep-deprived scenario, the skin was less hydrated, with areas around the eyes and cheeks showing increased water loss. The researchers figured that the skin barrier, which meant to keep moisture in and irritants out in those places, was impaired. The facial skin was also less elastic and more prone to scaling, attributed to dehydration. Pores looked more prominent too, which the researchers hypothesized was due to the coarse skin texture left by scaling, which made pores appear enlarged. The researchers also found that skin under the eyes had decreased blood flow.

The study's findings manage to explain some of the typical features of a tired face. Skin dehydration leads to increased fine lines and wrinkles. Decreased blood flow contributes to paleness and dark circles under the eyes.

Another classic feature of a sleepless face is the sagging eyelid. The muscles that open the upper eyelids can get tired like any other muscle in the body, and after prolonged hours of use, they tend to get heavy and limp, which could also help explain the drooping mouth corners.

It all adds up to a crappy look.

 Skin's worst nightmare: Lack of sleep and stress

Lack of Sleep Is Skin's Worst Nightmare


It is not easy to tease apart the impact of a sleepless night from that of stress. As the authors of the Korean study pointed out, sleep deprivation can be pretty stressful, so the changes seen in participants' skin could have been influenced by stress as well. The relationship between sleep and stress is bidirectional because people living under stressful circumstances are also more prone to having sleep problems.

While a single sleepless night can have a noticeable impact on how the face looks, chronic sleep deprivation and stress can lead to even more significant changes, the exact mechanism behind those changes has not entirely figured out. Still, studies suggest it involves multiple body systems.

 Sleep plays a role in restoring the immune system; a lack of sleep—even for one night—could cause a decrease in the body's immune response. In a scenario of prolonged sleep deprivation, immunosuppression could affect the production of collagen, a protein that provides structure to the skin. When the quality or amount of collagen is impaired, the skin may lose elasticity and firmness, leading to wrinkles.

Sleep is our most important behaviour. Moreover, the skin is the largest organ in the human body, so it is affected when sleep is disturbed.

Both lack of sleep and the stress that comes with it have also been found to alter the production of certain hormones, including cortisol. There is evidence that sleep deprivation leads to increased cortisol levels, a hormonal imbalance that may increase inflammation and affect the skin barrier. Increased cortisol levels have been linked with skin conditions like acne and the arrival of early signs of skin aging.  

We know that sleep is needed to repair the organ systems. One of the things it does is to clear the free radicals formed during the day. Free radicals formed when the oxygen in our body splits into single atoms that contain unpaired electrons. Since electrons like to be in pairs, this atom goes out looking for other particles to bond to. This process, which can damage the body's cells, is called oxidative stress associated with skin aging. Without enough sleep, free radicals tend to increase, triggering this damaging process.

According to dermatologists, sleep deprivation and stress are responsible for aesthetic skin problems. They are also associated with worsening skin diseases such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis sleep deprivation in vitiligo, a condition in which white patches form on the skin, says there may be a two-way relationship between lack of sleep and skin diseases. While lack of sleep may worsen skin conditions, this aggravation increases psychological stress, which may, in turn, lead to more sleeping problems. It is a vicious cycle. 

When it comes to premature skin aging, prevention is vital.

Lack of Sleep Is Skin's Worst Nightmare


Suppose having a single night of inadequate sleep. In that case, the best strategy to treat a tired face is to moisturize and use a topical antioxidant, such as vitamin C, in addition to everyday sunscreen, Mayoral suggests. However, when it comes to combating the effects of chronic sleep deprivation and stress, things get complicated. According to studies, there is no proven medical treatment that can reverse skin aging caused by stress and sleep deprivation. Therefore, prevention is the key for people who are chronically stressed or sleep-deprived. 

Experts recommend lifestyle changes. Exercising daily, taking a few minutes out of the day to do relaxation breathing, meditating, doing yoga are all things that can help to improve sleep—adopting a routine of healthy sleeping habits. We all know what we need to do to improve our sleep, but few of us do it: things like avoiding stressful activities at night, not bringing phones and tablets to bed, not eating heavy meals at night and turning off any electronics two hours before sleeping.

These measures are essential to overall health, of course, because the impact of stress and lack of sleep goes beyond the skin. Stress does not affect only the skin, but it can trigger cardiovascular problems, diabetes, migraines, seizures. It involves multiple organ systems, mainly through cortisol, the stress hormone.

Having a tired-looking face could also have significant social consequences.

There is much research on first impressions and how they may shape how other people perceive and interact. If someone is seen as tired, it may affect others' images of their intelligence and health.

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Lack of Sleep Is Skin's Worst Nightmare
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.