Fatigue and sleep deprivation show up in the eyes, skin, and mouthI recently attended a talk where the speaker, a photographer, posed a question to the audience. “If you took a series of photos of yourself going about your daily life,” she asked, “are there images you’d feel uncomfortable sharing with other people?”

The first image that came to mind was my face as it must look the minute I crawl out of bed after a slew of insomniac nights, when I’m feeling sleep deprived. (Bouts of insomnia are rare now, but they can still occur if I’m stressed out for several days.) The face I imagine isn’t pretty: furrowed brow; pained eyes; skin that’s inelastic, exposing crow’s feet and other wrinkles that show my age; mouth turned down.

I’m not the only insomniac to imagine the worst. Amy, a stay-at-home mom I interviewed for my book, is convinced after nights of insomnia that she looks like a mess. “I feel like I’ve got black circles under my eyes,” she says. “I feel like my whole aura is going to be sort of repulsive in the world. I don’t even want to go out the door I feel so icky.”

But would the icky way we feel after insomniac nights show up in a photograph, or are we just imagining we look so bad?

The Facts of the Matter

A study from Sweden and The Netherlands confirms that telltale signs of insufficient sleep can be read in the face. When people are severely sleep deprived (in this case, subjects underwent a short night’s sleep followed by a completely sleepless night), it shows up in their eyes, skin, and mouth, and as sadness.

The subjects in this study were probably way more sleep deprived than most people with insomnia. In fact, sleep deprivation may not be the real problem for some insomniacs at all.

Still, alongside other findings, this study adds to the literature suggesting that inadequate sleep not only jeopardizes our health and day-to-day functioning. It can also make us less attractive. (And who thinks this concern is superficial? Not me!)

Facial Cues of Sleep Deprivation

  • Tired eyes are the most revealing sign of fatigue. Drooping eyelids and eyes that are red or swollen are a tip-off that you’re short on sleep.
  • Skin cues are telling, too. All the usual suspects—pale skin, wrinkles, and dark circles under the eyes—are validated in this study as signs of sleep deprivation.
  • Finally, drooping corners of the mouth and overall sadness are marks of fatigue and insufficient sleep.

The take-away? You’ve known it all along. Everything your mother ever told you about your need for beauty sleep is absolutely true.

Does your face look different when you’re short on sleep? How?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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