Q&A: Can Poor Sleep Show in the Face?

Can chronic insomnia make you less attractive? speed up the aging of skin? cause irreversible damage to your face?

I heard these concerns as I interviewed insomniacs for my book. But recently I decided to check into them after receiving an email from a woman whose anxiety about her appearance was extreme:

Very worried middle-aged woman

Can chronic insomnia make you less attractive? speed up the aging of skin? cause irreversible damage to your face?

I heard these concerns as I interviewed insomniacs for my book. But recently I decided to check into them after receiving an email from a woman whose anxiety about her appearance was extreme:


Ever since it all started eight years ago, my drive has always been an extreme fear of the insomnia’s impact on my physical appearance—especially my face. I just cannot let go of the pain of seeing my face ruined by sleeplessness! . . . Frankly, I look 10 years older than my biological age.

I am so afraid that my face is scarred (it certainly looks that way) and that it cannot recover after all these destructive years!

When we look in the mirror and see drooping eyelids and dark circles under our eyes, do we imagine we look worse than we actually do?

Effects of Sleep Quality on the Skin

There haven’t been any studies comparing the skin of insomniacs with the skin of good sleepers.

But three years ago I blogged about a study involving 60 women, half reporting good quality sleep with a duration of 7–9 hours and the other half reporting poor quality sleep lasting 5 hours or less. (Symptoms of these poor quality sleepers come close to meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of insomnia disorder.)

First the researchers inspected participants’ skin. Then they tested the skin, exposing it to ultraviolet light and subjecting it to a tape-stripping procedure that caused skin barrier disruption. They then observed how long it took participants’ skin to recover from these challenges.

Study Results

Compared with the good sleepers’ skin, the poor sleepers’ skin:

  • Showed more signs of aging skin (e.g., fine lines, uneven pigmentation, flabbiness, and less elasticity)
  • Took significantly more time to recover from the UV light exposure, with redness remaining higher over a period of 3 days

The good sleepers’ skin recovered 30% more quickly than the poor sleepers’ skin.

The study results suggest that insomnia sufferers’ concerns about the health and appearance of our skin are probably valid.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Skin

In another study researchers took photographs to compare the faces of healthy adults in two different situations: (1) when they were well rested and (2) under conditions of sleep deprivation. (Again, acute sleep deprivation is not the same thing as insomnia—and certainly not the same thing as chronic insomnia—but research suggests that insomniacs may suffer from mild sleep deprivation at least some of the time.)

Twenty-three participants, all healthy adults, were photographed in the afternoon after a normal 8-hour night of sleep and again after sleep deprivation (a 5-hour night of sleep followed by 31 hours of continuous wakefulness). The photos were then viewed in a randomized order and rated by 65 untrained observers.

What the Observers Saw

You can probably guess what the results of the study were. Compared with well-rested faces, sleep-deprived faces were perceived as:

  • Less attractive
  • Less healthy
  • More tired

“Apparent tiredness was strongly related to looking less healthy and less attractive,” the researchers wrote. “The fact that untrained observers detected the effects of sleep loss in others” suggests that our sleep history gives rise to signs that can be noted by other people.

In other words, after several bad nights, the pasty complexion and dark circles we notice in the mirror are not just figments of our imagination. Others see them, too—and may judge us as less healthy and less attractive as a result. (Keep in mind, though, that the participants in this study were quite severely sleep deprived when the second round of photos was taken.)

What Can Be Done

If preserving your skin is important, then taking measures to improve your sleep might be one of the best preservatives. CBT for insomnia (or sleep restriction) is the No. 1 treatment for insomnia recommended by sleep experts. Find information about it by clicking “Blog” at the top of this page and typing CBT or sleep restriction in the site search box.

What about products that might help to preserve the skin? A dermatologist once recommended that I use CeraVe Moisturizing Cream. I like it well enough but have no way of knowing if it’s keeping my skin looking younger than it would otherwise be.

If you’ve found a skin product you like, please share it here

Author: 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.

2 thoughts on “Q&A: Can Poor Sleep Show in the Face?”

  1. Hi Lois
    This is a very interesting post! However, I have always wondered how little my chronic insomnia has shown on my face compared to e.g. when a normal sleeper has had a bad night. This is something I have heard from other insomniacs as well. Maybe it has something to do with our constant high level of arousal? /Signe


    1. Hi Signe,

      I’ve experienced the same thing myself. It never seemed to me as though my face actually reflected my trouble sleeping.

      But I’ve been really reluctant to generalize here. I’ve heard from enough insomnia sufferers who were upset by signs of poor sleep showing in their faces to feel this is an issue for at least some people with chronic insomnia.

      It also might be true that the hyperarousal many insomniacs experience would somehow contribute to our looking less tired and less unhealthy than sleep-deprived normal sleepers. It’s an interesting idea.

      Thanks for writing in!


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