Research in this field is fairly recent, however science consistently confirms that lack of sleep affects the skin in a number of measurable ways.
First Studies of Sleep Deprived Skin
The first serious study was conducted in 2013; it was initiated by Estée Lauder Company and presented at the Dermatological meeting in Edinburgh. The study involved 60 female volunteers aged 30-49, half of whom suffered from insomnia and sleep disorders. The study of their skin demonstrated that there is a significant difference between the skin state in women with and without sleep disorders: the former had more surface wrinkles, pigmentation and their skin was less resilient. Moreover, skin restoration was slower in women with sleep disorders and insomnia: for example, redness after sunburn persisted for up to 3 days, replenishing moisture levels after barrier damage (sticky tapes were applied) also took 30% more time compared to volunteers without sleep problems.
Women suffering from sleep disorders were more likely to have excess body weight and curiously tended to judge their own attractiveness lower than women who slept enough. A more recent study was conducted by Korean scientists on the effect of lack of sleep to the skin. What makes this particular work interesting is 1) the age of participants — 32 women aged 44-46, as opposed to younger people who often take part in studies such as this and bounce back in no time at all; and 2) the study involved looking at a week-long sleep deprivation, not one-time lack of good night sleep.
During the first week of the experiment, the scientists made no changes to the basic sleep patterns of the participants (they all slept 8–8.5 hours), instead they studied the women’s skin. In the second week of experiment, the participants’ sleep was shortened by half, to 4–4.5 hours and the state of their skin was closely monitored. The researchers looked into a variety of parameters, including moisture levels, flaking, the state of protective barrier, skin texture, shine, complexion, and the depth of wrinkles (crow’s feet).
All parameters were assessed in standardised conditions to isolate the influence of external factors.
As it turned out, even one night of insufficient sleep reduced the skin’s moisture levels significantly. And the longer they were sleep deprived, the drier their skin got and more damage to barrier function was caused. The first night with 50% sleep reduced also caused increased flaking, reduced shine and opacity, the appearance of redness and increased depth of wrinkles! The texture of the skin, meaning predominantly the appearance of fine lines, remained mostly unchanged after the first night, however, fine lines manifested prominently after the 4th night of sleep deprivation. Skin elasticity, quite unexpectedly, decreased very significantly, more so than other parameters and the longer volunteers went on insufficient sleep, the more their skin elasticity decreased!
Research has once again confirmed the importance of adequate sleep both for general health and for the skin. Normal sleep duration can vary from person to person, optimum being the amount of sleep after which one feels fresh and rested. It should be pointed out as well, that negative skin changes were happening in women who usually sleep very well, which sadly means you can’t stock up on good sleep or catch up on sleep during weekends. Sure, we’ve all had days and sometimes long periods of time when adequate sleep is impossible (new mums, we feel for you!), but unless it is unavoidable don’t subject yourself to lack of sleep. It is the foundation of well-being along with nutrition and exercise. If it did happen and you want to reduce the damage done to your skin, give it some extra care!
For one, if you don’t sleep well, you need to be extra careful in situations when potential skin damage is involved, including high-intensity aesthetic treatments. Most likely, your recovery after laser resurfacing and chemical peels will take longer than average. Certainly, some experiments should be avoided. For example, currently quite popular facial taping can lead to irritation and skin damage in people with insomnia significantly worsening the skin’s health and look.
What Are Circadian Biorhythms
Circadian biorhythms are physical, mental, and behavioural changes that follow a daily cycle. We say daily, because biorhythms vary in different people, some have shorter cycles of 23.5 hours, others longer, over 24 hours. Skin cells contain biological clocks, so to speak, genes responsible for the skin’s circadian biorhythms.
All processes in the skin are cyclic: skin temperature, trans-epidermal water loss, the proliferation of keratinocytes, microcirculation of blood and lymph, sebum production change within a daily cycle. Trans-epidermal water loss intensifies in the evening and at night, which is why children suffering from atopic dermatitis sleep badly due to increased itching and adults with dry skin wake up with a feeling of taut skin wanting to apply some moisturiser right away.
Sebum production on the other hand decreases at night with the lowest point around 4 am and a peak at noon. At night the skin is more permeable and microcirculation is enhanced making the penetration of active ingredients more effective.
This means that not only is the effect of skincare applied before bed stronger, but also the risk of side effects from applying intense concentrated solutions increases.
This looks counterintuitive, but high-concentrated solutions (retinol, for instance) are safer applied in the morning. Leave your less intense skincare for use before bed, and you’ll get similar results while still being comfortable.
Circadian rhythms have been recently discovered to play a huge role in restoring the skin cells’ DNA. The highest level of DNA restoration is achieved in the morning, provided by enzyme 8-oxoguanine DNA glycosylase (OGG1). The synthesis of this enzyme is launched by particular circadian genes activated in the deep and REM sleep phases, which are most disrupted in people suffering from sleep deprivation.
Studies of the skin of night shift workers revealed that their circadian genes expression was lowered and therefore natural regeneration of skin cell DNA is disrupted, resulting, among other things, in a more serious UV damage. If you are working nights, you need to use skincare that helps activate the expression of circadian genes and maintain the necessary DNA restoration.
The Science of Circadian Biorhythms
In 2017 a Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm. These scientists have been studying circadian rhythms for 20 years, but generally this field is still young and has only been actively progressing in the last few decades. The changes characteristic for circadian biorhythms have been described and studied since the dawn of time, however there are still many mysteries to uncover and the studies still continue today.
Travel, Jet Lag and Changes in Circadian Biorhythms
When we travel to a different time zone, most people develop the so-called jet lag, a temporary condition of sleep deprivation, feeling generally poor and permanently tired. The reason it happens is that external and internal stimuli are desynchronised: inside our body still lives in its habitual regime, while the sensory organs react to the fact that the outside world has a different schedule.
People with pronounced chronotype (born early risers or night owls) react to jet lag stronger, while people with Bear chronotype (50% of all people on Earth, tend to sleep and wake according to the sun, feeling most energetic during the daytime and having no trouble falling asleep at night) have a milder response to jet lag. The desynchronisation of biological clock caused by jet lag can make the skin drier or oilier, disturbing natural recovery processes. If you’re planning a faraway trip, avoid aggressive cosmetic treatments (chemical peels, laser, RF lifting, etc) before travelling and sun exposure in the first days in the new time zone as getting a sunburn or red skin would be much easier at this time.
Jet lag symptoms and severity vary from person to person; some people easily adjust to a 10 hour time difference, while others suffer when the time difference is only 2 hours.
How to Adapt Your Skin Care to Sleepless Nights
The first and most important thing to do is to try and improve your sleep. There is a special branch of medicine, somnology, which studies and treats sleep disorders.
Skin damage aside, sleep disorders increase the risk of diabetes, blood circulation disturbances, endocrine and digestive systems’ diseases and even some types of malignant tumours. Sleep deprivation must be treated and fortunately effective therapy is available today.
The first thing to do is to look at all the things that prevent you from getting the sleep you need.
— Avoid bright white light in the evening, opting instead for deemed yellow light before sleep.
— It is very important not to overeat and not go to bed on full stomach.
— Checking social media before going to bed is also rather a negative factor: the blue light of your gadget screen disturbs melanin synthesis.
— Comfortable bed, cool air and good ventilation, quiet and dark bedroom will help you sleep.
— As for skin care, if you are concerned about skin dryness, use cosmetic products compensating for it. Trying skincare products improving regeneration and restorative properties is also a good idea. Night cream or concentrate can contain stem cells of plant origin, niacinamide, coenzyme Q10, wakame extract, green tea extract, centella asiatica extract, etc.
How to Help Your Skin Cope with Lack of Sleep
Circadian biorhythms appear to be a very stable system, they’re managed by deep brain structures and are fairly resistant to external influence. Individual circadian rhythm characteristics can be compensated for if necessary, for example by applying a thicker and more nourishing cream to dry skin at night which will reduce the increasing moisture loss and eliminate the feeling of taut skin in the morning.
Today new ingredients are available to help restore healthy circadian rhythm. The best known is melatonin, which can be both taken orally and included in skincare composition. Recently Clariant Lab created the first ingredient able to synchronise circadian rhythms of skin cells, as they’re desynchronisation can be dangerous and lead to health problems. The ingredient was named Beta-Circadin; it is based on the extract of South Korean plant Lespedeza Capitata, containing specific flavonoids carlinoside and isoscaftoside able to affect the expression of the skin’s ‘time genes’.
Steroid hormone dexamethasone has a similar effect, but it must not be applied unless prescribed by a doctor to treat some skin condition. Another ingredient that can recalibrate the skin’s biological clock was developed by Swiss laboratory Rahn on the basis of rice and rosemary extracts. This ingredient is called Celligent; it helps accelerate healing, improve the skin’s barrier properties and reduce the symptoms of stress in people who sleep badly, work night shifts or often travel across different time zones.
What Skincare Can Hide Traces of Sleepless Nights?
I always recommend products containing niacinamide and/or caffeine in the morning to ‘wake up’ the skin. Coenzyme Q10 produces good results as well. For sensitive skin centella asiatica extract is highly beneficial, and dry skin loves vitamin E, nourishing complexes based on natural oils, various forms of hyaluronic acid.
What we do not recommend for insomniac skin, is skincare increasing the burden on restorative systems, such as retinol and acid-based skincare.
Metabiotic Ice-Awake created by Swiss laboratory Mibelle on the basis of succinic acid fermented by the ancient bacterium lodobacter discovered in the retreating glacier on the Matterhorn mountain can affect circadian processes. Metabiotic activates the expression of chaperone protein genes, responsible for the 3D folding of collagen fibres in the dermis. This process only takes place at night, is one of the first to be disrupted by lack of sleep and is the key factor of the loss of skin elasticity in sleep-deprived people. Ice Awake can increase the skin’s firmness, maintain and increase elasticity, despite trouble with sleeping!
Probiotic Sirtalice was created on the basis of previously unknown ocean bacteria by a French laboratory Lipotrue. The amazing bacteria were discovered in the ocean water at the depth of 3.5 km and turned out to be so effective in launching the nightly energy synthesis in the skin cell mitochondria, that the lifting effect is visible in 20 minutes! The restoration of energy metabolism helps synchronise cellular rhythms in sleep deprivation. Our old favourite niacinamide turned out to be able to restore the cell DNA by activating sirtuin protein genes. Soy glycoproteins extracted from soy proteins by biofementation activate the night synthesis of collagen type I characteristic for young skin — this is another process disrupted by lack of sleep and also with age.