The Many Kinds of Sleep Masks and their Benefits

Have you ever been asleep when suddenly you were roused from your gentle slumber by a stray beam of light from a passing car? 

Or maybe your neighbor’s motion sensor was triggered by a passing squirrel and the industrial-grade prison floodlights they have installed and set to ultra-sensitive, have blasted through a sliver-sized crack between your blackout curtains and the window? Yeah that’s happened to us too.

The nightly curse of light pollution plagues nearly everyone in modern times. Thankfully, for neighborly relations, there are sleep masks. Even more thankfully they are a relatively inexpensive and effective solution. 

We’re not talking about those polyester ones that you get in a little sleep pack on international flights that make you feel like you have glaucoma. We’re talking silk, adjustable, and ultra-comfortable.

A good sleep mask can even block out the inevitable light of the bustling airplane cabin, emulate a totally dark night for the night shift worker, or eliminate the luminescence of a web surfing night owl partner. 

Sometimes, ambient light can creep in even in our sleep hygiene-conscious bedroom from the LEDs on chargers or nearby streetlights and disrupt our sleep in a more insidious way. 

Let’s take a look at the different types of sleep masks currently available, from the cheapest to the smartest. We’ll examine what the various kinds are good for, and what they’re not so good for. 

Why use sleep masks?

No matter the circumstances, unwanted light frequently plays a destructive role in a restful night’s sleep. Thankfully, its negative consequences can be mitigated relatively easily with a comfortable sleep mask. 

These can be an enormous help to improve our sleep hygiene, ultimately letting our bodies produce more melatonin, the natural hormone that makes us feel sleepy.

In one study investigating the effects of eye masks and earplugs on sleep quality and quantity in the ICU, the group who used eye masks and earplugs to sleep reported higher melatonin levels, increased duration of REM sleep, shorter latency to REM sleep, and less arousal than those who didn't wear them.  

The pros and cons of sleep mask materials

Silk sleep masks

Silk is a smooth, luxurious natural fiber commonly used in sleep masks and bed linens. Usually, silk sleep masks are made of mulberry silk, produced by the mulberry silkworm found in Asia. While more expensive and perhaps higher maintenance than other materials, silk has a lot of benefits, especially for the skin. 

Pros:

  • It is lightweight and breathable. This prevents excess heat from being trapped, which may disturb sleep.
  • Silk is naturally hypoallergenic, making it an ideal choice for anyone with sensitive skin or skin conditions like eczema. Its smooth, soft texture minimally disturbs the skin, resulting in less creases and wrinkles. The breathable material lets oxygen flow while keeping dry air and allergenic particles out. 
  • Silk sleeping masks also help your skin naturally retain more moisture. Unlike cotton masks, silk does not soak up as much moisture, which can help keep your skin taut and supple. If you use night creams or other beauty products, silk won’t soak up the products like other materials. 

Cons:

  • Silk tends to get dirty easier than other materials like polyester. 
  • The material may get weakened over repeated washes.

Cotton sleep masks

Cotton is a very popular natural fiber for sleep masks. It’s soft and very good at fully blocking out light. Cotton is well-known for its affordability, but it can come in luxurious varieties such as the regal 100% Egyptian cotton. 

Pros:

  • It is comfortable, soft, and does not irritate the skin like other synthetic fibers might.
  • Cotton is absorbent, which may be a pro or a con depending on your sleeping conditions. 
  • If you’re sleeping in a hot bedroom, cotton can help conduct heat away from the face. 

Cons:

  • If you’re wearing creams or other beauty products, cotton sleep masks undesirably absorb this moisture. 
  • Over time, cotton may discolor or change in shape or size. Unfortunately, cotton doesn’t wash very well and may fade or wrinkle over repeated washes.  

Polyester sleep masks

Polyester is an enormously popular synthetic fiber used in sleep masks and virtually every type of clothing, commonly blended with cotton. 

Pros:

  • Polyester is lightweight, which makes it ideal for light sleepers and migraine-sufferers. This reduces pressure on the eye area which can disturb sleep.
  • It is durable, which makes it a great choice for travelers who will lug it around into harsh, humid climates. 
  • It will resist stretching, creasing, and shrinking better than all-natural fibers. 

Cons:

  • It is not very breathable and it does not wick away moisture, leading to an increased chance of skin irritation and uncomfortable overheating. 
  • It’s not as soft as natural fibers like cotton and silk.
  • Being synthetic, it is not a sustainable material and so not as environmentally-friendly as natural fibers like cotton or silk.

Satin sleep masks

Satin is another luxurious fiber with a glossy, high-end look commonly used in luxury sleep masks with designs on the front. Satin can be woven from fibers such as cotton, wool, silk, or synthetic materials like polyester. 

Pros:

  • Satin has a soft, comfortable, and lightweight feel.
  • It is good at light blocking.
  • It is washable (but best washed at low temperature).

Cons:

  • Satin does not as breathable as silk.
  • It wrinkles easily.
  • It is not as stretchy and durable as polyester.

Gel sleep masks

Gel sleep masks commonly contain gel beads that can either be thrown in the refrigerator or microwave to make cold or warm. 

Pros:

  • Cooling sleep mask is great for warm nights, migraines, and eye puffiness.
  • Warm gel is a great option for dry eyes and eye pain. 

Cons:

  • Gel masks are not as comfortable as other materials like silk or foam. 
  • There don’t work as well for side sleepers. 
  • They are not contoured, which may put pressure on the eyes.

Foam sleep masks

Memory foam is made from polyurethane, but also other chemicals that increase its density and thickness. 

Pros:

  • Foam masks are very comfortable and soft.
  • They are durable, and retain their form across a wide range of pressures.

Cons:

  • Foam masks are thick and not as breathable, so they tend to get warmer than other materials.
  • They are often more expensive than other natural fibers.
  • They can have a chemical odor, at least initially.

What are sleep masks good for? The types by functionality

It’s worth noting that sleep mask features are often not standalone. In many cases they combine multiple features together into one mask. For example, it’s not uncommon to find blackout sleep masks that are contoured, or aromatherapy sleep masks that are weighted. 

Basic sleep masks

This sort of mask can be the type you get for free from an airline on a red eye flight, or may be purchased for under five dollars. While these have the benefit of being very portable (easily stuffed in the pocket or in a backpack) and inexpensive, they usually aren’t as comfortable. 

After using one of these masks, it’s not too uncommon to have wear lines around the face and eyes, and it may disrupt makeup or any beauty products.

Masks that are completely flat to your face can disrupt sleep since eyelashes may get stuck. The cheap, elastic headband may also get caught in the hair, especially if you tend to move around in your sleep.  

Cheap sleep masks are more likely to suffer from fabric pilling which may be harmful to the eyes. One woman suffered from chronic inflammation of her cornea after using an eye mask with excessive fabric pilling. 

Our recommendation:

If your going for a cheap and compact silk mask for travel, you can’t go wrong with the highly popular Alaska Bear Natural Silk Sleep Mask. 

Contoured sleep masks

Contoured masks that are designed to minimize pressure on the face and eyes by contouring around the nose. Flat sleep masks can block your eyelashes and interfere with blinking. 

Naturally, these are the best sleeping masks for anyone with eyelash extensions. 

Our recommendation:

If you’re looking for something that’s soft memory foam material with total blackout capability and a fully adjustable strap, try something like this

Weighted sleep masks

Weighted sleep masks deliver roughly a pound of gentle pressure across relaxing pressure points on the head. These sleep masks can be great for inducing relaxation, calming anxiety, and relieving pain associated with migraines and dry eyes. 

Since these masks are typically made with dense, thick material, they often are praised for their total light blocking potential. 

Our recommendation:

These aren’t fantastic for travel but are good for home. They’re comfortable on the face, are effective in blocking light, and keeping your face cool. Great for those who get frequent migraines. Try something like this.

Blackout sleep masks

They might look like headphones for your eyes but blackout sleep masks are designed to maximally conform to the face and to prevent light leakage. These masks are commonly sought after by those that need to sleep in the daytime (i.e. night shift workers). 

Blackout sleep masks can help maximize the quality of deep sleep, but might not be the best choice for someone sleeping in a warm environment since they tend to get warmer than lightweight ones. They are commonly made from foam, and may have eye contours or eye cups, or even totally wrap around the face.

Our recommendation:

For a 100% blackout sleep mask you might consider something like this, with adjustable eye cups that creates no pressure on the eyes or eyelashes.

High-tech “smart” sleep masks

The current smart sleep masks are in their infancy, and mostly found on kickstarter or other crowdfunding websites. One of the disadvantages of sleep masks is that they can lead to oversleeping since you’re also blocking early morning light. Smart sleep masks overcome this problem by incorporating bright light therapy into their design. These sleep masks use warm light around bedtime and blue light LEDs upon waking. It may be used to reinforce consistent sleep/wake times and help combat the effects of jet lag or delayed sleep phase syndrome

Many also feature built-in headphones or bluetooth speakers that play soothing music, meditation sessions, or binaural beats to help the user fall asleep more quickly or wake up more refreshed. The downside of these masks can be the price tag, some exceed $100. 

This is especially true for the ones that incorporate EEG sensors to track brain wave patterns, such as the Neuroon. Compared to clinical sleep study technology, they may have lower specificity and therefore less precisely track sleep staging. This is due to the relatively low amount of sensors and their external “dry electrode” application. 

Our recommendation:

Like most smart products, these sleep masks have an accompanying app to set sounds to play, track sleep patterns, and schedule waking times. 

Luxury sleep masks

Herbal infused sleep masks

Herbal-infused sleep masks add in calming aromatherapy to enhance relaxation and promote sleep. These sleep masks commonly have a small sachet that slips into the front of the mask where you can drop a few drops of aromatherapy oil. 

Alternatively, masks like this one contain the herb inside the plush of the sleep mask. Chamomile, lavender, and lemon are common relaxing herbs well-known for their anti-anxiety effects. Instead of herbs, some masks even contain activated charcoal which may ease the symptoms of dry eyes or eye puffiness.

Custom sleep masks with designs

These sleep masks are typically designed with an aesthetic flair. They may be embroidered with a personalized name, logo, or phrase, and typically have a variety of patterns and colors to choose from. 

For instance, vintage fashion lovers may opt for this Audry Hepburn sleep mask from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But this might be better for a costume than for getting that much-needed sleep.

Final Thoughts

Sleep masks are not just a luxurious trope of a rich lifestyle. Compared to other sleep-promoting tools like prescription medications, they are essentially risk-free if you opt to invest in a high-quality sleep mask. 

Since there are a huge variety of sleep masks available on the market, it’s important to consider your unique needs and preferences and purchase it based on that. A most comfortable or best sleep mask for you may not be the best for somebody else with a different facial structure.

In general, sleep masks are an inexpensive and comfortable way to increase sleep hygiene, backed by clinical studies.