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Every night, as I reach that blissful moment when I strap on my eye mask and shut out the world, it feels like a true “Hello darkness my old friend” moment. (Although maybe not with the angst Simon & Garfunkel intended but in a literal sense.)
It’s the number one thing that transitions me from wakefulness to sleep mode, and I am nothing if not someone who loves to sleep.
It’s so essential to my sleep routine that I often wonder how anyone sleeps without an eye mask, until I remember that I didn’t own one until about four years ago. I also had someone once tell me that when they used a sleep mask they would wake up with panic attacks, so clearly they’re not right for everyone.
However, since the moment I got one, an eye mask has been a constant presence on my bedside table and in my travel bag. That said, I definitely cycled through many different types of sleep masks until I found the ones that work best for me.
Why wear an eye mask for sleep?
According to Rebecca Robbins, an associate scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School, darkness is an important component of good sleep hygiene.
“Our eyelids are the thinnest pieces of skin on our body,” Robbins said. “Believe it or not, even a small light coming from a cable box can be enough to get into the eyelid and actually disrupt our sleep.”
If you’re sleeping in an environment where you’re not able to have that fully dark space and you’re experiencing sleep difficulties, she recommends trying an eye mask at the very least to rule out light as the issue.
A 2021 report from the Journal of Advanced Nursing evaluated the sleep quality of people in the ICU, an environment of beeping machines and annoying lights that can prevent much-needed rest. The researchers included nearly 800 patients from 13 different studies and found eye masks improved sleep quality. Earplugs plus eye masks were even better.
A 2010 study of 14 ICU patients published in the journal Critical Care found that the use of earplugs and eye masks resulted in more REM (rapid eye movement, which signals a deeper sleep stage) time, shorter REM latency (the time it takes to reach the first REM sleep stage), less arousal, and elevated melatonin levels.
While you may not be spending much time in the ICU (hopefully), there are many situations in which complete darkness is not easy to achieve. Maybe you’re a renter and you don’t want to invest in blackout curtains, or your specific bedroom windows don’t allow for full shade coverage.
Robbins specifically mentioned how useful eye masks can be for travel considering the fact that most travel methods and hotels (even the nice ones) don’t focus on creating quiet and dark sleeping conditions.
How to choose an eye mask
When it comes to sleep, comfort is key, as Robbins emphasized for all areas of sleep hygiene. Ideally, you would be in a quiet, dark, and cool room and feel as cozy as possible. Since being cozy looks different for everyone, it’s important to consider how you get your best sleep when choosing an eye mask.
If you sleep on your back and have trouble turning off your brain before bed, you could be a good candidate for a weighted eye mask, which is a heavier mask that’s like a weighted blanket for your face.
If you’re a side sleeper, however, a weighted eye mask may slip off your face and probably isn’t the best choice. If you appreciate silence at bedtime but don’t love earplugs, you can try a mask that also claims to be noise reducing, because that’s a thing.
Regardless of your preferred conditions, Robbins suggests testing out products whenever possible and mimicking your sleep position when you do so. For example, those who spend the most time sleeping on their stomach should try out an eye mask while lying on their stomach to make sure that it’s comfortable and stays put.
You may not always be able to try before you buy, so check the return policy to see if it’s possible to send one back or exchange it. All of the eye masks we recommend come with high praise and may do the trick if you buy the one that’s right for your sleep style.