Working long hours and not getting enough sleep have been hallmarks of work life in America for some time ― so much so that lack of sleep has been a key issue in recent labor actions.
That’s true whether you work in an office, on a factory floor or on a Hollywood set. Not to mention, the pandemic has resulted in many people working from home, which means they often end up putting in even longer hours because they never really leave the office. Lack of adequate sleep, especially for prolonged periods of time, can have negative effects on both your mind and your body, and especially your skin.
If you’re wondering why your looks suffer when you work longer and sleep less, let the experts explain.
What happens to your skin on too little sleep
“Skin renewal, repair and restoration is prime at night when the skin’s metabolic rate grows, which means cellular turnover and new cell production increases,” said Hope Mitchell, a board-certified dermatologist. Mitchell explained that sleep deprivation can result in a decreased secretion of the growth hormone somatotropin, which is responsible for repairing damaged cells and maintaining skin elasticity.
What our bodies can do, especially while we are asleep, is kind of amazing. “Think about how quickly our bodies can heal from a paper cut ― one day later, all evidence of the cut is gone, which is rather miraculous,” said Rajani Katta, a board-certified dermatologist and professor.
“When you don’t sleep, you’re essentially interrupting the messaging system that sends your cells into action, the cells that would repair damage to your skin barrier,” Katta added. Instead, our bodies can send out more inflammatory cytokines, which can lead to acne breakouts and rashes.
Rebecca Robbins, a sleep scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, pointed to a 2020 study in which 40-year-old women slept four hours a night for six nights, which is the amount of sleep many people actually get. “The study demonstrated that there was an increased skin aggravation with each additional night of inadequate sleep,” Robbins said. So, the longer you go without reasonable rest, the more it can show in your appearance.
Not sleeping enough manifests in your skin in numerous other ways, too, including hypopigmentation, delayed wound healing, fine lines and wrinkles, and dark circles and eye puffiness.
According to Mitchell, hypopigmentation and delayed wound healing can be the result of a decrease in the hormone melatonin, which your body produces during sleep. “Melatonin is the skin’s defense against environmental stressors such as UV rays and other oxidative damages caused by free radicals,” she said.
As for wrinkles and fine lines, “collagen, a protein that helps make the skin soft and smooth, is synthesized when the body is relaxed during the REM stage of sleep,” Mitchell explained. “An inability to reach this raises the cortisol level in the blood, which damages the collagen and halts its production.”
“If you don’t give the skin the rest it needs, you are potentially accelerating your aging process,” Mitchell added.
And then there are the telltale dark circles under puffy eyes.
“Sleep deprivation leads to a disturbance in blood flow, causing fluid buildup on the eyelids and orbits,” Mitchell said. “Furthermore, the skin under the eyes is the thinnest, and lack of collagen formation in this area can show darker discoloration and accentuate underlying blood vessels.”
Your hair after months of too little sleep
Many people find that they can never “catch up on their sleep” and, because of their jobs and other responsibilities, they consistently sleep less than the recommended seven hours per night.
This cycle can have a negative effect on your hair. Healthy hair relies on growth hormones, as well. If you think your hair looks duller and limper when you haven’t been sleeping enough, you’re not imagining things. While just one night of inadequate rest won’t have much of a visible effect on your hair, chronic sleep deprivation will. Without proper rest, your body can’t adequately synthesize enough of the protein keratin, which is what ultimately grows from your scalp as hair.
Melatonin is also believed to be important for hair health ― in fact, a 2012 study showed that the application of topical melatonin could be used to treat hair loss.
When we don’t sleep, we often end up stressed about the fact that we are not sleeping.
“This can result in a rise in the body’s production of the hormone cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone,” Katta said. Raised cortisol levels are related to an increase in sebaceous oil production, which can cause both acne and oily or greasy hair, as well as skin fragility, she explained.
The less we sleep, the more our bodies (and minds) suffer. “There was a study done in the Nordic countries that found that individuals that were sleep deprived were actually rated in the workplace as less agreeable and less fun to collaborate with,” Robbins said.
But “it’s not all doom and gloom,” Robbins said. “I think many of us are experiencing a lot of insomnia and are struggling. But the good news is that there are small behavior adjustments we can make to change our sleep habits.” These include meditation, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, unplugging in the evenings and journaling: all activities that can lead to better sleep.
As for your skin, Katta recommends moisturizing and using a product with DAC hyaluronic acid to help fend off some of the effects of sleep deprivation. The best preventive measure, though, is to simply get more sleep ― which, of course, is easier said than done for most people. Advocating for and supporting workers’ demands (across all industries) for better life balance and reasonable rest seems to be as good a place as any to begin.