Anyone who’s ever gotten a bad night’s sleep knows that the effects show up in the mirror the next morning: dark circles, breakouts, sallow skin… the list goes on. Along the same lines, jet-lagged skin can look pretty rough, too. (Otherwise, nobody would need those giant sunglasses post-flight, right?)
The common thread between the two is your circadian rhythm—the 24-hour cycle that’s governed by your body’s biological clock, primarily responding to light and darkness. And while your circadian rhythm isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your skin, research shows it’s actually crucial for maintaining a healthy, resilient and (you guessed it) younger-looking complexion. “The skin is the body's largest organ and it responds to circadian rhythms in a manner similar to other organs,” says Tina Alster, M.D., director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery and clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center. “If it’s disrupted, your skin will visibly suffer.”
It all has to do with your skin’s stem cells, explains New York City dermatologist Eric Schweiger, M.D. “Studies show that skin stem cell activity varies depending on the time of day,” he says. For instance, an October 2013 study published by Cell Press shows that during daylight hours, your skin’s stem cells switch on certain genes to defend themselves from UV light, which unleashes damaging (read: aging) free radicals on your skin. Daytime defenses also work against other environmental stressors, such as pollution, that contribute to aging by breaking down healthy skin cells, Dr. Schweiger explains.
At night, on the other hand, while you’re snoozing away in the dark, your skin’s stem cells don’t need to go into defense mode. “Instead, they can focus on producing healthy cells to replace the damaged cells,” says Dr. Schweiger.
According to research conducted by skincare company Amore Pacific, your skin’s natural antioxidant protection is highest between the hours of 7 and 11 a.m. (giving your skin a much-needed boost in fending off those daytime free radicals). On the flip side, skin reaches its peak reparative levels between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight.
You run into trouble when your skin’s circadian rhythm is disrupted. When that happens, your skin isn’t able to fend off damage or repair as effectively. “As a result, collagen and elastin in your skin may continue to break down,” says Dr. Schweiger. “And without that ‘repair’ cycle, wrinkles will form and skin laxity may increase.”
And not only that, research from the Centre for Genomic Regulation found that when your skin’s circadian rhythm is impaired, you may be more susceptible to skin cancer as well. “It’s yet to be proven,” Dr. Schweiger notes, “but studies suggest that chronic lack of sleep can decrease the regenerative properties of the skin and may even lead to a great risk of tumor development.”
So what can you do about all this? First, don’t freak if you’ve gotten a few bad nights of sleep. “If you experience inadequate sleep once in a while, your skin won’t be as stressed as it would be from chronic circadian rhythm disruptions,” says New York City dermatologist Francesca Fusco, M.D. Just try to get back on track as soon as you can.
Second, stack the deck in favor of your skin with products that help your skin’s circadian rhythm function in a healthy way. This is especially important as you age, since a study from MIT found that circadian function actually decays as the years go by.
At night, use a retinol or prescription retinoid to stimulate additional skin cell turnover. “This helps your skin cells produce healthy collagen and elastin, keeping your skin as smooth and wrinkle-free as possible,” says Dr. Schweiger.
Night is also the perfect time to treat skin to an intense does of hydration, since sebum production (aka your skin’s natural oil) is lowest while you’re sleeping. “Night is an optimal time to hydrate skin with powerful humectants like hyaluronic acid, which attract and bind moisture hundreds times more than its weight,” says Dr. Fusco.
During the day, boost your skin’s levels of natural antioxidant protection with a broad-spectrum sunscreen that contains additional antioxidants. “Sunscreen is necessary even when you’re in the car or taking a quick walk down the block,” says Dr. Schweiger. “It helps protect your skin against both the development of skin cancer and skin cell breakdown from sun exposure, which leads to increased skin laxity, sun spots and the development of fine lines and wrinkles.”
Check out a few products below and get your skin back in sync, but keep in mind that we're dealing with brand new science here, and much like how the first computers were crazy-expensive, the luxury skincare brands are the first to jump on this research. If the sticker price is too much for you, it's likely the technology will trickle down to drugstore brands in a year or two, so keep an eye out.
This intense serum contains musk mallow extract to help promote synthesis of collagen and glycosaminoglycan, which keeps skin cells acting young and healthy around the clock, plus antioxidants of green tea and ginseng to fight off free radicals. It’s lightweight yet deeply hydrating, so both oily and dry skin types can benefit. Wear it alone at night and layer under a broad spectrum sunscreen during the day.
If you’re in the mood to treat yourself, this seriously rich sleep mask takes advantage of skin’s resting status at night and delivers an intense dose of hydration and antioxidant protection, with extracts of caviar, algae, sunflower seed oil and more.
The recently revamped version of this classic night serum, with patented “clock gene” technology, helps maximize skin’s renewal process at night, which tends to slow down with age.
The less damage you do during the day, the easier it is for your skin to renew at night. This daily-use primer contains 20 percent zinc oxide for maximum UV protection, plus antioxidants including pomegranate seed oil and green tea to help keep free radicals from assaulting your skin. This hydrating formula is perfect year-round.
This product is available on our sister site, BeautySage, where we only sell products proven to work!
Find out if your hair is aging you and learn how to turn back the strands of time.
Highlight your eye color. Flaunt your body shape. Harness your confidence. Take our quizzes to better know yourself and get science-based, individualized advice to embrace your true beauty.
Find out if your hair is aging you and learn how to turn back the strands of time.Take Quiz
See how your BMI and waist-to-hip ratio is affecting your beauty and health.Take Quiz
Great sex does more than blow your mind—it's good for your heart, your head and your beauty.Take Quiz
Define your curves and discover the best ways to eat, exercise and dress for your figure.Take Quiz