Today, most of the mundane details of my day-to-day life are very different than they were 10 years ago. My trousers feature conspicuously fewer cargo pockets, for example. My T-shirt drawer is no longer sourced exclusively from Foot Locker. I own a dining table I did not select solely because I could carry it home from the apartment of a very amused Dubizzle seller, balanced precariously on my head, for a mile and a half through Bur Dubai.
One thing about me, though, is as true today as it was then: I do not – indeed, I cannot – sleep without an sleep mask.
Here's how this happened: During my second year of college, I lived in a cramped attic with a wall-to-wall window that ran along the only part of the room in which a twin bed could fit. This window faced due east, which meant the moment the sun rose every morning, my whole world was bathed in daylight. As a 19-year-old for whom any pre-noon event qualified as "starting at the crack of dawn," wearing an eye mask was the only way to maintain some semblance of a college-adjusted normal sleep schedule. (Why not put up curtains?, you ask. Sure, but teenaged me stood no chance of installing curtains without forfeiting the security deposit. At four miles away, the nearest IKEA might as well have been in a different time zone.)
In my new room, I found that a flimsy, airline-branded freebie I took with me after a red-eye flight put a end to my involuntary dawn wake-ups. When that mask wore out after a few weeks of nightly use, I began rifling through the treasure trove of masks for sale on Amazon, experimenting with different fabrics, fillings, and features, rarely paying more than $10. The masks began eliciting a sort of Pavlovian response, too, and the mere act of putting one on induced a near-immediate state of drowsiness.
I moved out of that house, but that sleep mask habit stuck. Today, it is as important to me getting a good night's sleep as the bed itself. When my wife and I were dating, I kept a spare one in her apartment. If I forget to bring one on vacation, I buy another. If I misplace it within my own home – a waking nightmare – I will tear apart the room until I find it. (My wife loves this, especially when she went to sleep an hour earlier.)
Consider how much thought and money we put into making our bedroom environs as tranquil as possible: cloud-like duvets, heavy quilts, and quadruple-digit-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets. And yet we permit our poor eyes to go naked, their nocturnal comfort subject to the cruel whims of our unconscious tosses and turns. A sleep mask addresses this glaring omission. It is basically a miniature blanket, but made for the needs of your face.
Wearing a mask can help protect your fragile sleep from the unwanted bright intrusions of modern life. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control, though, estimate that one in three fall short of this goal, increasing their risk of chronic medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, to say nothing of being really, really tired all the time.
Normally, the human body releases melatonin – a hormone that helps promote sleep – in response to darkness. Researchers studying the sleep habits of traditional, pre-industrial societies have observed that their sleep occurs almost entirely during the dark periods of each 24-hour cycle. Living an environment awash in artificial light, then, is the sort of thing that could disrupt one's regular circadian rhythm.
And this is where the mask comes in: In a 2010 study, researchers in China found that when exposed to a bright, noisy environment – a simulated intensive care unit – test subjects wearing eye masks and earplugs experienced better subjective sleep quality and exhibited higher melatonin levels than subjects who went without. Consider the light sources that might interrupt your circadian rhythm on any given evening: A partner's iPad? A hallway light? A neon sign flickering obnoxiously outside your Airbnb window? These things are far less likely to interfere with melatonin production when you're snuggling in a blissful, mask-induced cocoon of artificial darkness.
Over the years, I've found that what's most important to me in an everyday mask is that extra layer of velvety cushioning on the bottom, which prevents light from sneaking in around the nose. Since 2012, my favorite has been a cotton Lewis N. Clark number – the grey version, because I learned the hard way that the blue dye bleeds onto sheets. On warmer summer nights, I sometimes pivot to a silk mask from Mavogel, which includes a removable cold pack that lulls me to sleep by applying gentle pressure to tired cheekbones.
This is all a matter of personal preference, of course. I happen to appreciate solid contact between face and fabric, for example, but for those with strong feelings about maintaining ocular personal space, there are convex designs that form miniature domes over each eye socket. Wearing one of these can get a little tricky for side- and stomach-sleepers, since that pocket can dent when it comes into contact with the pillow. Back-sleepers, those lucky few, won't have a problem. Honestly, they can wear pretty much any mask type they want.
Every mask doubles as a self-care accessory, too; when you can't see your phone on the bedside table, there is no lingering temptation to reach for it. Once, when I was feeling particularly fancy, I opted for a mask that was lavender-scented. It wore off after a week or so. But in the meantime, those last fleeting moments of wakefulness each night smelled great.