Sleep, much like sex, is a social divider between the haves and have not’s. If you’re getting enough, you most likely don’t talk about it; if you’re not getting any, it’s ALL you can talk about.
Apparently there are a lot of us talking — according to research by the CDC, over a third of Americans are not getting the recommended seven hours. It’s no wonder beauty companies are trying to cash in on this sleep-deprived segment of the population with everything from pillow sprays to herbal tonics. Separate from supplements made of sleep-promoting ingredients like melatonin, these alternative treatments instead encourage melatonin production or create an ideal sleep environment.
As an unabashed sucker for promises to bring my tossing and turning to an end, I tried the buzziest beauty products to see if they could actually improve my sleep quality.
I started off with the most common alternative sleep aid — aromatherapy. “Studies have shown that aromas can create a physiological response that causes our body to produce hormones — including melatonin, the hormone that promotes restful sleep,” explains Amy Galper, executive director of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy. Galper cites lavender, chamomile, clary sage, and marjoram as some of her favorite melatonin-promoting scents. Numerous studies have been conducted confirming lavender’s use as an all-natural sedative, while chamomile has been shown to curb anxiety and depression. “Clary sage and marjoram are known to be anti-spasmodic, so they will actually reduce and relieve the stress in your muscles,” says Galper. “Their aromatics also trigger the hypothalamus to create hormones that help support the ‘rest-and-digest’ state needed for a restful sleep.”
Theresa Fisher, senior editor of Van Winkles (the editorial arm of Casper, the company that made mattress shopping cool), asserts that aromatherapy’s benefits are more psychological. “The value of using a scented product before sleep is to trigger a habit,” she says. “It’s a cue to get your body and brain to associate a specific scent with the process of falling asleep.”
With both theories in mind, I decided to try two different methods of aromatherapy-assisted slumber. Up first was Neal’s Yard Goodnight Pillow Mist. A just-launched addition to the organic brand’s offerings (inspired by its best-selling Beauty Sleep Concentrate and Beauty Sleep Body Butter), its mix of lavender, balsam, vetiver, and geranium organic oils promises to calm your mile-a-minute mind. Optimistic, I sprayed a healthy dose on my pillows and buried my face in them. Sadly, I was not transported on the express train to dreamland as I had hoped. But while it didn’t knock me out, it did alleviate the catch-22 of sleeplessness: stressing about the fact that you are not yet asleep. Instead of competing for gold in the anger-thrashing Olympics, I lay serenely on my mountain of fantastic-smelling pillows.
A bit of hunting on Birchbox found me my next product: the top-rated This Works Sleep Plus Hair Elixir. Online customer reviews for this one range from “best, most favorite product I’ve bought in years” to “it really helps me to fall asleep naturally and have a full, well rested night’s sleep.” The spray-on oil has a time-release blend of sleep-hormone encouraging lavender, vetiver, camphor, and patchouli infused into a mix of healthy oils like baobab and sea buckthorn that smooth and hydrate your hair. Galper says that you can boost the benefits of scent by adding in a physical aspect, so I enlisted my husband to spritz it on my hair, then work it into my scalp. That gentle massaging action coupled with the calming scents allowed me doze off in nearly half the time. The next morning revealed an added bonus — my hair was noticeably softer.
On the third night I tackled the Lucid Dreaming Elixir by Ayurvedic brand Anima Mundi. A favorite of insomniacs that are also alternative beauty devotees (it’s consistently sold out at indie beauty mecca CAP), the liquid potion contains medicinal herbs purportedly utilized by “respected shamans” that regulate your hypothalamus (the part of the brain that tells your body that it’s time to go to sleep) and soothe a jittery nervous system. It’s a kind of brownish-green liquid sludge made of those aforementioned shaman-approved plants: passionflower, kava kava, ginger, and an herb called ashwagandha — which apparently translates from Sanskrit to mean “the smell of a horse.” Fantastic.
I dutifully added a teaspoon to my mint tea just before bedtime. My mug looked, to the casual observer, like I’d run it through a stream of septic overflow. The smell and taste weren’t delightful, but they were tolerable — a little floral with some citrus undertones — so I downed it and tucked myself in for the night. I flailed around as per usual, but once I finally fell asleep, I stayed asleep. Which, when you’re laying on an 11-year-old queen-size mattress with a 6-foot-3 husband and a miniature Schnoodle who spreads across the bed like a Great Dane, is a pretty major achievement in and of itself. Score one for the poop tea.
The Night Pillow was my next test subject. Touted by everyone from Karlie Kloss’s hairstylist to Kim Kardashian, this all-black pillow is made from oxygenated memory foam (so it’s not as heavy as your average memory foam) and wrapped in a special black silk pillowcase. Beauty experts have long espoused the benefits of sleeping on silk — fighting frizz, preventing breakouts, and discouraging fine lines. The Night Pillow goes one step further, claiming that its obsidian pillow and corresponding pillowcase encourages deeper sleep by “negating the light” that can interrupt melatonin production. It’s like a black hole, but on your bed.
It sounded a bit gimmicky, so I was understandably skeptical. The last thing I remember thinking as I lay down was how comfortable it felt … and then it was morning and I was facedown and mouth open in a pool of drool. I don’t know if I’ve ever slept quite that hard without a controlled substance involved. There is one big downside to this though: It clocks in at $150. Apparently great sleep does not come cheap. I firmly maintain that it was the actual pillow itself that was responsible for my utter and complete unconsciousness, but if you want to achieve the light-negating, frizz-fighting power without the hefty price tag, black silk sheets are a good bet.
I was loath to relinquish my new pillow friend but I still had one more beauty treatment to explore. For my final test I headed to the Lush Spa in midtown Manhattan for their famed Hard Day’s Night body treatment — one of the inventive spa’s most creative treatments. Meghan Campbell, Lush’s brand and product trainer, says this is her No. 1 recommendation for anyone in search of a good night’s sleep. “The bespoke method of massage used [in the treatment] is intended to lull you into a heady, dreamlike state,” she says. That method involves “passive stretching” while decked out in oversized PJs and listening to remixed versions of Beatles’ songs. Kind of like if someone had given George Harrison a sitar instead of a guitar. The purpose of the treatment, according to my spa therapist Ellysha, was to let your mind wander while your body releases tension.
Lush and I clearly have a different idea of what “passive” means. Ellysha dug into my major muscle groups with enthusiasm and then twisted and contorted my limbs into positions I haven’t been in since college. It was like having a physical therapy session in a candlelit room that smelled like a Golden Slumbers Bath Bomb.
I tottered home and before my body even fully hit the bed I was out. Eight blissful, uninterrupted hours later, I woke up perky, cheerful, and feeling extra productive. If Ellysha did home visits I would have her on retainer.
The professional treatment aside, I can’t say for sure that any of the products irrefutably made me sleep easier — there were too many external factors to consider. But that’s not to say there was no benefit. I swapped out my regular pillow for the Night Pillow and am — for the most part — sleeping better than I was on my old one. And I’m definitely setting up another appointment with Ellysha for her stretching sorcery.
As Fisher explains, “If you struggle with sleeping, incorporating something that you find calming or enjoyable will help form a habit.” And as we’ve learned, habits are one of the best things for a truly restful and restorative night. So go ahead, douse your fancy pillow with lavender, force your partner to give you a head massage, drink a cup of poo tea, and undergo the occasional alternative stretch session in your PJs. It’s all in the name of a good night’s sleep.