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Do pillow mists have any benefits for sleep?

They smell good and help us relax but could pose some skin woes.

A blue bottle of pillow mist lies next to some lavender on a blue cloth, set on a blue background. Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / Mila Naumova

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Plenty of factors can lead to a restless sleep, whether it be what you ate during the day or what pillow you’re using. And it may seem obvious that the first major step to getting restful slumber is actually falling asleep. But having trouble dozing off can range from an occasional annoyance to a nightly problem. Approximately 50 to 70 million American adults struggle to sleep, according to the American Sleep Association.

This past year, I sought out a few different methods for falling asleep easier. I experimented with following certain exercise routines, listening to rain and white noise sounds, and reducing my blue-light exposure from screens in the evening. But one peculiar method didn’t appear on my radar until recently: pillow mists. These water-based fragrance sprays seem to be an extension of aromatherapy methods. But the more I read and explored various products, I wondered if pillow mist has any actual benefits for falling asleep, or if it's all placebo.

What is pillow mist and what does it claim to do?

A hand sprays a bottle of mist on a white pillow, set on an aqua background.
Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / 12963734

Pillow mist scents both fill the air and make direct contact with your skin.

A pillow mist is basically perfume for your pillow. The spray contains fragrances many associate with relaxation and sleep, the most prominent being lavender. Aromatherapy has a long history across various cultures, and its benefits may include improved sleep, soothed joint and muscle pain, and reduced anxiety and stress. Aromatherapy techniques range from essential oil diffusers​​ to bath bombs. While pillow mist relies on many of the same natural plants and herbs, it’s sprayed directly on pillows before sleep. That means users of pillow mists have both direct physical contact with the mist and breathe it in throughout the night.

But what’s the science behind this? “There are certain chemicals in those plants that actually help trigger our parasympathetic system,” says Dr. Yishan Xu, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and sleep specialist from Mind & Body Garden Psychology Inc, based in Los Altos, California. Stimulating the parasympathetic system restores us to a calm, comfortable state, which opposes the sympathetic system, or the network in our nervous system which activates our fight or flight responses and directs responses to danger, she says. Scents like lavender achieve this by hindering the release of acetylcholine, a chemical connected to our alertness and focus. “By inhibiting this chemical that helps keep us awake, these scents can induce a sedative effect,” Xu says.

What are the cons of pillow mists?

A man wearing a white shirt sleeps on a white bed and pillow, set against an aqua background.
Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / Prostock-Studio

Besides pillow mists, there are other methods to help you relax before bed.

Some pillow mists contain ingredients beyond natural essential oils and scents. It’s best to avoid those mists, especially if you don’t recognize the ingredients. Likewise, some brands have concocted their own blends for pillow mists with unnatural or unusually strong ingredients, which can become a distraction to falling asleep and cause discomfort. Contacting the manufacturer about what’s exactly in their pillow mists is the best way to determine whether or not the mist you’re using has anything in it that you may find objectionable.

It’s also possible that the direct contact with pillow mists can impact skincare and health. “Essential oils can have a lot of benefits, but I’ve found in practice that some of the people who use them [directly on their skin] can develop an irritation,” explains Dr. Freya Meyer, MD, a dermatologist at the Dermatology Institute of Boston.

Given that you apply pillow mists to your pillowcase and then sleep on it all night, this prolonged contact with skin introduces chemicals that may be absorbed and cause problems, especially for people with sensitive skin, Meyer says. And this can occur regardless of the ingredients within the pillow mist. “Some people can use ‘natural’ pillow mists with essential oils and it’s not going to bother them at all. But just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s not going to harm your skin.”

If you still like the scent, a better practice may be to spritz the air in your room before you turn in, or use an essential oil diffuser, like our favorite Airomé Serenity Diffuser, to disperse fragrance without applying it directly to your skin.

What can you use instead of pillow mist to improve sleep?

Similar to other methods that encourage sleep, using pillow mists constantly shouldn’t be considered an absolute solution, says Xu. “All of this is just to facilitate ourselves to relax, but in order to sleep better, we really need to change our mindset.”

What really determines how restful and consistent sleep can become is how intentional you are at setting a nighttime routine. This includes limiting exposure to blue light and technology close to bedtime, as well as making consistent time to relax after work or a busy day. It also may mean revisiting your bedroom environment to ensure that it’s most conducive to sleep. This includes keeping your room dark and quiet and managing room temperature to be comfortably cool.

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