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It’s the cardinal rule of beauty, but how bad is it really? We investigate. 

By Hana Hong
Updated April 16, 2020
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It’s a situation that happens way more often than it should. You finish an especially draining day, collapse on your comfy bed, and realize you still have to wash your face. But sleep is already starting to sink in, the bed is beckoning, and washing your face is the last thing you want to do. Sound familiar?

You don't need a degree in dermatology to deduce that going to bed with your makeup on is a bad idea. You’ve probably already realized that it’s not good for your sheets (evident by the foundation stains and glitter flecks all over your pillow), but just how big of a skincare sin is it?

As a daily foundation wearer, I’m also guilty of zonking out with a face full of makeup, so I tapped Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, and Loretta Ciraldo MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Miami, Fla., to give the 4-1-1 on what makeup-filled slumber is actually doing to our complexions. 

Point blank, it’s some scary stuff. Here’s the obvious one: With all that makeup sitting on your face, your pores can’t breathe and are bound to get clogged. You've probably woken up to a breakout (or a few) after passing out, and that's no coincidence. "Makeup physically blocks the pores, preventing oil from leaving the skin and leading to breakouts," says Dr. Zeichner.

And that’s not all—makeup traps pollutants inside the skin, and this type of environmental stress can result in increased free radicals that cause skin inflammation, redness, and irritation. Chronic inflammation can contribute to premature aging, including increased pigment production and collagen degradation, says Dr. Zeichner.

It’s an even bigger problem if you regularly hit the sheets with a ton of products on, or if you have sensitive skin. “Most makeup has artificial colors and fragrances, and when these stay on overnight, it can cause an allergic reaction or irritant contact dermatitis on sensitive skin,” says Dr. Ciraldo. 

woman sleeping with makeup on
Credit: Getty Images

But what about just one night? Will it still wreak havoc?

The good news is that unless your skin is genetically sensitive, both experts agree that one night isn’t going to spur skin armageddon. “I do think every once in a while, say once a month, can't do too much harm. And don't stress out if this happens sometimes since stress can also upset your skin with breakouts and sensitivity,” says Dr. Ciraldo. In other words, slipping up once or twice isn’t a reason to worry.

However, Dr. Ciraldo recommends at least removing your eye makeup (even with a wipe) if you’re really tired. “Since our eye skin is thinner than tissue paper and represents the thinnest skin on the face, you've got to prioritize getting your mascara and other eye makeup off. This skin is prone to infection and irritation, and the most likely to be damaged by sleeping in your makeup (even for one night).”

Dr. Zeichner adds, “Sleeping in eye makeup may increase your risk of developing a stye (blocked oil gland in the eyelid). You also run the risk of developing eyelid dermatitis, or irritation from mascara rubbing against the eyelids while you sleep. Worse case scenario, makeup gets into the eye itself, which can lead to conjunctivitis.” 

So what can you do to get yourself to the sink every night? The easiest way to become a faithful face-washer is to really commit to a nighttime skincare routine. This doesn’t mean you need to spend upwards of 30 minutes a night with a multi-products system, but cleansing your face and applying a solid moisturizer can go a long way in promoting the quicker rates of cellular regeneration that happen during sleep. If you know you’re getting in late, Dr. Ciraldo also recommends not waiting until bedtime to wash your makeup off. Instead, try doing it right after dinner before you're too tired.

Per Dr. Zeichner’s wise words, the key takeaway is this: “Just because makeup is labeled as longwear doesn’t mean that it should sit on the skin for extended periods of time.” Don’t take the marketing claims of 24/7 staying power too literally.