Eye masks, also known as sleep masks, are used primarily as room-darkening sleep aids or therapeutic tension relievers. Users position them for maximum comfort just before falling asleep. Some masks are designed to put a slight pressure on the sleeper's eyes, while others avoid eye contact entirely. Therapeutic masks may contain aromatic herbs such as chamomile or lavender, or special gel packs which are heated or cooled before use.
Intended as sleep aids, eye masks create the effect of total darkness, which fools the brain into converting serotonin (a hormone associated with wakefulness) to melatonin (a sleep-producing hormone). Natural darkness is a known trigger for this phenomenon, so masks duplicate the circumstance of sundown. Creating total darkness can be a very effective sleep aid for those on unusual sleeping cycles, reclining on outdoor hammocks, or traveling on airplanes.
Another common use for eye masks is tension reduction. Headache sufferers often use herbal or cold-pack masks to encourage the muscles around the head and neck to relax. Those prone to sinus headaches and stuffiness may also find heated ones provide effective relief. Herbs such as chamomile, lavender and peppermint have also been shown to create a feeling of well-being.
Not all eye masks are created equal. Consumers should try on various sizes and styles at the store before making any decisions. Some can shift positions if the sleeper prefers to sleep on his or her side or stomach. The mask area should fit snugly but comfortably around the wearer's eyes and nose without pinching or binding. The holding strap should feel comfortable around the head, not digging into the skin or allowing for too much slack.
Retail stores may offer a few eye masks in their health and beauty sections, but outlets that specialize in bed and body products usually have a wider selection. Decide if you need a sleep aid or a stress reducer or perhaps a combination. Some aromatherapy masks also work well as room-darkening sleep aids. These should be tested, as some level of outside light may still come through. Personalized eye masks are also available through mail order, and some models may feature fashionable designs or humorous logos.