By Chrissie Russell
Ditch the pricey potions and toss out the treatment brochure – it turns out the secret to supple, sexy skin is simple, free and something anyone can do – sleep.
According to new research, the oft-quoted adage of "getting one's beauty sleep" is now backed up by scientific fact.
A sleep study, carried out by investigators at the Skin Study Centre at University Hospitals Case Medical Centre Ohio, tested the skin of 60 women, aged between 30 and 49, 30 of whom had poor quality sleep and 30 of whom slept well over a month.
The results were staggering. The bad sleepers had more fine lines, uneven pigmentation and slacker skin.
They also lost water from their skin 30pc faster, recovered slower from sunburn and were more susceptible to wrinkling.
"Our study is the first to conclusively demonstrate that inadequate sleep is correlated with reduced skin health and accelerated skin ageing," reveals primary investigator Dr Elma Baron.
"While chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to medical problems such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and immune deficiency, its effects on skin function have previously been unknown."
Unproven perhaps, but ever since Sleeping Beauty woke up looking radiant after 100 years of kip, women have long suspected that snoozing might pave the way to looking good.
"It's a fact that if you don't sleep, it shows on your skin," says Aisling Holly, MD of the Hospital Group.
"While you're asleep, the skin renews itself, repairing old cells. A lack of sleep causes the blood vessels to dilate, leading to dark circles under the eyes, sagging skin and bags under the eyes."
Research shows that sleep releases melatonin, a powerful antioxidant which may neutralise free radical damage generated during the day.
"Free radicals are generated as part of our normal metabolism, and are generally not a problem – as the body's antioxidants are able to neutralise them," explains sleep expert Patrick McKeown (buteyko.ie) who runs several clinics helping clients to sleep better.
But he believes that how we sleep could make a big difference to how we look.
Patrick says: "Individuals who sleep with an open mouth and breathe heavily generate a greater number of free radicals, resulting in oxidative stress which has been implicated in ageing and disease."
Rhinitis (a blocked or runny nose) can cause sleep disordered breathing insomnia, snoring and sleep apnoea, with the knock-on effect of waking up tired and stressed, in turn making it harder to sleep.
The vicious circle means that even if you're getting eight hours in bed, it's not the same as getting a restorative night's sleep.
"The quality of sleep is just as important as the quantity," says Patrick. "I suggest practising breathing exercises before bed to ease the body into relaxation 15 minutes before sleep, and sleeping with your mouth closed to ensure nasal breathing during sleep."
Further complicating the matter is the recent news that you may be sleeping with the enemy each time your head hits the pillow.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, bedding down on a pillow the same way night after night, year on year can create sleep lines that permanently etch themselves on to the face.
The problem has prompted one Las Vegas plastic surgeon to co-invent the first JuveRest pillow, created out of panels to support the sleeper's head by cradling it, minimising contact between cheeks and wrinkle-creating fabric.
As if all that information wasn't enough to keep you awake at night, there's also evidence to suggest that when we sleep could make a difference to our war on wrinkles.
Chronobiology, the study of the body clock, suggests that the processes of hydration and stimulation in the skin takes place between 8pm and 11pm, nutrition and regeneration from 11pm to 3am and resting from 3am to 5am.
The breakdown of the nightly renewal process gives credence to the adage that an hour before midnight is worth two after.
But while the evidence shows that too little quality sleep can impact on alertness, productivity, looks and health – the jury is still out on the magic number of hours we ought to be getting each night.
"The general consensus is to aim for seven or eight hours a night, but there's no definitive number, it depends on age and the individual," says Aisling.
"The most important thing is to understand your own body and take responsibility for educating yourself on how best to care for your skin.
"At the Hospital Group, we regenerate and rejuvenate but whilst it's easy to treat the outside of the skin, we promote an ethos of working from the inside out and educating people to evaluate how their lifestyle, diet, skin regime and sleep patterns could be impacting on their skin."
TV presenter Sinéad Desmond (39) often manages with between four and six hours sleep but still looks great. She explains her secret:
"I've never needed much sleep. I know some people love sleeping and could sleep all day, but I've always felt sleep gets in the way of life.
"Usually I aim for six hours a night but sometimes it's four and that's fine – so long as it's good quality sleep.
"I work really hard at getting a good sleep – my bedroom is free from electronic devices, I have blackout blinds, do loads of exercise during the day and light nice candles to wind down.
"If I'm in bed by nine then, fingers crossed, I'm asleep by 10 to 10.30 and up at 4am. But even if I'm out late, I still wake up at the same time.
"As well as getting a good sleep, I work really hard at looking after my skin. I eat well and regularly get facials and mixed light treatments to boost collagen.
"If I didn't look after my skin and diet, I would look 10 years older by the end of next week!"
Dublin beauty Teo Sutra (22), a model with 1st Option Models Management, reckons eight hours a night is essential to keeping her complexion clear and camera ready. She says:
"I only realise how important my sleep is if I miss a few nights of good sleep! It makes a huge difference to my skin.
"If I don't get my sleep, my skin suffers and I'm prone to breakouts, dark circles or blemishes and puffy eyes.
"Generally, I like to get at least eight hours. Depending on what I'm doing, I usually try to get to bed for 10pm, fall asleep by 11pm and up at 10am.
"Once I'm asleep, I don't wake up until my alarm goes off. A good sleep is the only thing that makes me alert and energetic – no amount of coffee can wake me up if I've not had my eight hours!
"When I was younger I would have stayed up later and not worried about it, but doing this job, and the importance of a flawless complexion, I really notice the difference sleep makes to my appearance."