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Is This Night Cream Causing Night Terrors?

Reviewers of Dr. Brandt's Do Not Age Dream Night Cream have reported a strange side effect

Skin care nightmares — we’ve all had them. Whether it’s breakouts, sunburns, ashiness, wrinkles, sometimes is can feel like our skin is trying to terrorize us.

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There’s an entire industry of products made to help us avoid these nightmares. But what if there were something in our quest for dreamy skin that caused us to have literal night terrors?

Users say they’ve experienced bizarre and vivid dreams that coincided with their usage of the product.

There’s at least one product on the market that allegedly does just that. The product is Dr. Brandt’s Do Not Age Dream Night Cream, and if you read the reviews on the product’s Sephora page, you’ll find that nine of the 19 users who have written reviews of the product say they’ve experienced bizarre and vivid dreams that coincided with their usage of the product.

It goes without saying that anonymous online reviews should always be taken with a hefty grain of salt, but this specific case is so random and absurd it makes you wonder: should we believe that a night cream could actually affect what goes on in our brains as we sleep?

My skin felt better and looked better after using consistently for 10 days. However, some ingredient in his gave me strange and vivid dreams. The dreams stopped as soon as I discontinued using this product. Absolutely befuddling.

When using this, I have very intense, vivid dreams and I wake up remembering the entire thing. Luckily for the most part they were good and not nightmares, but still, not worth the risk. Can't recommend.

I had the most amazingly vivid dream that actually affected my mood all day long. I even told a few people about it (it was that good). Then, I had similar experiences the following two nights ... This morning, I woke up feeling very shaken. I had another dream, but this one was very upsetting. Wow, I don't know what to say. It makes me feel crazy to write this. But it is 100% true.

It seems too mundane to be a conspiracy. It’s hard to believe multiple commenters would conspire simply to promote a lie about a random moisturizer. Plus, the various dream-related reviews aren’t even all negative. Though some users say they stopped using the product because of how it affected their slumber, others say they aren’t bothered by the phenomenon, and that it’s worth it for the product’s topical effects.

So what the hell is going on here?

It’s called "Dream" Night Cream, but other than that the product’s description doesn’t hint at any kind of side effects. When I reached out to Dr. Brandt and asked if they were privy to the nightmarish allegations, a representative gave me the following statement:

"At Dr. Brandt skincare, we take our scientific claims very seriously. Each product in our line undergoes extensive clinical tests before being released to market. During the testing phase, Do Not Age with Dr. Brandt™ Dream Night Cream was used by consumers once a day for 28 days, during the nighttime and no concerns or side effects were reported. Following this inquiry, we have looked into the product again, consulting with our ingredient manufacturer to investigate the claim’s validity. We have found no scientific backing for this claim."

The ingredients in cosmetics are actually, for the most part, unregulated by the FDA.

Theirs is hardly a satisfying answer, and it’s worth noting that, despite the trials mentioned by Dr. Brandt, the ingredients in cosmetics are actually, for the most part, unregulated by the FDA. That means that though the company’s ingredient manufacturer has, as they claim, found no such side effects, many of the specific ingredients used in Dr. Brandt and other night creams have had little scientific research done about them or their potential side effects. For that reason, the Dr. Brandt statement doesn’t adequately invalidate reviewers’ claims.

So we had to take this investigation to the people. By coincidence, I discovered a friend, beauty editor Sam Escobar, has been using Dream Night Cream for the past two months. I explained my findings to them, and they were stunned. As they explained to me, they actually have been having a lot of bizarre dreams lately.

Sam told me they are actually already prone to intense and vivid dreams, but that they had been sleeping normally for the past couple of years, until recently. Though their belief is that it’s probably "a case of coincidence rather than correlation or causation," they admit the timing is uncanny.

But could such a "coincidence" described by Sam really apply to 10 different people using the same night cream? That level of correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it certainly opens up the possibility.

It turns out there are a couple of ingredients that could provide a possible explanation.

In spite of Dr. Brandt’s dismissiveness, it turns out there are a couple of ingredients that could provide a possible explanation. First there’s the lavender oil, which gives Dream Night Cream the "calming" scent described by certain reviewers.

Lavender is said not only to be a relaxing smell, but some online sources say it can be used to induce lucid dreaming. I spoke with Libby Hobday, a certified aromatherapist and founder of Brooklyn-based botanical and organic wellness line Wythe and Berry Apothecary, about the uses of lavender. She explained to me that she has "never heard of lavender essential oil giving people vivid dreams," though she uses it frequently to help calm her five-year-old son when he is upset, and as a sleep aid. "It really puts both of us to sleep at night, and I carry a bottle around in my handbag at all times."

Yet she also told me that even authentic essential oils affect different people differently. In light of my investigation, she surveyed 16 users of lavender oil and found that six of them have experienced vivid dreams that they believed were tied to their use of ingredient. This mini focus group, of course, couldn’t account for the power of suggestion. She added some insights that could help explain why:

She surveyed 16 users of lavender oil and found that six of them have experienced vivid dreams.

"Lavandula angustifolia is rich in the ester linalyl acetate and the sedative alcohol, linalol. The general therapeutic actions of esters are anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, soothing to dermal inflammation," she told me, explaining that in terms of lavender causing more vivid dreams, "Esters have a direct effect on the central nervous system (CNS) being relaxing and balancing. Esters also release muscular and nervous tension. Both of these can help with sleep. There have been many scientific studies on linalol, which is a monoterpene alcohol, specifically, confirming its potent effects on the CNS, including being a sedative, as well as showing antidepressant actions."

That explanation sounds convincing: if the ingredient is affecting your central nervous system, it seems logical that it could be affecting how you sleep. Yet, looking through other products that contain Lavandula angustifolia on Sephora, including a face treatment oil and a toner, you won’t find any reviews that mention dreams (though many reviewers call these products "calming.")

I spoke with cognitive neuroscientist and sleep scientist Dr. Rebecca Spencer, and she told me that lavender is an unlikely culprit, because lavender is "linked to calming effects." She explains that this tie is not only psychological, "but something that can been seen in the sleep EEG (measure of how rich the sleep is)." That is, lavender is more frequently associated with good sleep.

Lavender is more frequently associated with good sleep.

She pointed out another ingredient, though that’s more likely to affect dreams negatively: Citrus Aurantis Bergamia. Bergamot is like grapefruit, she explained to me, in that it’s a sour citrus fruit.

"It’s possible that bergamot, like grapefruit, interacts with other drugs that the person is taking or exposed to. It generally increases side effects of a drug. So, grapefruit juice with cough suppressants can cause hallucinations and nightmares are basically sleep-based hallucinations, so this is certainly one possibility," she explained.

Dr. Spencer told me, though, that she’s doubtful that such effects could be strong enough with a topical cream, "but it’s possible that enough gets through or [that it could get in through] the eyes/mouth."

Humans actually still have much to learn about what causes dreams, and what leads to nights of more intense and frightening experiences during REM. A few factors that have been shown to affect dreams are smell, as well as stress (which perhaps could be explained by the stress one might feel after spending $135 on a night cream).

A few factors that have been shown to affect dreams are smell, as well as stress.

When I asked Dr. Spencer about the possibility that these dreams could be stress-induced, she confirmed that "It could be that people apt to worry about their skin aging are a bit higher on the stress/anxiety scale" and that "when you’re anxious about your skin aging, your general heightened state of anxiety that drove you to choose a cream to fix it could be the same heightened state of anxiety that brought on nightmares." In other words, night cream use and nightmares could each be, as she put it, "independent ‘symptoms’ of anxiety."

There could be yet another psychological element at play. It’s likely many users read the reviews of Dream Night Cream before purchasing — a 2014 study showed that 88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. It’s possible one user’s description of their dreams led the other nine reviewers to think more about their own on the days they used the cream. It could also be that the product’s name "Dream" night cream subconsciously registered in the users’ brains.

As Dr. Spencer put it, "In order to remember dreams, you have to attempt to recall dreams right away. Having a reason to be interested in your dream content (because you read the review or [because of] the name), may make you more likely to recall the dream and ‘read into’ it’s negative content and call it a nightmare."

So is this night cream really giving its users night terrors? There are many possible answers. It’s still possible that the dreams are being caused by bergamote or an undiscovered side effect of one of the cream’s many chemical ingredients. It’s possible it’s all in the head of the users who wrote those reviews. It could even be the world’s most petty conspiracy.

Either way, the reviews won’t deter me from buying the cream myself. After all, real nightmares aren’t half as bad as skin care terrors, right?

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