Part of our series on getting better sleep.
Melatonin is a naturally-produced hormone that plays a role in falling asleep. In a healthy person, the brain increases production of this hormone at night, signaling that it’s time to snooze.
From an everyday perspective, when you start to feel sleepy in the evening, that’s melatonin at work.
Some habits and lifestyles may result in improper production of melatonin. For example, if your body’s “internal clock” is off, the brain may not produce enough melatonin at night—meaning you won’t feel sleepy.
This can happen to someone who is used to staying up late at night, or even someone who is jet lagged from traveling across time zones.
Many people suffering from poor quality sleep have found that melatonin supplementation can help improve sleep quality.
Sleep disorders are often related to melatonin dysfunction. Research has demonstrated that melatonin supplementation can improve sleep quality in people suffering from insomnia, without any withdrawals.1Prolonged-release melatonin improves sleep quality and morning alertness in insomnia patients aged 55 years and older and has no withdrawal effects.
Even in healthy people, melatonin supplementation can be a great way to get better sleep. One notable study found that melatonin supplementation lead to higher quality sleep and better reflexes and dexterity during the day.3The effect of prolonged-release melatonin on sleep measures and psychomotor performance in elderly patients with insomnia.
It’s also been shown to be safe to take every night up to several years without any known negative effects—even in children.4Evaluation of sleep, puberty and mental health in children with long-term melatonin treatment for chronic idiopathic childhood sleep onset insomnia.
As a supplement, melatonin is quite safe, and appears to be an excellent option for people suffering from poor sleep quality. The question that many have, though, is what kind of melatonin supplement is best. It’s easy to find various melatonin tablets, sprays, drops, and creams, but it’s tough to know which will work most effectively.
This guide will lay out all the pros and cons of each type of supplement to help you get deeper sleep.
First, some of the basics of melatonin supplementation.
At a glance, dosage of melatonin supplements may seem confusing. Perusing over-the-counter options, you may find single doses varying from 0.5 mg to 20 mg. Are there reasons you might want to pick an option that’s up to 40 times weaker or stronger than another?
Let’s see what the research has to say.
A study involving over 300 jet-lagged travelers measured the effects of 0.5-mg, 2-mg, and 5-mg oral doses of melatonin compared to a control group.5Comparative Study to Determine the Optimal Melatonin Dosage form for the Alleviation of Jet Lag They found that although sleep quality was technically higher among those who took 5 mg of melatonin, those who took only 0.5 mg subjectively felt almost as good.
That is, there was little difference in levels or fatigue and sleepiness between the group that took 5 mg and the group that only took 0.5 mg.
Another study on the sleep quality of individuals with noncancerous tumors found no difference between the effects of a 5-mg and 10-mg oral dose of melatonin.6Effect of Melatonin Dosage on Sleep Disorder in Tuberous Sclerosis Complex These studies and others indicate that bumping up the dosage of melatonin can have little to no effect beyond a certain point.
Simply put, taking more than 5 mg of melatonin appears to be a waste.
Why the Waste?
Most research on the effects of melatonin supplementation opt for the use of oral tablets instead of sprays or drops. However, when someone ingests a tablet containing, say, 2 mg of melatonin, not all of the supplement ends up usable by the body. In fact, the body ends up with much less than 2 mg.
The body seems to absorb so little melatonin because of something called the first pass effect.
The First Pass Effect
When taking certain supplements, the body metabolizes (or breaks down) most of the substance before it gets “used”—or has its intended effect. Melatonin is one such supplement.
When someone takes a melatonin tablet, up to 90% of the supplement ends up metabolized by the first pass effect. This means that a minimum of only 10% of ingested melatonin actually ends up having an effect on sleep-related functions.
For example, one study found that ingesting oral tablets of 2 mg and 4 mg of melatonin resulted in only 15% bioavailability.7The Absolute Bioavailability of Oral Melatonin In plain English, that means that 85% of the melatonin was broken down before it had much of an effect. It’s like scrambling a dozen eggs and throwing away ten of them.
You might be wondering if you can just take more melatonin to offset the first pass effect, but it’s not that simple.
More Isn’t Always More
Regardless of the first pass effect, it’s best to take into account the minimum effective dosage of any supplement, including melatonin. This is the point past which the body doesn’t really respond much differently.
For oral melatonin tablets, that seems to fall in the 0.5 mg to 5 mg range. Current research hasn’t shown a significant difference in sleep quality past that.
It’s best practice to start with the lowest dose possible and work your way up. You might want to try 0.5 mg for a few nights, then bump up the dosage by 0.5 mg every few nights as needed. Once you’re sleeping soundly, you’ve likely found your ideal dosage.
If you don’t experience a change in sleep quality by the time you get up to 5 mg, it’s advisable not to keep increasing your dosage. As mentioned several times, there is little to no research to suggest anything beyond 5 mg is more effective.
Bear in mind that the effective dosage of melatonin can change based on the source. For example, oral melatonin sprays have a much higher level of bioavailability, meaning much less of gets broken down before use. Because of that, a spray with as little as 1 mg of melatonin per spritz will likely have a stronger effect than an oral tablet with, say, 3 mg of melatonin.
Side Effects? Risk of Overdose?
As mentioned above, when supplemented at a recommended dosage, no observable side effects have been noted in melatonin research. When pushing toward more extreme doses such as 15 mg, 20 mg, or more, some of the following side effects might occur:
- Difficulty waking up
- Daytime sleepiness or grogginess
There have been no reported cases of serious injury, illness, or death related to melatonin overdose. That doesn’t mean you should abuse it, though. The side effects listed above can be pretty unpleasant.
As with any other dietary supplement or medication, melatonin should be treated with respect. It has a great track record of helping with deeper sleep, but it’s no cure-all.
If you have any interest in supplementing with melatonin, you should do your best to educate yourself as to its effects and proper dosage.
Current research has not discovered any negative withdrawal effects after stopping melatonin supplementation. This has been observed even in long-term use lasting up to several months or years.
Some individuals have reported some minor withdrawals after cutting off a particularly heavy dosage regimen. These withdrawal symptoms are typically limited to decreased sleep quality and/or difficulty falling asleep.
Any potential withdrawal symptoms can be avoided by simply staying within a recommended dosage range.
Types of Melatonin Supplements and Products
Here’s a breakdown on the most common types of melatonin supplements and products. We’ll take a look primarily at tablets, sprays, and creams.
Oral Melatonin Tablets
Tablets are the most common type melatonin supplement. They’re easy to store, easy to take, and easy to cut into smaller portions as needed.
On top of that, they tend to be the most inexpensive option per milligram of melatonin.
Most melatonin tablets are designed to be absorbed as quickly as possible. There are some options, however, designed for extended release.
If you have trouble initially falling asleep, the plain-old fast-absorption option may work best. On the other hand, if you have trouble staying asleep, you may consider trying an extended-release melatonin supplement.
Melatonin Tablets: Usage
Most melatonin tablets are supposed to sit under the tongue until completely dissolved. This is largely because the tissue underneath the tongue is very absorptive.
If you don’t like feeling like an oyster, there are swallowable and chewable options as well.
Under-the-tongue options are typically taken 20-40 minutes before bedtime. Since chewable tablets are absorbed a little more slowly, they can be taken up to 60 minutes before bedtime. Refer to the label of your preferred melatonin supplement for recommendations.
As mentioned above, the recommended dosage for melatonin tablets usually falls between 0.5 mg to 5 mg. It’s best practice to start low and slowly work your way up until you notice a difference in sleep quality. Since research has shown no benefit past 5 mg, it’s likely wise not to exceed that.
Melatonin Tablets: Pros and Cons
Tablets are a good option for someone wanting to try melatonin supplements. They tend to be pretty inexpensive and, as mentioned above, have been shown in research to be quite safe. They really don’t have much of a downside.
However, for someone wanting a really fast-acting option, melatonin sprays might be a good choice.
Oral Melatonin Sprays
Oral melatonin sprays have been growing in popularity, but they’re more than just a fad. In fact, these sleepy spritzers may be preferable to tablets for many people.
The biggest reason is that sprays are a bit faster-acting and more effective than tablets. Let’s look at why this is.
First off, melatonin sprays are absorbed much more readily than tablets. One study found that melatonin absorption from an oral spray was nearly double that of tablets.8Bioavailability of a New Oral Spray Melatonin Emulsion Compared with a Standard Oral Formulation in Healthy Volunteers This is largely because melatonin tablets absorbed in the mouth are subject to the first pass effect, discussed above. That means that up to 90% of melatonin absorbed this way is metabolized by the liver before it can affect the body.
In other words, for tablets, moist of the melatonin gets broken down before it gets a chance to make you feel sleepy.
Oral melatonin sprays, on the other hand, aren’t subject to this effect. They’re absorbed by a type of tissue in the mouth (mucous membrane) that can sponge up the hormone much more quickly.
Because of this, melatonin sprays tend to work faster and have a stronger effect than tablets.
Melatonin Sprays: Usage
Like other oral melatonin supplements, it’s usually most effective to take melatonin sprays 20-40 minutes before bedtime. Most manufacturers will recommend applying one spritz to the mouth and letting it sit.
You might be advised to drink some water after 30 seconds or so, but this is up to preference. The vast majority of the absorption of the supplement occurs in tissue in the mouth, not from swallowing it.
Although one spritz will typically do the trick, some people may prefer more. Most sprays contain 1-3 mg of melatonin per spritz, so make sure to check the label and do your research to decide how much is right for you.
For most people, taking more than 1-3 mg of melatonin in a spray form is not necessary. These dosages have been shown to improve sleep quality and total sleep time, as discussed above.
Melatonin Sprays: Pros and Cons
One of the disadvantages of oral melatonin sprays is that they tend to be a little more expensive than tablets. Although they won’t break the bank, someone looking for the best bang for their buck might opt for tablets. Someone wanting the quickest, most effective form of melatonin might lean toward sprays.
Oral melatonin drops and sprays are practically identical in function. The only major difference between the two options is the use of a spray nozzle versus a dropper. Some people might find one application preferable to the other.
If you’ve skipped straight down to this section of the guide and want more info on oral melatonin drops, read the section on melatonin sprays just above. Practically everything said of oral sprays in that section is applicable to oral drops as well.
Melatonin creams are another popular option for deeper sleep. Applying any cream before bed can be a soothing ritual, often helping to relax before sleep. Throw some melatonin in the mix and you might just have the perfect sleep aid.
But first, let’s see what research has to say about melatonin creams.
Although often taken orally, research has shown that melatonin can be absorbed through the skin fairly effectively.9Percutaneous Penetration of Topically Applied Melatonin in a Cream and an Alcoholic Solution10Formulation of Melatonin as a Cream and Studying the Release, Diffusion, and Stability of the Cream This process just occurs at a slower rate.
That doesn’t mean it’s not effective for deeper sleep, but it might take a little longer than sprays or tablets would.
An advantage melatonin creams have over sprays and tablets is that they can help soothe the skin.
One study showed that melatonin cream significantly improved sunburn when compared to a placebo cream without any melatonin.11Dose dependent sun protective effect of topical melatonin: A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study Another study found that a cream containing melatonin applied to irritated skin resulted in enhanced healing and anti-inflammation.
Melatonin creams are clearly useful for more than just deeper sleep. Some people like to use these creams for their skin-soothing properties alone.
If you want to use some during the daytime, though, you actually shouldn’t have to worry about drowsiness. One notable study found that applying melatonin cream to the whole body didn’t have any negative impact on cognitive function.12Effect of topical application of melatonin cream 12.5% on cognitive parameters: A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind crossover study in healthy volunteers In plain English, it didn’t seem to make the subjects drowsy during the day.
Melatonin Creams: Usage
Using melatonin creams is simple. Just gently apply the cream to the neck, shoulders, hands, feet, or mostly anywhere external. If you have irritated skin, you may consider applying the cream to the affected area.
In melatonin creams, the concentration can vary. Some products feature pumps that conveniently measure a specific dosage of melatonin. Make sure to read the label of any melatonin cream to understand its dosage and concentration.
For oral melatonin tablet supplements, 0.5 mg to 5 mg approximately 20-40 minutes before bed is recommended. Since melatonin in cream is absorbed more slowly, applying a similar dosage 30 to 60 minutes before bed might be more effective.
It goes without saying, but melatonin creams are for topical, external use only. Don’t try eating any or applying it internally. If you want an oral melatonin supplement, consider melatonin tablets, sprays, or drops.
Melatonin Creams: Pros and Cons
The main disadvantage of melatonin cream compared to oral supplements is its delayed release.
If you tend to have trouble falling asleep, you may consider applying the cream earlier in the evening. If that doesn’t seem to work either, you may want to consider the use of oral melatonin supplements instead.
However, if you have trouble staying asleep, melatonin creams might have an advantage over oral supplements. Since the melatonin in creams is absorbed over a longer period, it may be more effective in sustaining sleep.
Most tablets and sprays are absorbed fairly quickly, meaning the melatonin is “used up” more quickly. Extended release melatonin tablets, however, are another good option for slower absorption.
Melatonin powder isn’t as popular as tablets, sprays, or creams, but it’s another potent option.
For more information, you can read our melatonin powder quick guide.