After 22 hours of research, including interviewing four sleep specialists and testing 13 different sets of blackout curtains, we recommend the Sebastian Insulated Total Blackout Window Curtains. They blocked out the most light in our tests and when properly installed they should create a cave-dark sleeping environment—day or night—which experts told us is optimal for the best sleep. The curtains (available in six colors) are a tad shiny, but they’re more attractive than many of the industrial-looking ones we saw. They do exactly what they’re supposed to—and for a better price than others we considered.
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If the Sebastian panels sell out, we’d get the Emery Insulated Total Blackout Window Curtains. They block light almost as well as our main pick (they have the exact same blackout lining), and they’re priced the same. We downgraded them just slightly because the curtain fabric is a heavier, woven material that doesn’t look quite as nice as our main pick’s.
If you’re looking for a higher-quality curtain, and you don’t mind sacrificing total blackout, we recommend upgrading to any of West Elm’s curtain options available with their blackout lining (we tested their Linen Cotton Curtains). They’re well made, come in a wider range of colors and patterns than other curtains we considered, and they block most light out at night. (Holiday laser projector lights pointed directly at the curtains at night were the only lights that came through in our tester’s suburban home.) During the day, the sun will come in. These might be a better choice if you want to darken a room for kids that nap during the day. Our experts said kids should probably only sleep in total darkness at night. For more fabric options visit westelm.com.
IKEA’s Marjun Curtains are a solid choice if you’re on a budget. A 98-inch-long pair of panels will set you back around $50 (our other picks are sold by the panel). Though they aren’t complete-blackout curtains, they come pretty close (and they block out more light than the West Elm curtains do). A very tightly woven fabric helps these unlined curtains keep most light out. The downside is they come in only gray or brown, with a color-block stripe across the bottom.
We spoke with several sleep experts to get a full picture of why blackout curtains are beneficial, and to find out if there are any downsides to sleeping (and waking up) in total darkness. Michael Perlis, PhD, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at University of Pennsylvania, helped us understand our reactions to light and noise as we fall asleep at night. Jerome Siegel, PhD, director of the Siegel Lab at UCLA’s Center for Sleep Research, shared his insights on waking up in darkness and sleep issues that affect shift workers. Jodi Mindell, PhD, professor of psychology at Saint Joseph’s University and author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep, weighed in on how dark a room should be for sleeping and daytime-napping children. And Rachel Manber, PhD, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at Stanford University Medical Center, gave us her thoughts on light and dark sleep conditions for children and adults.
We also spoke to Berek Awend, a sales manager at Blackoutcurtains.com who previously owned his own blinds store, to find out how to measure for and install blackout curtains to get the best coverage. And we read blackout curtain reviews and store recommendations from sources including Apartment Therapy, Real Simple, and Sleep Like the Dead.
Just before starting this guide I purchased blackout curtains for my own bedroom. I have a decade of sewing experience, and my quilt work has been published in Generation Q magazine and for Cloud9 Fabrics (PDF). I pay close attention to textile construction and quality.
If you live anywhere where outdoor lights interrupt your sleep, you may rest better using blackout curtains (which also block out all light during the day) or room-darkening curtains (which will block out almost all light for nighttime sleep but not during the day). Room-darkening or blackout curtains (or, alternatively, blackout shades) were recommended by all of our sleep experts. Their professional consensus was that we should be sleeping in a dark room at night, eliminating light from outside street lamps, passing cars, or any other distractions that could affect the quality of our sleep.
As UPenn’s Perlis told us, some people continue to process sound and light as they fall asleep, and sometimes even during sleep. “As a result, they may experience trouble falling or staying asleep,” he said. “So attenuating such things helps. Sadly, as most of us age, the probability of such “sensory processing” increases. So more of us, as we get older, may want to use things that attenuate or mask light and sound,” he said, like blackout curtains or white noise machines. “Blackout drapes are a wonderful idea.” (We also interviewed Perlis for our guide to white noise machines.)
Some people also use blackout curtains to block outdoor light for a home theater. The curtains we cover here will work for that purpose, but our focus in this guide is on curtains for improving sleep.
Most people who primarily sleep at night will be fine using either blackout or room-darkening curtains. There are exceptions, though. You may be better off with true blackout curtains if you are particularly sensitive to light or if you sleep primarily during the day (such as for shift workers). Darkening curtains will likely be better if you want to darken a room during the day for napping children. We cover these exceptions in more depth here.
We wanted to find curtains that were affordable and easy to find, so we focused on blackout and room-darkening curtains sold at big-box stores and online retailers like Amazon. You can purchase custom-made curtains, but these are probably too expensive for most people (we looked at a few that started around $500 per panel for the same length we tested). Originally, we also looked at blackout shades, but there were so many options we decided it would be better to cover those in a separate, future guide.
We generally found two types of blackout curtains. Some come with two layers—a curtain fabric and a separate liner—and others are made of a single layer of fabric, often with a coating on the back side. The single-layer curtains tend to be heavier woven fabrics, which can be limiting from a design perspective. The cheap to mid-priced curtains we found ($60 and under for a panel), were usually made of polyester. We found curtains in a wider range of fabrics (including cotton and linen) at higher prices.
Some curtain brands, like Eclipse, advertise different levels of opacity for curtains, ranging from light filtering (which Eclipse describes as “better than a bare window”) to true blackout curtains claiming to block out 98 to 99.9 percent of the light in a room, if installed correctly. Room-darkening curtains fall in the middle. They darken enough to make many people comfortable at night, but when the sun comes up you’ll probably see the full shape of your window through the curtains (you may also see light from bright streetlamps at night).
Many manufacturers advertise their blackout curtains as helping to insulate drafty windows and to reduce noise from outside. We didn’t focus on these factors and didn’t test for them. If your windows are letting in a lot of cold air or noise, curtains will only marginally help. If you can’t replace your windows, our picks may help a little but you should probably also weatherstrip your windows and/or use some other temporary solutions.
From our research, we figured that most people shopping for this purchase want true blackout curtains. We found that many brands who advertised their curtains as “blackout curtains” had user reviews claiming they were anything but. The only way we could be sure if the claims were true was to bring in several for testing.
Sleep Like the Dead had a blackout curtain review that we used to help narrow our choices. We also used articles from Real Simple and Apartment Therapy, which broadly recommended brands that sell quality curtains, both blackout and non-blackout. Then we looked at the blackout options of stores on those lists—IKEA and Bed Bath & Beyond, specifically. We also checked popular mass retailers to see what blackout options they had, including JCPenney, Target, Kohl’s, Walmart, Pottery Barn, and West Elm.
We looked at several higher-end brands for blackout curtains, including Anthropologie (which had none) and Restoration Hardware, which lets you customize fabric, lining, and length. But these were very expensive. For a curtain configured similarly to what you’d buy at West Elm for $109 or Pottery Barn for $159, a Restoration Hardware panel cost around $870. We ran into similar issues with made-to-order drapery companies, which are significantly more expensive and often don’t have user reviews. We opted not to test these options and to stick with more widely available curtains.
We compiled a list of 35 blackout curtains that came in a variety of solid colors. They could have texture, but no patterns. Then we combed the user reviews available from those 35 curtain models to narrow the list further. Some mass retailers had no user reviews for specific curtains at all, like some of the Eclipse models, but we decided to test those anyway because it was a brand sold in so many different places. We ended up with a list of 13 curtains that we called in for testing.
Of the 13 sets we tested, 10 were white, cream, or beige. The two remaining sets we could only get in darker colors.
We wanted to test these in an environment where we could completely control and manipulate the lighting to get the same setup for each curtain, so we used a photography studio to test how much light penetrated each curtain panel. We set up a 40-inch silver-lined softbox with the diffusers removed (no shield in front of the bulb) and used a 320WS studio strobe at full power, remote triggered from the camera, to flash an intense burst of light into the back of the curtain fabric while we took a picture from the front. We hung the curtains and positioned them pressed directly against the softbox to focus all the light into the cloth and prevent spill. Then, we used a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR camera with a 50mm lens to photograph the panels. We used very light-sensitive settings specifically to try to capture any light that might come through even the best panels. The resulting photographic tests meant the blacker the photograph, the better the curtain was at blocking light.
With this testing method, only three of the 13 curtains we tested proved to be true total-blackout curtains, with a couple of others coming very close. The remaining curtains let in varying degrees of light, from slight highlights around the curtain to letting in the full force of the bulb’s beam.
If you want complete light-blocking curtains, we think the Sebastian Insulated Total Blackout Window Curtain Panels are the best. These were among the most effective curtains at keeping light from coming through. Although they’re not the most beautiful curtains we considered, they look nicer than other moderately priced ones we tried. They come in a more generous width than other curtains (which will help block out more light) and in a good range of widths. They’re also affordable, in case you need to dress multiple windows.
In our photographic testing, the Sebastian curtains were only one of three curtain panels that blocked light so completely that we were left with a pitch-black photograph (the other two were the Emery Insulated Total Blackout Window Curtain Panel, and the Best Home Fashion Thermal Insulated Blackout Curtain). We tested a beige set of the Sebastian curtains, the lightest color offered, and the darker colors should block out light equally well.
The Sebastian curtains’ fabric itself is fairly opaque, but the real light blocker is the lining. It’s a separate, heavy, thick layer of tightly woven polyester. The window-facing side of the lining is white, and the curtain-facing side is black. The combination of these materials made for a curtain panel that blocked 100 percent of the light, as advertised on the packaging, but still draped well and that would look nice in a bedroom. Several user reviews noted that these curtains were also great in home theaters because of their complete light blocking.
Of the curtains that totally blocked out light, we think the Sebastian panel is the best looking, with a Dupioni-style, 100 percent polyester fabric that comes in six neutral colors and has a sheen to it. It’s more of a matte sheen than a glossy shine. None of the curtains we tested that completely blacked out the light have a matte finish. Some of the other curtains we tried looked nicer—such as those from West Elm and Pottery Barn—but they didn’t block out nearly as much light.
We like that the Sebastian panels have a generous 50-inch width to help you get maximum coverage around your window frames. This is wider than the West Elm curtains, which are 48 inches wide per panel, and wider than some of the other similarly priced panels we tested (the Eclipse Canova, for example, are only 42 inches wide). That extra width is helpful for getting full coverage around the outside of your window.
The panels come in four fairly standard lengths (63-, 84-, 95-, and 108-inch versions), comparable to the number of length options offered by West Elm, Pottery Barn, Eclipse, and Best Home Fashion. We think the Sebastian curtains would also hem more easily and neatly than the stiffer Emery panels or the flimsier Eclipse Samara and Fresno panels.
Prices for the Sebastian curtains range from around $35 for a 63-inch-long panel to around $60 for a 108-inch-long panel at Bed Bath & Beyond, which is mid-range in price for the curtains we tested. You’ll generally need to purchase two for each window, so that will equal roughly $70 to $120 per treatment. That’s not cheap, but much more affordable than the $160 to $520 for two West Elm panels.
The Emery Insulated Total Blackout Window Curtain Panels were a close second. They have the same lining as our top pick, and the price is the same. The real difference is the look and feel of the curtains themselves, and the fact that a very, very slight amount of light came through the photographs in our testing.
The Emery curtains have a basket-weave pattern that’s a little heavier and a little less versatile around the house than the Sebastian. The curtain fabric also has a more open weave, which may be why the Emery let in a trace of light. Both the Sebastian and Emery curtains are polyester, and both have a sheen, but we think that the Sebastian curtains look and feel more luxe than the Emery.
These curtains did a fantastic job of eliminating light in our photographic tests—nearly identical to our top pick. There was just the faintest trace of the curtains’ shape coming through in photographs. We also tested a beige set of this design.
The Emery panels come in the same four lengths and 50-inch width as the Sebastian panels, and they’re the same price. But the Emery’s six color choices are a little different from those of the Sebastian curtains.
If you can’t find the Sebastian curtains, and you want near-total darkness from your blackout curtains, the Emery is a great alternative.
Though many of us shopping for blackout curtains might want our bedrooms to feel like the Batcave, not everyone is looking for such complete darkness, especially during the day. And for some sleepers, the quality of the curtains themselves may be a bigger factor than how dark they make a room. If you want well-made, attractive curtains that will keep your room pretty dark at night but allow light in during the day, we recommend any West Elm curtains that offer the blackout lining. We tested the West Elm Linen Cotton curtains with the optional blackout lining. For more fabric options visit westelm.com.
West Elm has several styles and colors available with that lining as an extra, which makes it even easier to find curtains that are gorgeous and have the added bonus of being room-darkening. They also have several styles that are available as double-width curtains (still with a blackout lining), which helps tremendously for harder-to-cover double windows.
The West Elm set we tested was one I purchased for my own bedroom just before starting this guide. My husband and I have used them very comfortably to make a pretty-dark room at night. It’s a huge improvement over our last set of simple cotton-lined curtains, and we’re sleeping much better than we were previously.
Compared with our top pick, the Sebastian curtains, the West Elm blackout curtains had the opposite result in our photo testing. The white curtains we tested produced a bright white photograph, meaning plenty of direct light can shine directly through them. Not ideal for a blackout curtain, but because these were actually my own new bedroom curtains I knew that they make our bedroom significantly darker than our previous curtains, which had a regular cotton lining. I have the stubbed toes to prove it.
We live on a quiet suburban street with no street lights, just pesky outside lights from our neighbors’ homes. But during the holidays especially, with our old curtains our own Christmas lights could light up the bedroom so brightly that it was hard to sleep at night. With these curtains, we didn’t have quite the same problem this year. We added a projector that throws moving snowflakes onto the front of the house … and right into our bedroom window. We could see a dim outline of the moving snowflakes at night, but it was still much, much darker overall than with our old cotton-lined Dupioni curtains. They make a fairly dark room during the day, too, but not so dark that you can’t find your shoes in the morning.
The West Elm curtains also have a polyester lining, but it’s thinner and less heavy duty than that of the Sebastian curtains. We were surprised that the lining didn’t help to block more light in testing. Some of the curtains we tested, such as those from IKEA and Walmart, had no lining at all and still blocked more light. But, they were all made of single layers of thick polyester that didn’t look nearly as nice as the options from West Elm.
The West Elm curtains generally come in four lengths—84-, 96-, 108-, and 124-inch. All of the curtain panels that come with a blackout lining are 48 inches in width, but a few are available as double-width panels for larger windows. There are currently three prints available, and other fabrics including velvet and pure linen. Blackout curtains are a constant presence in West Elm’s Rugs and Windows section, so inventory may vary as new styles become available.
IKEA’s Marjun blackout curtains performed solidly in our testing. They didn’t produce a completely black photograph, like the Sebastian curtains did. Some light will get through with these, but not as much as you might think. In our tests they produced a dark photograph that showed the definition of the curtain, but did not light up bright white, like the West Elm curtains. For $50 for a pair of nice long 98-inch curtain panels (which you can hem to fit if necessary), we think it’s a great bargain pick.
These were one of the polyester, unlined curtains that we tested with somewhat surprising results. We thought the curtains with a lining would outperform the unlined options across the board, but the Marjun curtains and three of the other unlined curtains we tested (from IKEA, Walmart, and Best Home Fashion) did a better job of blocking light than all but our top two picks. We think this is because these unlined blackout curtains relied on a much thicker, more opaque curtain fabric to block light than their lined (and some of their unlined) competition.
The weight and feel of the IKEA Marjun are heavier than that of the Sebastian panels and closer to the nice weight and drape of the West Elm curtains. And we think it’s a nicer-quality fabric than that of the Emery panels.
The Marjun curtains come in only one length, and they come in only two colors—gray and brown. Plus, they’re not strictly solid color, like all of the other curtains we tested. They have a color-block strip in a darker shade across the bottom. But we don’t think this diminished a great value room-darkening curtain.
To get the true, complete total blackout effect from blackout curtains, you have to install them correctly. We suggest avoiding curved curtain rods or any rod that will place the curtains too far in front of the window. The curtain panels also need to be wide enough and long enough to eliminate light gaps.
Berek Awend of Blackoutcurtains.com calls this “the dreaded ‘halo effect.’” The website specializes in commercial blackout needs for photography studios, labs, and medical clinics. They know how to eliminate all traces of light, so we asked for some tips. “When measuring outside the window frame, we suggest measuring 12 inches on both sides and above the opening to eliminate that light,” he said. If your curtains aren’t touching the floor, allow at least that much extra space along the bottom of the window as well. Awend also noted that for curtains mounted inside the window, his company adds 15 percent extra fabric to the width of the curtains (compared with those mounted outside the windows) to close up those light gaps.
Most of the blackout curtains we tested are labeled as dry clean only. To wash and care for your curtains, we recommend following the care labels attached to them. Some are dry clean only, and some you can wash on very gentle settings but not iron. In general, the polyester curtains we tested were not wrinkled out of the package, and fine to hang right on a curtain rod. The pricier curtains made with linen and cotton were wrinkled, and they could be ironed to help get out some of those creases. But it can be a frustrating job, and if you don’t need them on the windows immediately it might still be worth taking them to the dry cleaner to be pressed and put on hangers—not folded.
Our experts had varying opinions on whether it’s best to use true blackout or room-darkening curtains. Mostly it comes down to your sensitivity to light, whether you sleep primarily at night or during the day, and whether you plan to use the curtains to block light for napping children.
“Individuals differ in their sensitivity to light, so I don’t think one answer fits everyone,” Jerome Siegel, PhD, the director of the Siegel Lab at UCLA’s Center for Sleep Research, told us. “But complete blackout curtains should be good for everyone, whereas less-complete darkness may suffice for some.”
Rachel Manber, PhD, the behavioral sleep medicine specialist at Stanford University Medical Center, had a slightly different take. She would recommend room-darkening curtains for most people and true blackout curtains for those with specific issues. “Some people, it really depends on how sensitive they are to light. So for some people total darkness is not really necessary,” she said. Total darkness is most important for people who specifically have light sensitivities, or who sleep during the day instead of at night—such as shift workers. “For shift workers, it’s very important,” she said. “And it also makes sense to make a big deal out of it for people who are particularly sensitive.”
Room-darkening curtains are probably better for kids if you’re going to use the curtains during nap times, according to Jodi Mindell, PhD, author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep. She told us that there wasn’t any existing research on the effects of blackout room conditions on children’s sleep patterns. She offered her clinical opinion but clarified that it would need more research to be fully confirmed.
“During the day, during naps, we do not want to somehow throw their circadian clock and what governs it,” she said. “I’m afraid that if you make it way too dark, you’re almost sending your kid into a different time zone. Like, you’re sending them to Europe for the morning or the afternoon. They do have sleepiness, but it’s not light and dark governed. So, I’m a little concerned you could, theoretically, shift their melatonin.”
Manber agrees. “We don’t have any data about what is the optimal light environment for napping,” she said. “But we do know the effect of light on circadian rhythm. That light/dark play a role in our regulation of our clock, which regulates our sleeping as well as many many other rhythms.” She noted that a room that’s dark at night, but can allow light to come through in the morning and throughout the day, is optimal for sleep.
We asked Siegel if waking up in complete darkness from blackout curtains might present any difficulties for people who need to acclimate to the morning ahead. Siegel has studied modern preindustrial communities in Tanzania, Namibia, and Bolivia who live without electricity and sleep in complete darkness. They wake up well before sunrise, with no ill effects. “I think it is fine to wake up in darkness,” he says. “The real issue for most people is irregular awakening times.” In other words, that occasional morning when you have to get up for a 6 a.m. meeting when you usually wake up at 8 a.m., or those rough few days after the clocks change back in the fall, are a harder adjustment than getting up before the sun rises on a consistent basis.
Manber adds that anyone sleeping at night with total blackout curtains should open them first thing in the morning to get some natural daylight. “Because otherwise they’re messing up their circadian rhythm, which might make it difficult for them to sleep.” She also recommends that parents do this for their teenagers before they wake. “So the light is there when they wake up,” she says.
Best Home Fashion’s Thermal Insulated curtains were another successful total blackout curtain in our testing. But these unlined, almost iridescent panels felt less at home in a bedroom and more at home in a home theater or even a lab. They absolutely work, but they’re utilitarian, with no weave or texture to them. They almost look like nylon, reminiscent of a superhero cape.
We opted for the better-looking Sebastian and Emery curtains for most bedroom needs.
Walmart’s Mainstays Blackout Energy Efficient curtains didn’t completely block out light, but they weren’t bad. Though they fall pretty firmly in the “room darkening” camp instead of full blackout, if you’re looking for darkening curtains on a budget and can’t get the IKEA curtains, these wouldn’t be a terrible choice. We tested them but don’t recommend them, because they weren’t as effective as either IKEA set of curtains, and the material felt cheap. Which isn’t too surprising, as the panels cost less than $10 each for the longest length.
Pottery Barn’s Linen/Cotton curtains were made with beautiful fabric, but they didn’t compare with the others we tested for blocking out light. Plus, the panels we ordered online from Pottery Barn and from Pottery Barn Kids arrived in damaged plastic wrapping, which left us with less confidence to recommend them because the blackout lining is online only. They were the most expensive curtains we tested, at $159 each for a 96-inch long panel. With West Elm offering reliable shipping and a similar, great-quality room-darkening curtain for $109 a panel, we passed on recommending this one.
Pottery Barn Kids offers a few blackout curtain options, but we tested the Hayden Blackout Curtains because they came in the widest variety of neutral, non-pastel colors. We ran into the same issues we did with the Pottery Barn and West Elm curtains—great fabrics and definitely among the best quality for actual curtains that we tested, but they weren’t true blackouts. These come in five colors, and they’re only $100 a panel for a similar size to Pottery Barn and West Elm. But, they’re not available in a double-width option, and the fabric quality isn’t quite as good as the other two high-end curtains we tried, so we felt that for a little more money West Elm was worth it.
IKEA Werna was a solid-performing curtain, and affordable at $40 a pair. But the fabric quality was noticeably worse than that of our budget pick, the IKEA Marjun, looking very similar to Best Home Fashion’s material. We preferred the Marjun curtains for their texture and dimension. Marjun also blocked more light in our testing.
The Majestic Blackout Lined Grommet Window Curtain Panel at Bed Bath & Beyond is another faux-silk style polyester curtain like our top pick, the Sebastian panels. The curtain fabric on the Majestic panels is even a bit nicer than the Sebastians’, and it’s slightly less expensive at $50 per 95-inch-long panel versus $60 each for the Sebastian. But, these curtains blocked out zero light in our testing.
Eclipse is a big manufacturer of room darkening and blackout curtains, but it was hard to find reviews for all the different versions sold at mass retailers. So we tested three different, unlined Eclipse blackout curtains—the Eclipse Canova (sold at JCPenney), the Eclipse Samara (sold at Walmart), and the Eclipse Fresno (sold on Amazon). None of them held up in our testing. The Canova and Samara feel like they’re made from a crepe-like material, and the back feels flimsy and thin, almost like a disposable plastic tablecloth. The Eclipse Fresno curtains were much better quality, in a sateen weave, and the backing felt silkier and higher-quality. But all three produced bright-white photographs in our light testing.
Originally published: January 25, 2017
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