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In the photo above, you can see three of the over the counter sleep aids I’ll be discussing in this article: ZzzQuil, Kirkland Signature, and Unisom.
If you’re reading this, you may have already made up your mind that a sleep aid might help you sleep a little better. It’s also possible that you’ve been driven here by the feeling that you’re more likely to win the lottery than consistently sleep well every night.
Either way, you probably don’t want me to waffle on endlessly about whether taking a sleep aid is a good idea or not.
“Just tell me which one will give me some sleep!” I hear you say.
Believe me, I’ve been there.
Bear with me for a moment though – I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the best over the counter sleep aids I’ve tried shortly. Before I do though, I think it’s important to go over some key safety points about sleep aids, even if you don’t need a prescription for them.
Please also note that all of the photos in this article are my own, and the exact sleep aids I took. However, the manufacturers may make changes to the packaging, form of the sleep aid, or ingredients in the future.
Safety precautions when taking over the counter sleep aids
- Consult healthcare providers: Before using any sleep aids, especially if you have pre-existing conditions or take other medications, consult a healthcare provider. This can help avoid potential drug interactions.
- Short-term use: Use sleep aids for short-term relief (not beyond two weeks) and see a doctor if sleep issues persist.
- Follow instructions: Adhere to the product’s label instructions and warnings for safe use.
- Monitor side effects: Be aware of possible side effects and report any changes to your healthcare provider.
- Avoid hazardous activities: Don’t drive or operate machinery after taking sleep aids due to potential drowsiness.
- No alcohol or sedatives: Don’t mix sleep aids with alcohol or substances that cause drowsiness.
- Special populations caution: If pregnant, under 18, or over 65, seek medical advice before use. The elderly should be cautious as some sleep aids may increase the risk of falls and interact with medications.
- Avoid increasing dose: Stick to the recommended dosage to avoid the risk of overdose.
- Be aware of dependency risks: Address the underlying causes of sleep disturbances to avoid psychological or physical dependence on sleep aids.
The over the counter sleep aids
A straightforward melatonin sleep aid
Natrol is a popular sleep aid that contains melatonin as its active ingredient.
The small, dissolvable tablets are convenient and easy to take. It’s a much more comfortable experience compared to swallowing large capsules or pills.
While Natrol may not induce immediate drowsiness, I’ve consistently found it effective in promoting a restful sleep when I’m struggling with insomnia. Additionally, my sleep tracker appears to back that up, showing more nights of good sleep when I take it.
I’ve taken the 1mg, 3mg, and 5mg versions and never had any side effects. I also tried the stronger 10mg version and had no side effects from that either. However, it’s worth noting that melatonin may cause side effects in some people, so it’s important to be aware of your own body’s response.
I like the fact that Natrol contains only a few simple ingredients, primarily focusing on melatonin without unnecessary additives or combinations. As you’ll see below, you can find sleep aids that combine melatonin and a range of other ingredients. But in my opinion, if melatonin works well enough on its own, extra ingredients may not be necessary.
All in all, Natrol’s reliability and its focus on melatonin as the primary ingredient means it’s become my go-to over the counter sleep aid during difficult periods of insomnia.
Find out more in my in-depth Natrol review.
2. Vitafusion SleepWell
3mg melatonin combined with herbal ingredients
I’ve noticed a growing trend of over the counter sleep aids that combine melatonin and herbal ingredients, which are sometimes included to boost the sleep-promoting effect.
Even though I personally prefer the simplicity of single ingredient sleep aids, I do find it interesting to try combinations from time to time, and sometimes have good results with them.
VitaFusion SleepWell is available in different versions, each formulated with a specific combination of melatonin and herbal ingredients, so be sure to check the label to choose the one that best suits you.
The version I first took contains 3mg melatonin, along with passionflower, chamomile and lemon balm.
They come in gummy form, and have a sweet taste despite being sugar-free. I’d be careful to keep them out of the reach of children as they look enticingly like sweets/candy.
Compared to Natrol, they had a noticeably faster sedative effect while I was in bed, which makes me think perhaps the herbal ingredients contributed to the overall calming and sleep-inducing effect.
I usually sleep well when I take VitaFusion SleepWell. However, I have sometimes experienced slight disorientation during nighttime awakenings, and it can take me a little longer to fully awaken in the morning after taking them.
Other than that, I’ve had no side effects other than them putting the thought in my head of eating more sweet stuff!
I’ve also tried the extra strength melatonin version, though it only has 5mg, which is quite a common dosage. Those ones have a pleasant blackcurrant taste and may be suitable for those who need a stronger melatonin dose.
Find out more in my detailed Vitafusion review.
3. ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs
2mg melatonin + herbal ingredients
Vicks ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs is another well-known sleep aid that takes a step further by combining melatonin with valerian, lavender, chamomile, and lemon balm.
With a melatonin content of just 2mg, this one may be a suitable option if you’d like to try melatonin at a lower dosage.
During the week I took them, I experienced restful sleep for five nights and reasonably good sleep for the other two nights, so it felt quite effective for the majority of the week.
I had a headache one morning, but no other side effects, so I’m not sure if that one isolated headache was due to the ZzzQuil.
The gummy form is convenient to take, but it’s worth mentioning the higher sugar content of 5mg per full dosage, which can be quite noticeable, especially if you chew them after brushing your teeth.
Similar to many over the counter sleep aids that combine herbal ingredients with melatonin, it’s impossible to know which specific components are contributing to the overall effects (or if it’s the placebo effect doing the work for you).
On balance though, I found it helpful during a period of insomnia. And it’s interesting that Vicks ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs brings together several natural ingredients that have long been associated with promoting relaxation and sleep.
Find out more in my ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs review.
4. Unisom SleepTabs
An antihistamine sleep aid containing Doxylamine Succinate
In contrast to the sleep aids I’ve discussed so far, Unisom SleepTabs contains 25mg of the antihistamine Doxylamine Succinate as the active ingredient. The SleepTabs are tiny tablets that are very easy to swallow.
In my experience, Unisom SleepTabs provided the most noticeable sedative effect while lying in bed reading. They also resulted in faster sleep onset and reduced nighttime awakenings during periods of insomnia.
I consistently experienced restful sleep on most nights I took Unisom SleepTabs, helping me to get enough sleep to function well the following day.
However, it’s important to carefully consider the trade-off between the desired sedative effect and potential side effects, such as a groggy feeling in the morning, dry mouth or headaches. I find it’s fine for a couple of nights, but if I take it for much longer, the side effects tend to increase.
Because of the antihistamine ingredient, if you’re an older adult (the threshold for ‘older’ in some countries is 65+), it’s important to consult with your personal doctor or physician to be sure it’s safe for you to take Unisom SleepTabs.
If you’d like to try an antihistamine sleep aid because of its reputation for a stronger sedative effect, Unisom is the one that seemed to work best for me. Just keep in mind that it’s typically not recommended for long-term use.
Find out more in my in-depth Unisom article.
5. Rescue Night Liquid Melts
Fast dissolving capsules with Bach’s flower essences
I’ve long had mixed feelings about Bach’s Rescue Night Liquid Melts. I first tried it way back in 2015, and then again in 2022 and 2024.
What I find interesting is that even though I don’t feel it ‘knocks me out’, and even though studies have found no difference between Bach’s flower remedies and a placebo, it still seems to be quite popular.
You can find it in major supermarkets in the UK, for example. It has thousands of positive reviews across Amazon and Walmart in the US. And the longer review I wrote of it has dozens of comments from readers saying it works well for them.
Perhaps a key factor is the lack of side effects. I’ve never had any side effects from taking it, and from what I’ve read online, it’s uncommon for people to say they had the next morning ‘groggy’ feeling that some other over the counter sleep aids give, particularly the antihistamines. It’s also very easy to take as the miniscule capsules dissolve quickly on your tongue.
So either it works and researchers have missed something, or the combination of placebo effect and lack of side effects is good enough for a lot of people.
Each capsule contains a mix of six flower essences: Prunus cerasifera, Clematis vitalba, Impatiens glandulifera, Helianthemum nummularium, Ornithogalum umbellatum, and Aesculus hippocastanum.
If you’d like to know more about the ingredients and action of Bach flower remedies, take a look at my longer Rescue Night article.
6. Alteril Sleep Aid
Melatonin with L-Tryptophan and a blend of valerian and chamomile
Alteril is another commonly available sleep aid in the United States that combines melatonin with L-Tryptophan, valerian, and chamomile. I’ve seen it in many stores and bought mine from Target when I tested it.
It contains 3mg melatonin, L-Tryptophan, valerian and chamomile, all packed into the brightest yellow softgels I’ve ever seen. They are also large though, so this isn’t one for people who don’t like swallowing larger capsules.
I found it worked well for me, and slept pretty well every night for a week when I took it. The main side effect of note for me was feeling very drowsy when I woke in the night a couple of times.
I also experienced vivid dreams, which can be interesting and thought-provoking if you also enjoy remembering and reflecting on your dreams like I do.
As with other sleep aids combining various ingredients, it’s difficult to determine which specific ingredients are contributing to the overall effects. However, Alteril was effective for me personally, and I would consider using it again if needed.
Just keep in mind that they may not be suitable if you find larger sleep aids uncomfortable to swallow.
Learn more in my full Alteril review.
7. Kirkland Signature
Contains Doxylamine Succinate (similar to Unisom)
The Kirkland Signature sleep aid contains the same active ingredient as found in Unisom SleepTabs – Doxylamine Succinate – and the tablets even have a similar appearance. If you take another look at the photo at the top of this article, you’ll see what I mean.
Because of the similarities, I expected Unisom and Kirkland to have the same effect, which turned out to be the case. In terms of the sedation, the effects were so similar for me, it’s hard to declare one as better than the other. I slept reasonably well when I took the Kirkland sleep aid, so it seemed to work well enough for me on that front.
The side effects I experienced were also similar. I had a somewhat groggy feeling in the morning after consecutive nights of taking Kirkland. And when I used it for a longer period of time, I started to wake up with a slightly dry mouth and mild headache.
As always, it’s important to note that we all respond differently to sleep aids. Perhaps you’ll find Kirkland or Unisom more or less effective, so it’s worth considering both (and other people’s experience in addition to mine) to decide which would be the better option.
You can find out more about it in my detailed Kirkland Signature sleep aid review.
8. ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid
Diphenhydramine antihistamine – similar to Benadryl
Not to be confused with Pure Zzzs, which is also made by Vicks, ZzzQuil nighttime sleep aid contains diphenhydramine HCL (hydrochloride) as its active ingredient.
Diphenhydramine is a type of antihistamine, with the US version of the widely recognized allergy medication Benadryl containing the same ingredient. In some ways, you could say it’s the drowsiness side effect of the ingredient that’s put to use as a sleep aid instead in this case.
ZzzQuil nighttime sleep aid comes in the form of small and smooth liquicaps, which are considerably easier to swallow compared to standard pills.
In my experience, ZzzQuil seemed to help increase my total sleep time and made it relatively easy to fall back asleep when waking up in the middle of the night.
However, from the very first morning, I had a fuzzy head feeling, which gradually intensified and lasted longer over the following mornings. This effect was particularly noticeable when taking the full dosage of 50mg, but wasn’t as strong when I reduced the dose to 25mg.
Overall, I tend to tolerate doxylamine succinate antihistamine sleep aids better than the diphenhydramine ones, such as ZzzQuil nighttime. That’s just my experience though, and others may find the reverse to be true.
You can learn more about it in my in-depth Zzzquil nighttime sleep aid review.
A mild sleep aid containing valerian
Like Bach’s Rescue Night, Kalms is also commonly found in supermarkets and pharmacies in the UK in particular.
There are several different versions of Kalms available, and I’ve tried them all over the years. None of them knocked me out, but Kalms Night One-A-Night, which contains valerian at the active ingredient, did at least seem to have a mild sedative effect.
Fortunately, I’ve never experienced any side effects from the Kalms sleep aids either. But it’s worth noting that some people may not tolerate valerian or other herbal ingredients contained in certain versions as well.
Since I first wrote about Kalms several years ago, many readers have shared their experiences in the comments section. Interestingly, while some talked about having excellent results, others were disappointed by it, which just goes to show how these herbal sleep aids affect people differently.
That sums up herbal sleep aids for me really. In my experience, the various herbal ingredients used can have unpredictable results, and their effectiveness varies from person to person. You just won’t know how they will affect you until you give them a try. But really, that’s probably the case for most sleep aids and even behavioral techniques meant to help people sleep better.
As you can see, there’s quite a wide range of sleep aids available over the counter. There are lots of different ingredients used by different companies, and it may be a case of choosing one based on your previous experience, known intolerances, and the views of your healthcare provider.
I also recommend looking at other articles online, and perhaps asking family or friends about their experiences if you know they’ve taken any sleep aids.
I wrote this article based on my own extensive experience of trying sleep aids over many years, but it’s just one person’s perspective. Please remember, that even if I say one worked well for me, or did or didn’t give me side effects, there’s not guarantee the same will be true for you. I know I mentioned that several times throughout the article, but it’s an important point.
Just to recap, in the table below you can see all of the sleep aids I’ve talked about in this article and the ingredients used:
|-Melatonin alone, or:
-Melatonin + herbs
|ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs
Where else to buy the sleep aids
In this United States, I’ve seen several of the sleep aids I’ve discussed in this article sold over the counter in stores such as Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS, Duane Reade, Acme, Walmart, Target, and smaller independent pharmacies.
In the UK, you can typically find a range of sleep aids in supermarkets and chemists, including well-known stores like Boots. These retailers often stock herbal sleep aids and, in some cases, antihistamine sleep aids.
Sleep aids containing melatonin might not be available in all countries though. In the UK, for instance, melatonin isn’t sold over the counter, which means you may have difficulty finding those specific sleep aids.
For more information about over the counter sleep aids, there are several medical websites that have useful guidance and overviews. Here are three I recommend:
Mayoclinic – concise and up to date guidance about sleep aids sold without a prescription.
Healthline – covers a range of natural ingredients found in sleep aids.
NHS – The UK National Health Service (NHS) provides extensive information about sleep and sleeping pills. I’ve linked their page on diphenhydramine here as a starting point.
Whether you choose to use a sleep aid or not, I recommend trying to tackle your sleep problems naturally in the long term. To get you started, you’ll find lots of practical sleep tips on my main sleep hygiene page.