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You know the saying that “the eyes are the window to the soul”? Well, it turns out the skin under your eyes can say a lot about how you’re feeling, too. A rough night working late or taking care of a sick kid can show up on your face the next morning in the form of those dreaded dark under-eye circles. And right now, stressors like the coronavirus — including the hectic days and sleepless nights that come with it —may be another reason your eyes look tired and puffy.
“What gives the skin under your eyes its color is a combination of blood vessels, pigment in the skin, and the thickness of the skin, along with fluid that can accumulate in this delicate, sensitive area,” explains Dr. Doris Day, a board-certified dermatologist at Day Dermatology & Aesthetics and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Centers. “Dark circles are often a combination of pigment making the skin darker and redness from dilated blood vessels,” she says.
In this article
- What causes dark undereye circles?
- The best treatments for dark, under-eye circles
- How to shop for the best eye creams for dark, under-eye circles
- The best products for treating dark, under-eye circles
What causes dark undereye circles?
What makes it particularly tricky to treat dark circles is that there isn’t one reason people develop them. Dr. Day says lack of sleep, dehydration, drinking too much alcohol and not eating a well-balanced diet are all lifestyle factors that can contribute to the appearance of dark circles, but genetics and aging come into play, too.
“Under-eye hollowing is a broad category and includes everything from genetics, where it’s the shape of the eyes and the structures around them that creates a natural hollow, to redness that can also create a shadow-like effect,” Day says.
Dr. Evan Rieder, a board-certified dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Langone and member of the American Academy of Dermatology, says that someone’s physiology plays a larger role in developing dark circles than we realize. “Some people just naturally have darker areas under the eyes. They may look more severe in fairer skin tones, but people of South Asian or African ancestry might also notice that they have a sharp cut-off around their eyes,” he says.
Aging is also one of the leading causes of dark, under-eye circles. As you get older, the tissue around the eyes weakens, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. This breakdown in collagen can cause fat to shift to the lower eyelids, creating dark shadows and puffiness. In fact, Dr. Heidi Waldorf, a board-certified dermatologist and owner of Waldorf Dermatology Aesthetics, says that the most common reason dark circles form is hollowing in the under-eye area from the loss of deep fat. “That’s why patients complain that they have tried every cream and none worked,” Dr. Waldorf explains.
Unfortunately, aging in the under-eye area happens in layers, which is why you see a gradual sag in your skin from the eyelids to the brows to the forehead. Deep under the eye area is a framework for bones, muscles, ligaments, fat pads, lymphatics, nerves and blood vessels that hold everything in place, Day explains. “These elements don’t age in a synchronous way, which over time, can lead to hollows, under-eye bags and crepey skin,” she says.
Oftentimes, fine lines in the forehead are linked to heaviness in the eyelids and drooping eyebrows. “Many, if not most, forehead lines, are not due to primary wrinkling of the forehead itself but rather as a secondary effect of heavy eyelids. The normal response to heavy eyelids is to raise the brows and this creates forehead wrinkles,” Day says.
Another little-known reason you might develop dark circles is from rubbing your eyes. “Allergies can increase redness and rubbing the eyes will lead to darkening through increased pigment from the irritation,” Day says. “It’s one of the worst things you can do to the delicate skin in this sensitive area. Just don’t do it.”
The best treatments for dark, under-eye circles
Our experts all agree that the best way to treat dark, under-eye circles is through a combination of cosmetic treatments performed by a dermatologist, healthy lifestyle changes and high-quality skincare products. “In-office treatments, such as peels, lasers, devices that tighten and fillers are sometimes needed and can have a lasting effect,” Day says. Fillers, for example, help eliminate shadows and hollowness under the eyes by restoring the padding in the lower eyelid and cheek, Day says.
“Doing chemical peels for several weeks can lighten the skin. Botox can be helpful for smoothing out excess crinkling of the skin,” Dr. Rieder says. Rieder also says microneedling, which delivers controlled injury to the skin, shows some promise as an under-eye treatment option because it stimulates collagen production and allows anti-aging serums to penetrate deeper into the skin. A small August 2018 study in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology suggests that microneedling can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and improve skin texture.
Waldorf notes that noninvasive skin-tightening procedures, like Thermage or Ultherapy, are also used to treat dark, under-eye circles and provide a natural lift before the issue becomes severe. “Crepey-textured skin will make it appear worse so resurfacing the skin with a Fraxel laser improves the appearance,” Waldorf says.
How to shop for the best eye creams for dark, under-eye circles
But if cosmetic procedures aren’t an option for you, using over-the-counter eye creams and skincare products can help reduce the appearance of dark circles. Just be aware that you won’t get the same results from using skincare products as you would get from in-house cosmetic procedures. “The same ingredients that help prevent and treat skin aging are helpful for under the eyes,” Waldorf says. To help you choose the best eye creams or skincare products for treating dark circles, here’s a quick checklist of important ingredients to look for:
- Hyaluronic acid hydrates and plumps up skin, giving you a youthful and radiant glow. By brightening the skin, it can help mask darkness under the eyes. “Hyaluronic acid and glycerin help pull moisture into the epidermis from the environment above and dermis below,” Waldorf says.
- Caffeine works to constrict the blood vessels under the eyes, reducing redness, Rieder says.
- Dimethicone and cyclomethicone are emollients that lock in moisture while also acting as a spackle between cells to make skin look smoother and silkier, Waldorf says.
- Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and the over-the-counter version of prescription retinoids. Retinols help prevent fine lines and wrinkles from forming by promoting cell turnover in the skin. “Topical retinol and alpha hydroxy acid products that are specially designed for the delicate eyelid skin and can help improve the texture and color of the skin,” Waldorf says. “But they must be used with care because they can be irritating.”
- Vitamin C and polyphenols help reduce oxidative stress from environmental pollutants, Waldorf says. Note that eye products with vitamin C have lower concentrations of the active ingredient than those for the rest of the face.
- Peptides are the building blocks of collagen, which helps keep your skin firm and smooth. As you age, the rate of collagen your skin produces slows down, so using eye creams with peptides helps stimulate their growth.
The best products for treating dark, under-eye circles
Wearing sunscreen during the day will help protect the skin under your eyes from sun damage, Waldorf says. She recommends Supergoop’s mineral eye cream because it contains 100 percent zinc oxide to protect skin from powerful UV rays. It also has a blend of probiotics and caffeine to brighten skin and alleviate redness.
Made with retinol, hyaluronic acid and dimethicone, Neutrogena’s eye cream is an excellent drugstore option, Waldorf says. It not only works to diminish fine lines and dark, under-eye circles, but it also keeps your skin plump for a youthful dewy finish.
While this option doesn't fall under the over-the-counter bucket (you'll need to place your order through a physician), it's worth mentioning. If you’re looking for an eye cream that will guard your skin day and night, this top pick from Rieder is for you. This powerful eye cream delivers peptides, vitamin C and caffeine to help restore brightness in the under-eye area. “It also has humectants to hydrate the skin,” Rieder says.
The powerful retinol and mineral complex in this eye cream promotes cell turnover to reduce fine lines and dark, under-eye circles. It’s also hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic so it works great for people with sensitive skin. Waldorf likes that it also has glycerin, which pulls moisture into the outer skin.
Day likes that this overnight eye salve supplies caffeine, glycerin, sodium hyaluronate and vitamins C and E to tired-looking eyes. Together, these ingredients help reduce puffiness and promote collagen production, while protecting your skin from environmental pollutants.
Best for normal or combination skin, Day says this eye cream works to improve the appearance of fine lines and dark circles, thanks to its powerful age-defying peptides. It also boasts hyaluronic acid, dimethicone, antioxidants and light diffusers for a smooth and radiant complexion.
Another great drugstore option, L’Oreal’s eye cream provides a triple threat of retinol, vitamin C and hyaluronic acid to de-puff under eyes and brighten dark circles. It also gets top marks from Waldorf for having skin-plumping glycerin and dimethicone, and caffeine for reducing redness.
Packed with alpha hydroxy acids, hyaluronic acid and peptides, Waldorf likes this eye cream for its protective antioxidant benefits. “Fruit stem extract contains antioxidants and other ingredients that may be protective to aging cells. It also has caffeine to reduce puffiness,” she says.
Because rubbing your eyes can cause redness and irritation, Waldorf recommends using gentle makeup-removing pads or towelettes to thoroughly wipe away dirt, oil and waterproof mascara. “Always be gentle when cleansing skin to avoid stripping the important lipids and proteins that form the skin barrier. I find that most eye makeup can be removed using a pre-moistened makeup remover towelette like Neutrogena,” she says. These alcohol-free wipes are safe for contact lens wearers and leave your skin feeling clean and refreshed.
“Puffiness can be reduced temporarily using topicals with ingredients like green tea polyphenols and caffeine, which helps the fluid shift,” Waldorf says. She likes using these topical pads from Skyn Iceland before a special occasion, presentation or photo shoot to help de-puff and brighten up skin in the under-eye area. Free of parabens and silicones, these energizing pads seal moisture and plump skin in just 10 minutes.
If you’re prone to eyelid swelling, Waldorf says sleeping on your back can be helpful in reducing puffiness. “In general, sleeping on your back is the best position to reduce the signs of aging skin,” she says. That said, getting enough sleep is more important so if you lie on your side or face down, a memory foam pillow with a silk pillowcase can help prevent tugging at the skin that leads to wrinkles. Waldorf likes this pillow by enVy because it helps reduce pressure and pull on the face. She recommends covering it with a silk pillowcase from Illuminage, which is infused with copper to help prevent fine lines and wrinkles.
CORRECTION (Feb. 5, 2020, 3:05 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated that dimethicone and cyclomethicone contain optic light diffusers that improve light reflection. They do not; some eye creams do.
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