Dark Circles: What Causes It and How to Treat It
Think those dark circles under your eyes are because you’re overworked, underpaid and tired? They’re a pesky reminder for many of us that a good nights sleep is hard to find, and if we could just stop for a minute and rest our bright-eyed youth would come surging back.
If only under-eye circles were that simple.
The skin around the eyes, or periorbital skin, is the most delicate — up to 10 times thinner to the skin on the rest of the face. Without usual amounts of fatty tissue, that thin layer shows blood vessels (and the blood flowing through them) more clearly than anywhere else on the body. Simply put, dark circles are just anatomy. Yet people afraid of looking as run-down as they feel are constantly trying to get rid of them as if creams can rearrange blood vessels. (1, 2)
News flash: You can’t get rid of them, but if you understand the root causes making dark circles worse, you can diminish their appearances. And there are a lot of contributing factors to sift through.
Dark circles under your eyes? Like everything else eye-rolling in life, blame it on your parents. Genetics play an outsized role in the development of dark circles in terms of both pigmentation and inherited traits like eye shape — deeper set eyes cast more obvious shadows. Most of us with dark circles notice them in childhood. But certain lifestyle factors can make them more or less prominent, like stress or diet. (3)
Hyperpigmentation is the result of damaged cells producing too much melanin. The darker your skin tone, the more melanin your skin has, making darker complexions more prone to hyperpigmentation. On the flip side, darker skin is also more resilient to the visible effects of sun damage, another contributor to dark circles. (4)
Melanin is skin’s most important photoprotective factor, leaving lighter complexions with less of it more vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation from the sun (and skin cancer — get that funny looking mole checked out, please). Years of unprotected sun exposure leads to excess pigmentation showing through the thin under-eye skin. Sun damage is also one of the primary heralds of visible aging — that chronic mystery that impacts all complexions and, yes, intensifies under-eye circles. (5, 6)
As we age, skin becomes thinner and loses the fat and collagen needed to maintain elasticity. This facial volume loss means the blood vessels beneath your skin become more visible and causes shadows that darken the under eye area. No matter how much sleep you get or low-glycemic foods you eat, biology will still do its thing. (7, 8)
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: drink more water. Dehydration is a common contributor to dark circles under your eyes. Without enough water, the skin beneath your eyes looks more dull and sunken. So drink those eight glasses a day for full, plump skin! A morning-and-night moisturizer will also help. (9)
Whether caused by hay fever or a reaction to skin-aggravating ingredients like fragrance, allergies can trigger dark circles. When you have an allergic reaction, your body releases histamines which can cause puffiness and blood vessels to dilate, becoming more visible beneath the skin. Allergic contact dermatitis can in some cases postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. (10, 11)
This should go without saying, but if you do have an allergic reaction resist the urge to rub or scratch itchy, swollen skin, especially around the eyes. That sorta trauma ruptures capillaries and will definitely contribute to dark shadows and aggravated hyperpigmentation. Same goes for eye makeup removal — don’t rub it off! (12)
Too Little Sleep
Surprisingly, lack of sleep is not a cause of dark circles, per se — but failing to get sufficient sleep makes existing shadows look worse, as many of us know all too well. Sleep deprivation can lead to dull and pale skin, allowing blood vessels to show through more than usual, or a build up in fluid that makes them look puffy and cast shadows. Sounds like a great reason to get a full-value night of eight hours of shut-eye!
Just don’t go overboard because oversleeping has the same shadow-inducing, fatigue-generated results. Whether too much or too little sleep, your body deals with fatigue by dramatically increasing the chemical cortisol to give you energy. But cortisol also increases the volume of blood. Enlarged blood vessels make the appearance of dark circles more dramatic. (13)
Too Much Screen Time
Speaking of sleep deprivation...if your nightly routine includes an hour of scrolling through other people’s dark circle-free lives on Instagram before bed, you’re doing yourself a double disservice. Too much screen time — from phones, tablets, TVs, computers — adds up to a lot of eye strain. Which adds up to enlarged blood vessels. So hide the phone, get a proper alarm clock and go to sleep uninterrupted by texts, updates or fake news. (14)
So, Treatment Options?
Before we get into a laundry list of frustrating home remedies and expensive clinical treatments, let me be straight with you: dark circles don’t just go away. No pricey cream or invasive surgical correction is going to eliminate them completely. They’re a part of our anatomical makeup and that really is OK. OK? Here’s the laundry list:
Let’s start with the easy ones: Wear sunscreen daily, moisturize morning and night, opt for brightening ingredients like vitamin C, drink water consistently through the day and sleep, don’t scroll, at night. These are smart skin habits for reducing the appearance of dark circles and, well, everything else pertaining to healthy skin.
If eight hours of sleep isn’t in the cards because you’re just too popular for that balanced lifestyle, but you still want even under eyes...reach for that concealer, preferably a moisturizing one. Makeup isn’t going to cure your dark circles, but it will camouflage them. You can also try cold compresses with ice or caffeinated tea bags to help reduce puffiness, stimulate circulation and reduce liquid retention beneath your eyes. Keep the cold compress on closed eyes for a 10-20 min cat nap.
Of course, in-office options are also on the table including laser treatments, chemical peels and dermal fillers using hyaluronic acid and a cosmetic surgery procedure. These often come with bigger risks, longer recovery times and repeat visits. So make sure to consult with your dermatologist before you embark on this route for something as universal and harmless as dark circles. (15)