The real reasons behind the dark circles under your eyes
Plus how to treat them
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When you wake up in the morning and peer in the mirror to see dark circles under your eyes, your first thought may be, “Rough night’s sleep, huh?” And you wouldn’t be wrong—your sleep, in fact, can affect the state of your under-eyes. But that’s not the only reason you may see a purple-blue or brown tint to the skin in that area, as we learned from Dr. Farah Moustafa, a Boston-based dermatologist with Tufts Medical Center.
Why do some people look like they have dark under-eye circles?
There are three reasons that under-eyes might appear darker than the rest of the face: veins under the skin, hyperpigmentation, and hollowness. Each of these reasons for darkness requires a different treatment method, so you first have to identify which is the most likely culprit to treat and prevent it.
Do dark circles mean you’re not getting enough sleep?
As it turns out, it’s not a myth that your sleep affects your skin even in particular areas like your under-eyes. A lack of sleep causes an increase in blood flow that results in the blood vessels under your eyes dilating, making them appear more prominent under the already-thin skin (more on this coming). Additionally you may notice “bags” under your eyes as a result of these blood vessels becoming “leaky,” says Dr. Ivan Vrcek, a medical doctor who specializes in oculoplastic surgery, or procedures related to the eyes. This leads to fluid seeping into the surrounding areas and giving the lower eyelid that puffy look. What’s more, the resulting puffiness can contribute to making the under-eye area look darker because it casts a shadow. Not only that, lack of sleep can make you look paler, which can cause dark areas to stand out more than they would otherwise.
What can I do about blue under-eye circles?
The skin beneath your eyes is one of the thinnest layers on the body, which means that the veins below the surface may show through, under even the best of circumstances. “Some people have really prominent veins around the eye and veins can be this purpley color that casts a dark shadow,” Moustafa explains. This type of dark circle is most likely to be affected by sleep because of the vein dilation that occurs when you don’t get enough zzz’s. Even when the veins aren’t dilated, you may notice the purple-blue tint they cause.
There are two solutions: You can treat the blood vessels using topical agents, like retinol (to plump under the eyes) or a caffeine eye cream (to constrict the vessels), or lasers at a doctor's office. For the topical agents, retinol stimulates the production of collagen, a protein found in the skin, which can cause the skin to “beef up,” as Moustafa describes it, resulting in the veins being camouflaged. If you’re new to retinol, try the Roc Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Eye Cream that addresses dark circles and puffiness while moisturizing the skin. Using an eye cream that contains caffeine may be effective at treating the blue discoloration, too, as caffeine is a vasoconstrictor that could help narrow the veins underneath the eyes once absorbed into the skin. For this, try the Lily Sado Caffeine Eye Cream, which has over 1,000 Amazon reviews and a 4.4-star rating, and contains coffee bean and green tea extract to brighten.
As for the laser option, Moustafa explains: “We put shields in, they’re like metal contact lenses because lasers can be harmful to the eyes, but when done the right way, can actually make these dark circles [and] that purple discoloration that some people have a lot better.”
What can I do about brown under-eye dark circles?
The dark circles under your eyes may be the result of “constitutional pigmentation,” which Moustafa describes as “true darkness of the skin.” This is a type of hyperpigmentation that appears brown under the eyes and it can occur in any race, but Moustafa says it’s most common in people with darker complexions.
There are a few options you can choose from to lighten the skin: vitamin C or kojic acid (both antioxidants), hydroquinone (a “skin bleaching” agent), or an in-office laser treatment. For a more gentle product that you can use daily, go with vitamin C to target dark spots and protect the skin from free radicals—one to try is the TruSkin Vitamin C Serum, which also contains hyaluronic acid to hydrate and plump the skin. Alternatively, kojic acid prevents darkness from becoming more pronounced by blocking tyrosinase, an amino acid needed to produce melanin. One to try is the Skinceuticals Discoloration Defense, which combines kojic acid with niacinamide to even out the skin’s texture and tone. Lastly for at-home care is hydroquinone, which lightens hyperpigmentation, dark spots, freckles, and other discoloration on the face. A popular OTC treatment is the Admire My Skin Ultra Potent Brightening Serum, which uses 2% hydroquinone, as well as vitamin C, kojic acid, and lactic acid to further brighten and even the skin tone. If you're using any skin lightening agents for long periods of time, you'll want to consult a dermatologist about side effects and proper usage for your skin.
To treat under-eye hyperpigmentation that’s resistant to at-home treatments, Moustafa recommends an in-office procedure using picosecond lasers. These lasers use sound waves to break up the pigment. They’re considered low-energy, which is good because too much energy in lasers can actually cause more pigment to develop on the skin. Moustafa recommends this laser treatment either on its own or in conjunction with topical products.
What can I do about hollowness under my eyes?
Another common reason for darkness under the eyes is hollowness, or concavities where the skin sinks into the eye sockets a.k.a. orbits. This creates a space that appears “hollow” or shadowy beneath the eyes when light shines on your face from above. It can be more pronounced as the face thins due to weight loss or simply the process of aging. “Some people are genetically predisposed to hollowness,” Moustafa says. “You see babies with nice, full, round cheeks and even in your 20s, you have nice full cheeks, but as you get into your 30s and 40s, you get this progressive hollowness in the orbit.”
Similar to how you may address veins under the eyes by plumping the skin up to make them less visible, you want to address the volume loss of the skin that lead to hollowness. You may achieve some improvement by using a retinol eye cream, which can address lack of fullness by plumping up the skin. If you’re sensitive to retinol, you could also try using hyaluronic acid, like the Cosmedica Hyaluronic Acid Serum, which draws water into the skin to hydrate and plump it up.
If topical treatments aren’t enough, you can go to a trained doctor to receive fillers, a minimally invasive procedure where a blend of natural and synthetic substances, like hyaluronic acid, is injected beneath the skin’s surface. The placement of the filler depends on where you’re experiencing the darkness or hollowness, but Moustafa says the most common areas for this are the tear trough area (the part of the cheek that’s closest to the inner corner of the eye), the medial cheek (the middle of the cheek), or the lateral cheek (the outside of the cheek closest to the outer corner of the eye). Adding filler addresses the volume loss and helps the under-eye look fuller and brighter, as it reflects light better.
When it comes down to it, you can make some positive skin changes by getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, and having a basic skincare routine. But if you're experiencing dark circles or other skin woes, there are treatments you can seek with the help of a dermatologist.
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