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I recently did a blogpost on the topic of eye creams, discussing whether or not they are needed in a skincare routine (More info: Are eye creams just a waste of money?), and that post prompted a ton of follow up questions specifically about dark circles under the eyes and how to get rid of them.
And because the topic is quite complex, I decided it was worth a dedicated blog post.
Why complex? Because there are many different reasons why you get darkness around the eyes, and each of them needs different treatment.
The different reasons for dark circles under the eyes
Depending on the underlying cause, the darkness we see when we look in the mirror can be divided into different categories: Anatomical, genetic, side effects and lifestyle. Let me go through each of them quickly, starting with:
Anatomical reasons for dark circles under the eyes
And for this I will use a picture taken from my trusted Netter Anatomy Book that got me all through university and show you the bone structure around the eye.
The rim of the orbital region is made up of three major bones: The Os Frontale, the Os lacrimale and Maxilla and the Os zygomaticum. And just like the Processus temporalis of the Os zygomaticum determines whether or not you have cheekbones, the way the Os frontale is shaped around your brows determines how much shadow there is cast on your eye region when the light hits you from above.
Another reason for much shadowing under your eyes is a deep set Os lacrimale, also known as Tear Through area. If that is set back deeper, it will appear darker, making you look more tired.
Now you have probably heard of tear through fillers already, and that gives you a hint about the options you have to treat this kind of dark circles permanently: invasive procedures.
Adding volume to deep set areas will lessen the shadowing, and it goes without saying that no topical skincare will ever have an effect on these dark circles.
It is the kind of dark circles that I have, I have a deep set tear trough area here, and you can really see it if I change my lighting (I show you in the video).
As fillers there aren’t really something I personally feel comfortable with – I am not judging if you get them done, that is an entirely personal decision, it just isn’t for me – so as I don’t want to get fillers there, I use makeup to lessen the appearance. Concealers a tad brighter than the rest of my face, preferably with some light reflection, will help.
The concealers also help with the second anatomical reason, and that is blood vessels showing through the skin. The skin around the eyes is naturally very thin, which means the underlying structures, namely the Musculus orbicularis oculi, the periorbital fat pads and the blood vessels are able to shine through the skin, and as they are usually darker than your skin, they make the whole area appear shadowed.
And this can get worse as we age, as the aging process causes the skin to thin out everywhere and also makes the periorbital fat pads slowly disappear, meaning our eye sink into their sockets even more. Pair that with general skin laxity and a tendency to more swelling and you will understand why the older we get, the easier we look tired.
Now here there are some topicals that may help. First of all my trusted retinoids, as they increase collagen production and help keep the skin firm and thick, or at least as thick as it gets around the eyes. (More info: Doctors Guide to Retinoids)
Second caffeine, as it helps drain extra fluid and constricts the blood vessels, so they aren’t as visible as before, and third just general hydration that plumps up the skin.
With the exception of retinoids these aren’t long term effects, but they help you get through the day, and that counts in my books. I will give you an overview over my favorite products at the end of this post.
Genetic Reasons for dark circles around the eyes
Although to be fair our anatomy is also determined by our genes, but I am lacking a better term here. Some people just naturally have hyperpigmentation around their eyes. It is often found to run in the family, is more common in people of color and tends to go all around the eyes, so is found not only under the eyes, but on the upper eyelids as well, almost like a dark circle going all around the eye.
Opposed to shadowing it won’t go away if you change the light to hitting your face from the front and it often manifests during adolescence or early twenties, but can be found in children as well.
Just like any other hyperpigmentation, prevention is key, so your best friend if you think you are genetically predisposed to it is sunscreen and good sunglasses to stop the sun from triggering the melanin production. (More info: Different kinds of hyperpigmentation)
If it is already there, you might have some success with ingredients that combat hyperpigmentation – I do talk a lot about that in different blogposts, but in short things like again retinoids, Vitamin C (More info: Everything you need to know about Vitamin C), Hydroquinone (More info: Is Hydroquinone safe to use?), Licorice Root Extract, Tranexamic Acid (More info: Tranexamic Acid for hyperpigmentation), Alpha Arbutin or exfoliating acids.
All of them can be used around the eyes, but with extreme caution as the skin there can be way more sensitive that the skin on the rest of the face, and irritation and inflammation is something we want to avoid as it can in itself worsen hyperpigmentation.
Dark circles under the eyes as side effects of other conditions
I already mentioned that inflammation can lead to hyperpigmentation, also known as PIH, and this is something you will see in people that suffer from atopic dermatitis or eczema in the eye area. It is also something that happens for people that have allergies that affect the eyes, like seasonal allergies, or that rub their eyes often for whatever reason – staring long hours at the computer screen comes to mind. The best treatment option here is of course to treat the allergy so the inflammation subsides and you can stop the rubbing – prevention again.
It is important to note that especially if you have eczema around the eyes, you need to be extra careful with the ingredients you use there! In theory all of the ones I mentioned before will help, but only if they do not trigger new inflammation. If they do, you might end up making things worse. (More info: Damaged skin barrier as reason for acne and eczema)
Another reason for dark circles could be an underlying condition that leaves you anaemic, meaning with too little red blood cells. Malnutrition might be the cause, iron deficiency or heavy menstrual bleeding also known as hypermenorrhoe, but also a malign condition, so checking in with your doctor is mandatory to rule that out.
It is also possible that venous stasis, aka blood flow through the veins being very slow, can lead to Hämosiderin being deposited in the tissue under the eyes due to red blood cells leaving the vessel and being broken down in the surrounding tissue, giving it a yellow-brownish discoloration. This seems to react well to Vitamin K containing products, which can be found in some eye creams, but none that I have personally tried.
For all these dark circles caused by underlying conditions, treating the cause is of course the way to go, and once that is done you can refer back to the other creams I will mention to care for the remaining hyperpigmentation.
Dark circles caused by lifestyle factors
These are the things that you probably already heard about and tried to address if you suffer from dark circles: Hydration and sleep, as well as the ones you are probably tired of me talking about: sun damage and aging.
Sun damage causes hyperpigmentation, that is not news, and most people do not sufficiently protect their eye area from UV exposure. Which I absolutely get, many sunscreens sting the eyes, mess up your makeup or cause a film on your contact lenses. There is no denying that trying to find one that works for your eye area is worth it though if you are serious about keeping your under eyes bright.
Aging causes dark circles to get worse by two different mechanisms: Increased skin laxity, which leads to more swelling and sometimes a protrusion of the periorbital structures, which again creates more shadowing. The second way is by reduction of said periorbital tissue as in muscular atrophy (reduction of muscle mass) and reduction of fat, which leads to the eye sinking back into the socket, again creating more shadowing.
Dehydration also leads to the eye sinking back into the socket, but you need to lack a lot of fluid for it to be noticeable, and lack of sleep causes darkness both by puffiness and by the blood vessels being more visible. (More info: Can you drink your way to perfect skin?)
Despite what you might have heard, both lack of sleep and dehydration do have an effect, but that effect is much less important than the other ones.
If you are fair skinned, the likeliest cause for dark circles is anatomical, which you can easily identify by changing how the light hits your face and seeing if that makes a difference. You can get some results by using topicals, but only in regards to the vascular component, not in terms of effects of the bone structure. Invasive procedures might give you results, but that needs to be examined by an experienced practitioner with an in person consultation.
The second reason is true hyperpigmentation, both hereditary, which is more common in people of color, and acquired through sun damage or as a result of inflammatory processes around the eyes. You can get some results with topicals here, but as always with hyperpigmentation that needs a lot of time and patience and a combination of ingredients. There are procedures that will offer benefits here are well, but again that requires a consultation with someone experienced. Don’t trust your eyes to the person offering the biggest discount, people!
Underlying health conditions are thankfully rare, but for obvious reasons can not be treated with eye creams, and lifestyle factors like sleep and hydration also do respond best to sleep and an extra glass of water rather than a cream.
Which brings me back to the bottom line of the first blog post I have mentioned: Eye creams are not the most efficient way to get rid of dark circles!
My favorite eye creams to help with Dark Circles
The only times when eye creams will help against dark circles are if they contain ingredients to combat hyperpigmentation or to constrict the blood vessels, and my favorites from each category are listed here.
Eye creams with retinoids to thicken and firm the skin
My current favorite is the Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Eye Serum (30 ml for 80 €, full review here), because I love the texture and the fact that it never irritates my eyes. If it is above your budget, which I absolutely get, The Inkey List Retinol Eye Cream is a great alternative (15 ml for 9,99 €, full review here).
Eye Creams to combat puffiness
The absolute best I have found for this is The Inkey List Caffeine Eye Serum (15 ml for 9,99 €, full review here), which even depuffs my eyes after a good hormonal crying session late at night. I often get asked how it compares to The Ordinary Caffeine Solution, but I honestly can’t tell. Whenever I wanted to try The Ordinary it was out of stock, which speaks for the product I guess.
Good Molecules have their Yerba Mate Wake Up Eye Gel (15 ml for 6$, full review here) that I liked as well and that might be easier to access for you.
When it comes to all the other ingredients like Alpha-Arbutin, Tranexamic Acid or Vitamin C, I just take my serum around the eyes and don’t use a dedicated eye cream, but if your eyes are really sensitive, I bet there is a product formulated specifically for the eye region.
You can shop my favorite eye creams here.
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