Let’s be honest: Even though we firmly believe dark under-eye circles are not the devil, they're a big deal for women across the board. In our recent state of skin survey, 60 percent of women ranked under-eye circles as a top five skin concern — beating out even cellulite and fine lines and wrinkles.
But the truth is, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for dark eye circles. In some cases, your genetics will overrule even the best under-eye cream. Womp, womp.
Since there are plenty of myths about dark under-eye circles, we asked three dermatologists to weigh in on the ins and outs, including what really causes them. (Hint: it’s more than a lack of sleep.)
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What Causes Dark Circles?
Even though sleep is often pointed at as the root cause of dark circles, that’s really only one of the reasons dark circles occur — and it’s not the main one, says California-based dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D. Here, the most common culprits.
“Dark circles around the eyes are a part of the normal aging process of the face,” Dr. Campbell says. As we age, she explains, we naturally lose fat under the eye. This contributes to dark circles because the under-eye area becomes sunken in and “can't reflect evenly off the skin, leading to a shadow or darkness.”
Another reason you might have dark circles? Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, aka darkness that is left behind after inflammation, notes Dr. Campbell, adding that patients with these types of dark circles usually suffer from itchy eczema or allergies that cause them to frequently rub their eyes.
Of course, dark under-eye circles — or any skin issue for that matter — would not be possible without considering certain lifestyle factors, which play a part in causing dull, aged skin in general, says Dr. Campbell.
“This includes sun exposure, which breaks down collagen and elastin and causes increased broken blood vessels in the skin — all which contribute to dark circles,” she says. “Lack of sleep, stress, alcohol, caffeine, and smoking can also contribute.”
And about sleep: As you know from pulling one too many all-nighters in college, exhaustion can play a part, says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a Boston-based dermatologist.
"If you are overtired, then it can cause an increase in the venous congestion of your under-eye vessels," she says. "This then leads to more blood volume and the appearance of darker circles."
It's genetics that takes the cake when it comes to dark circles, Dr. Campbell says. And your genetics can come into play in a multitude of ways. For example, genetics play a role in both your likelihood of developing the aforementioned eczema — and in how quickly your skin shows signs of aging. (But that doesn't mean SPF isn't important!)
Genetics, of course, also determines skin type and tone, which plays a role in how prone you may be to dark circles, Dr. Campbell says. While anyone can experience dark circles, as InStyle previously reported, dark circles are known to affect people with higher levels of melanin in their skin (anyone olive-toned and darker).
On the other hand, people with a naturally fair complexion might also more readily notice dark circles, says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
"Because the skin in this area is thin, you can easily see blood vessels under the skin," he notes, adding that these dark circles will typically have a purple-ish hue.
Can I Do Anything to Prevent Dark Circles?
For starters, you’ll want to stay on top of your sunscreen, choosing a solid formula (SPF 30 or higher and broad-spectrum), or opting for an SPF-based under-eye concealer, which will not only help cover up eye circles, but prevent future damage. (Dr. Campbell likes Colorscience’s Total Eye 3-in-1 Renewal Therapy SPF 35.) She also suggests wearing sunglasses with UV protection, which can help prevent worsening of dark circles caused by post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
You’ll also want to snag an under-eye cream that can help rebuild collagen and elastin (or keep it from breaking down in the first place), Dr. Campbell says. Her favorite is Replenix All-trans-Retinol Eye Repair Cream, which is made with key ingredients like retinol, green tea polyphenols, vitamins A, C, E and K, and hyaluronic acid.
How to Get Rid of Dark Circles
If you're deciding how to treat existing under-eye circles, know that there are creams, serums, and in-office procedures that can all help, depending on the type of dark circles you're dealing with.
Here, Dr. Zeichner and Dr. Campbell break down the best ways to treat each of the most common types of dark circles.
Dark circles caused by aging:
The best way to combat dark circles caused by the natural loss of fat under the eyes is a topical cream with retinol, "which stimulates collagen and strengthens the skin’s foundation," Dr. Zeichner says. Dr. Campbell adds that her go-to in-office procedure for this type of dark circles is a filler like Restylane.
Dark circles caused by hyperpigmentation:
Known as an “allergic shiner,” Dr. Campbell says these types of dark circles can often be treated by first addressing the irritant and then taking an antihistamine and/or applying a prescription anti-inflammatory cream that is safe to use around the eye.
When it comes to reducing the look of pigmentation, Dr. Zeichner leans on under-eye creams that boast vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that interferes with abnormal pigment production.”
Both dermatologists agree that the best in-office treatment for this type of dark circles likely involves a chemical peel or lasers. Dr. Zeichner added: “Speak to your dermatologist to see if one is right for you.”
Dark circles caused by thin or fair skin:
If you are noticing more blood vessels as a result of naturally fair or thin under-eye skin, then Dr. Zeichner says you can try "a two-pronged approach to treatment" by pairing a hyaluronic acid serum and topical retinol to plump and strengthen the under-eye area skin.
Dr. Hirsch agreed, adding that these creams, lotions and gel products are derived from vitamin A, which "works to increase cell turnover," therefore diminishing the appearance of dark circles."
These circles will also benefit from a trip to the derm for fillers, but you might also notice a reduced appearance with lasers, which can help to lessen the appearance of blood vessels, according to Dr. Campbell.
Bottom line with any treatment for under-eye circles: "Perfection is never attainable,” she says. “But if your expectations are realistic (and you have the budget for in-office procedures), you can likely improve the appearance of dark circles.”