For most people, the appearance of dark circles under the eyes is only a cosmetic concern (and not tied to a more serious health condition), but that doesn’t make them any less annoying. And when it comes to eye creams and other treatments, figuring out what’s causing your dark circles is essential in actually addressing the issue.
“That’s why so many people are disappointed with eye creams,” said Dr. Corey L. Hartman, medical director and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, and clinical assistant professor at the UAB Department of Dermatology.
He explained that the majority of people who come to him with dark undereye circles need filler. “An eye cream is never going to correct for a shadow created by lack of volume and lack of structure that happens as you mature because of your genetics.”
Speaking with a dermatologist is a great first step in figuring out the best products to suit your needs. “Eyes are tricky, and people need guidance when selecting an eye cream,” Hartman said. “If you get an eye cream without identifying the real source of the problem, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s why eye creams get a bad rap.”
What causes dark circles?
Dark undereye circles can be caused by a variety of factors. First off, genetics.
“The undereye area may be genetically hollow-appearing due to a lower bony orbital rim that surrounds the eye, so there’s more space that will catch a shadow and the eyes might appear more deep-set,” Dr. Janet Allenby, founder of Allenby Cosmetic Dermatology in Delray Beach, Florida, told HuffPost.
She added that some people have genetically darker skin around the eyes or visible discoloration that comes from small blood vessels in the skin under the eyes.
“The undereye area is one of the thinnest, most sensitive areas of the face and body and it has less oil glands and collagen, which predispose it to fine lines and wrinkles,” Dr. Papri Sarkar, a dermatologist in Newton, Massachusetts, told HuffPost.
Age is another contributing factor to dark undereye circles. “As people get older, the fat pad that provides structure in this area slowly sags downward,” Sarkar said. “That causes a volume loss in the tear trough. In most cases, I can help alleviate that with filler or energy-based devices like radiofrequency microneedling.”
Seasonal allergies or eczema can also contribute to dark circles because they can cause itchiness and inflammation in the eye area. “The inflammation alone can cause darkening even after it has healed, but rubbing it makes it much, much worse,” Sarkar said.
“The most important thing to do is keep your fingers off your skin!” she advised. “In addition, sunlight exposure can lead to darkening of the skin in this area.”
For these patients, Sarkar recommends treating the cause of the inflammation first before going in with brightening creams, retinoids and chemical peels.
Lack of sleep and alcohol consumption are another common cause. John Shaff, a physician assistant at Stockton Dermatology in Phoenix, explained that dark circles caused by these factors are usually temporary, and rest and hydration can help to diminish their appearance.
Dermatologist-Approved Products For Dark Circles
For dark circles caused by actual pigmentation/true discoloration:
This comes recommended by Hartman, who says it’s effective enough to treat discoloration and gentle enough to be used on the sensitive skin around the eye.
“If you have true melanin deposits from real discoloration because of allergies, chronic rubbing or just genetic predisposition, in my experience, azelaic acid is a good place to start, but as an active ingredient you really want something with hydroquinone, cysteamine or tranexamic acid,” he said.
Hartman added that while some over-the-counter products like AMBI Fade Cream contain 2% hydroquinone, when he’s treating patients for discoloration, he’s prescribing products in the 8-12% range.
This cosmeceutical product contains green tea and oak leaf tea extracts, which help reduce the appearance of dark circles, plus niacinamide and tetrapeptide-30, which help brighten and even out skin tone. Allenby notes that these ingredients reduce the colors red and brown, which contribute to dark undereye circles. “The colors can be due to translucent, thin skin that has vessels and muscle under the tissue which shows a darker hue,” she said.
Retinol, the hero ingredient in this product, builds collagen, evens out skin tone and decreases pigmentation –– but it can be irritating. “This one has a slow-release retinol so it’s much less irritating than your average retinol, which is important in the undereye area,” Sarkar said. The product can also help with dark circles caused by aging or volume loss.
For dark circles caused by aging/volume loss:
Great for sensitive skin, this eye cream is made with retinaldehyde, which is gentler than retinol. “I really like this for patients with an especially sensitive eye area (like me!)” Sarkar said.
“This product has the antioxidant and pigment reducer niacinamide, peptides and hyaluronic acid, so it can minimize hyperpigmentation, make the area look plumper and may boost collagen,” Sarkar said.
Recommended by Allenby, this product “improves the brilliance of the tissue by improving its thickness. It encourages collagen and elasticity growth and improves hydration.” In her practice, she’s found it to be helpful in addressing a tired eye appearance.
Shaff recommends looking for products containing hyaluronic acid, which hydrates and plumps the skin. Another good option is The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5. These products can also help with dark circles caused by lack of sleep.
For dark circles caused by lack of sleep:
This moisturizer contains dimethicone, an emollient that locks in moisture and smooths the skin, according to Shaff.
This de-puffing eye gel contains caffeine, which “works to constrict the blood vessels and can lighten and help with inflammation and bags,” said Shaff. He also recommends The Inkey List Caffeine Eye Cream.
“Hydrators, peptides and caffeine are the workhorse ingredients in this one,” Sarkar said. “They come together to plump the skin, potentially reduce the fat over time (good for eye bags) and may increase collagen.”
Containing hyaluronic acid, caffeine, antioxidants and peptides, Sarkar notes that this eye cream has similar ingredients to the previously mentioned SkinCeuticals A.G.E. Eye Complex “but it adds in antioxidants to help thwart damage from pollution and minimize the damage from UV rays.” As an added bonus, her patients love the texture of this product.
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