Dark circles under eyes: causes & treatment

Dark circles

Dark under-eye circles are one of the most common skin concerns. If you’re struggling with them, you’ve likely wondered “why me?” We know the feeling, and it inspired us to research the main cause of dark circles. As it turns out, many things cause or contribute to dark circles under the eyes and some of them may surprise you!

In this article:

 

What causes dark circles under eyes?

The major reasons why dark circles show up and persist under the eye area are as follows:

  • Sun damage from years of unprotected sun exposure (tanning indoors or out is the worst) leads to excess pigmentation showing through the thin skin underneath the eyes.
  • Blood flow showing through the thin skin around the eye, sometimes referred to as vascular dark circles.
  • Using irritating ingredients, including fragrance, around the eye area.
  • Allergies.
  • Inherited traits, where there’s a family tendency to have dark circles around the eyes or just under the eye area.
  • Natural shadows, resulting from having deep-set eyes.
  • Shadowing from sagging skin and lost facial volume.
  • Build-up of dry, dehydrated skin around the eyes, causing dullness and a loss of radiance.
  • A habit of rubbing skin around the eyes, which steadily damages delicate under-eye skin.
  • Iron or vitamin B12 deficiencies may be contributing factors, but research establishing a strong link is lacking.

Surprisingly, not getting enough sleep is not a cause of black circles around eyes, but failing to get sufficient sleep makes existing darkness look worse, as many of us know all too well.

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Do dark circles go away?

As you can see, dark circles are complex because of their many causes. Although most cases of dark circles, like those that are hereditary, are permanent and cannot be completely eliminated, they can appear better or worse based on your everyday habits and the skincare products you use.

For example, the appearance of dark circles might be exacerbated during allergy season, when skin-irritating pollen drives you to rub and pull at your eyes. On the flip side, dark under-eye circles may lighten after a period when you consciously choose not to rub the delicate skin surrounding the eye.

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How to get rid of dark circles?

If you have dark circles under the eyes and have tried to get rid of them, you’ve likely been disappointed by the results. “Dark eye circles are multifactorial and highly specific to each person. If the direct causes aren’t addressed, the results will be lacklustre,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman.

As mentioned above, you cannot get rid of dark circles permanently, but using specific skincare for dark circles can make an impressive difference.

  • Using gentle, well-formulated skincare products, from a nourishing cleanser to a leave-on AHA or BHA exfoliant, a retinol product, a serum, and a sunscreen, along with a dark circles under-eye cream, will give you consistent, incremental improvements in the appearance of under-eye circles.
  • Use a brightening product. A well-formulated skin brightener can help combat dark circles as it improves the luminosity and vibrancy under the eyes. Look for eye creams for dark circles with formulas starring skin-brightening antioxidants like vitamin C (ascorbic acid or its derivatives). For even better results, layer multiple brightening products during both your morning and evening skincare routine (don't forget to top it off with sunscreen during the day).
  • Try azelaic acid: one of the best ingredients for dark circles. Higher concentrations of this ingredient can soften the look of dark circles due to sun damage. You can layer an azelaic acid product with those that contain the brightening ingredients listed above; in fact, doing so may lead to more dramatic results, especially for very dark circles. Apply once or twice daily to the under-eye area.
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How to reduce dark circles

In short, a well-formulated skincare routine that includes daily broad-spectrum sun protection with a product rated SPF 30 or greater is necessary to improve this common eye area concern. After all, sun damage is a surprising hidden cause of dark circles.

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How to prevent dark circles

If you don’t have dark circles and are looking to avoid getting them in the future, focus on protecting the under-eye area from sun damage and sensitisation, as these are two of the main contributing factors to their development. Adopting practices that limit the eye area’s exposure to UV rays (hello, sunglasses!), skin-sensitising ingredients, and environmental aggressors can help stave off under-eye darkness. A great way to start is to audit your skincare stash. Look for formulas that contain volatile fragrances that can cause sensitisation around the eyes. As this doesn’t just cause redness and dryness, it can also cause or worsen dark circles. While auditing, make sure you have a gentle, mineral-based sunscreen SPF 30+ chock full of antioxidants that you use every morning around the eyes, as this type of product is unlikely to sting the delicate skin in this area.

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Do eye creams work for dark circles?

Well-formulated eye creams can work to reduce the appearance of dark circles. Look for those with skin-replenishing ingredients, like ceramides, that assist with hydration and keep under-eye skin supple and nourished.

As mentioned above, skin-brightening ingredients, gentle, well-formulated skincare products, and azelaic acid all work well to protect the under-eye area from further darkening, especially when used together. Another ingredient to consider using is niacinamide: dark circles can benefit from its brightening effects. However, as dark circles have many causes, below we’re breaking down which ingredients to look out for in your eye cream, based on your specific dark circle cause.

  • Dark circles + allergies: Allergies irritate the under-eye area and lead us to tug and pull at the skin there too. To combat the redness and darkness that allergies tend to promote, look for an eye cream with skin-soothing ingredients, like allantoin, and avoid formulas that contain fragrance, which sensitises skin.
  • Dark circles + thin skin: Some dark circles worsen when the skin around the eyes becomes thinner. Applying eye cream that includes ingredients that promote firmness, like resveratrol, can help restore the look of skin density under the eyes, resulting in lighter under-eye circles. Skin-restoring ingredients like peptides and hydrators, including hyaluronic acid, can also temporarily increase the plumpness of the under-eye area, decreasing the appearance of dark circles.
  • Dark circles + environmental stressors (sun, pollution): Antioxidants are superstars when it comes to protecting the skin from potentially harmful environmental stressors that worsen the look of dark circles. If you notice your under eyes getting darker in colour due to your environment, seek out an antioxidant-rich eye cream formula. Zerumbone, an antioxidant derived from the stems of wild ginger, is a great ingredient to look for to combat environmental stressors, as it also targets the root causes of dark circles.
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How to use under-eye cream for dark circles

Although we stress gentle application of all skincare products, it’s integral for the application of eye creams, especially eye creams for dark circles. Rubbing, patting and swiping with force can all aggravate the under-eye area (worsening dark circles) and contribute to signs of ageing.

Here’s how to properly use eye cream for dark circles:
1. Squeeze a small amount (no larger than the size of a pea) onto the ring finger.
2. Gently pat around the eye area. Start closer to the inner corner and work outwards.
3. For daytime, let it absorb before layering a gentle, mineral-based sunscreen (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) over the area to help prevent dark circles from worsening.
4. Wait before applying concealer or foundation on top. If you choose to use makeup, practice using the same gentle patting motions to blend in.

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Non-skincare tips for dark circles

Here’s what else you can do to help visibly reduce dark circles under the eyes:

  • Always wear sunglasses outdoors. As effective as using sunscreen in the eye area is, the delicate skin around the eyes needs more protection. Sunglasses rated to provide 100% UV protection will make a big difference.
  • Use an over-the-counter antihistamine. Allergies often are an unsuspected cause of or contributor to dark circles (and puffy eyes). Consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist for recommendations.
  • Find a great concealer. Concealers with a soft matte or satin finish (rather than one that’s creamy or greasy) are best because they tend to last longer and don’t crease.
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Dark circle eye treatments

What in-office treatments are available? Research has shown several options have promise, although most require more than one treatment to get the best results. Intense pulsed light (IPL), radiofrequency, Q-switched ruby lasers, pulsed dye lasers and other vascular lasers, picosecond pigment lasers and ablative lasers (which have the biggest risks and longest recovery time) are all worth discussing with your dermatologist.

What else can be done by a doctor? Dermal fillers using hyaluronic acid, fat transfer, and a cosmetic surgery procedure known as blepharoplasty can provide further improvement.

Chemical peels with salicylic acid (BHA) are sometimes used to improve dark circles, almost always in combination with other treatments. When it comes to treating dark circles, it takes a village!

All of these treatments address the underlying causes of dark circles or surface discolourations, or they help improve skin around the eyes, so it becomes smoother, firmer, and tighter. Hitting all three targets, along with a great skincare routine (don’t forget the sunscreen!) is the research-proven way to make dark circles look dramatically better.

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Home remedies for dark circles

It’d be convenient if the home remedies and DIY solutions we encountered through word-of-mouth and social media really worked for under-eye circles; however, many such tips touted as “effective” are barely beneficial at best.

The idea that sliced, chilled or frozen cucumbers placed gently over the eyes can do everything from curing irritation to lightening dark circles has long been a part of skincare folklore. Unfortunately, this eye area cure-all simply doesn’t live up to the hype. There’s no research to prove that raw, sliced cucumber helps combat dark circles, even if the cucumber is frozen. When applying chilled cucumber to the under-eye area, it’s the coldness, not the cucumber that’s helping reduce puffy eyes, but this concern is unrelated to dark circles.

It’s long been said that a good night’s sleep banishes dark circles. After learning more about dark circles, it’s easy to now see that a solid eight hours of sleep cannot reverse under-eye discolouration. Sleep just can’t combat inherited traits, allergies, or sun damage, but it can help dark circles from worsening.

Learn more about eye cream.

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References for this information:

  • Cosmetics, March 2021, ePublication
  • The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 2016, 49-55
  • Lasers in Medical Science, December 2016, pages 1783–1787
  • Skin Research and Technology, August 2016, pages 276–283
  • Indian Journal of Dermatology, July-August 2016, pages 413–417
  • Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery, April-June 2016, pages 65–72
  • The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, January 2016, pages 49–55
  • Annals of Brazilian Dermatology, July-August 2015, pages 494–503
  • Indian Journal of Dermatology, March-April 2014, pages 151–157
  • Annals of Brazilian Dermatology, January-February 2014, pages 11–25
  • Dermatologic Surgery, August 2012, pages 1277–1282
  • Dermatologic Surgery, August 2009, pages 1163–1171

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