In this article:
- The skin around the eyes becomes thinner and less elastic with advancing age, which explains why older adults are more prone to getting dark circles.
- Genetics and insufficient sleep are two of the most commonly reported causes of dark circles.
- LED screens emit harmful rays that can strain your eyes and lead to the appearance of dark circles.
- Certain medical treatments along with proper lifestyle changes can help you get rid of dark circles that fail to resolve on their own.
What Are Dark Circles?
Everyone tends to get dark circles under the eyes from time to time. Dark circles are unlikely to affect your general health but they can impact your overall appearance.
A dark shadow encircling your eyes can make you look tired, sleep deprived, depressed, or hungover.
The skin around your eyes is much thinner than the skin on the rest of your body, as it contains little to no subcutaneous tissue. The lack of subcutaneous padding makes the skin not only extremely fragile but also relatively translucent. This means that the blood vessels underneath the skin are easily visible on the surface.
It is for this reason that you have to be especially careful and gentle when handling the delicate area around your eyes.
In most cases, resting your eyes along with some self-care measures should suffice to fade the pigmentation.
However, some people may develop stubborn rings around their eyes, which are too intensely pigmented to be camouflaged by makeup.
This beauty concern affects both sexes but is increasingly common in females. Even though dark circles are not limited to any particular age group or skin color, they may be more prevalent in some than others.
Eye Bags, Puffy Eyes, and Dark Circles: Not Really the Same!
The skin covering the body is held firmly in place with the support of a subcutaneous layer of fat. But the under-eye skin is naturally slack and thin because it has very little subcutaneous fat to support it.
Moreover, the minimal fat that is present also wears away as one gets older.
It is very common for people to get puffy eyes due to oversleeping, sleep deprivation, sleeping on the stomach, alcohol abuse, high salt intake, excessive crying, and other factors that can cause fluid retention in the front of the face, particularly around the eyes.
Dehydration also plays a significant role in the onset of edema or water retention inside the body.
Moreover, seasonal allergies can also trigger an inflammatory response in the body, which can make the wafer-thin skin around the eyes swell up.
Although typical puffiness around the eyes usually subsides after a short while, some people may develop bags under their eyes due to age-related skin sagging.
The elasticity of the skin diminishes as one gets older. This loss of elasticity is particularly noticeable in the delicate area around the eyes where the skin is already quite frail and loose.
As the supportive tissues and muscles around the eyes become weaker over time, they fail to hold the subcutaneous fat in the upper eye. The fat then shifts below the lid. The under-eye deposits of fat are colloquially referred to as eye bags.
Dark circles are sometimes used interchangeably with puffy eyes or eye bags, but these conditions are not entirely the same.
Dark circles may or may not appear with puffy eyelids. The swelling in the lower lid due to fluid retention or skin sagging often casts a shadow, which may seem like a dark circle but is not in the real sense of the word.
Genuine dark circles are usually the result of any of the causes discussed below.
Causes of Dark Circles
Dark circles around the eyes commonly occur due to the following:
In most cases, the appearance of dark circles has a genetic component. If dark circles run in your family, you are inherently prone to get them as well. People who inherit this trait may develop dark circles from early childhood and usually find it harder to treat them.
Hereditary dark circles are not caused by any of the standard curable factors. This makes them resistant to most treatments.
Some people may experience worsening of the dark circles with advancing age. Others may get rid of them naturally after a while.
Dark circles can also be the result of hyperpigmentation under the eyes, often due to excessive sun exposure. The increased accumulation of melanin around the eyelid can make the skin in that area darker than the surrounding skin, leading to the formation of hyperpigmented rings around the eyes.
Because these dark circles are caused by a change in pigmentation, they tend to be more stubborn than those caused by temporary factors, as it can take some time for the skin discoloration to fade.
People with Asian or African ancestry are more prone to such changes in skin color.
If the darkness under your eyes does not disappear when you press on it, it is most likely caused by excessive melanin.
3. Facial bone structure
Dark circles are more common in people with deep-set facial bones. This kind of bone structure is usually characterized by a hollow depression under the eyes. The depressed area appears darker than the surrounding skin due to the shadow cast by the protruding brow bone.
People tend to get dark circles when their minds and body are not well rested. The blood vessels that lie below the wafer-thin under-eye skin tend to be more conspicuous against pale, dull skin and appear in the shape of dark circles around the eyes.
Multiple factors can make your skin lose its natural healthy color, which include increased stress, weakness, and lack of sleep. (1)
5. Water retention
When your body fails to get sufficient water on a regular basis, it starts extracting fluid from the cells and storing it in the skin and tissues to meet its hydration needs.
Thus, as counterintuitive as it may sound, dehydration is one of the most common causes of edema or water retention.
Other factors that can disrupt the fluid balance inside your body include excessive salt and alcohol intake, which can leave your body dehydrated and can trigger water retention.
The pooling of water inside your under-eye skin makes the area appear swollen and pushes the underlying blood vessels closer to the surface, which imparts a dark purplish-blue hue under the lid.
Collagen and elastin are structural proteins that serve as the building blocks of your skin. Collagen and elastin production gradually declines with increasing age, which can make your skin less elastic over time.
The skin around your eyes is thinner than the skin covering the rest of the body. This makes it especially vulnerable to the ill effects of skin aging. It is for this reason that wrinkles, fine lines, and other signs of premature aging are most visible around the eyes.
The skin only gets thinner as one gets older. As a result, the blood vessels that lie under it become more prominent in the form of dark circles.
Dark circles can also be a side effect of medications that make your blood vessels dilate and carry an increased amount of blood. Because the skin under the eyes is quite thin and translucent, the enhanced blood flow appears as a purple-blue tint on the surface, taking the shape of dark circles.
8. Eye rubbing
Rubbing your eyes can damage or rupture the underlying blood vessels. This, in turn, causes blood to leak out and pool in the under-eye area, which can be seen as a dark purplish hue on the surface.
An unhealthy lifestyle can also contribute to the appearance of dark circles. The primary culprits include improper diet, harmful habits such as smoking, and eye strain due to excessive exposure to LED screens. (2)
Medical Conditions That May Worsen Dark Circles
Even though dark circles are regarded as a cosmetic concern with no serious health implications, certain medical conditions can aggravate this problem.
- Allergy: People often get darkness under their eyes in the wake of an allergic reaction. When an allergen enters your system, the body views it as a foreign threat.
Your immune system then goes on the defensive by triggering an inflammatory response via the release of potent chemicals such as histamine.
This response leads to swelling and dilation of the small blood vessels, particularly in the under-eye area. As the blood vessels expand, they carry more blood and become congested.
The pooling of blood under the skin becomes apparent as dark circles on the surface.
Such dark circles are more common in cases of nasal allergies, such as allergic rhinitis, which leads to congestion in the entire sinus area, often referred to as allergic “shiners.”
- Anemia: Hemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen to body tissues.
Anemia occurs when your body does not have enough hemoglobin or has an abnormally low red blood cell (RBC) count to sustain a healthy oxygen supply from the lungs to the different parts of the body.
In most cases, the lack of RBCs is due to insufficient iron stores in the body. Because iron is a crucial element for the production of RBCs, its deficiency can significantly hamper the flow of oxygen to the body’s organs.
This can make your skin appear paler than usual. The discoloration under the eyes tends to stand out even more against pale skin, which is why anemia can make dark circles more prominent.
Menstruation and pregnancy can also make your skin appear more washed out than normal and consequently highlight the darkness around the eyes.
- Dermatitis: Both atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis are associated with inflammation of the skin, which tends to be more pronounced in the sensitive area under the eyes.
The inflammation is often followed by the deposition of excessive melanin in certain spots, most notably the thin under-eye skin. This can contribute to the occurrence or exacerbation of hyperpigmented rings around the eyes.
Diagnosing Dark Circles
Dark circles can result from a number of different factors. Hence, reaching a correct diagnosis requires a thorough medical investigation.
The doctor will start by reviewing your personal, medical, and family histories before proceeding to a physical examination. He/she will look at your dark circles under a “Wood’s lamp,” which emits ultraviolet light to evaluate the depth of pigmentation.
Treatment for Dark Circles
The treatment for your dark circles depends upon their severity and the underlying cause. Multiple interventions can be used to address the pigmentation around your eyes, but each treatment may not work for all types of dark circles. (3)
1. Concealers and cosmeceuticals
Dark circles are usually nothing to get worked up about as they resolve on their own after a few days of restful sleep.
In the meantime, you can use makeup to camouflage the dark shadows under your eyes.
Choosing the right shade of foundation or concealer is very important to cover the discoloration and even out your skin tone, or else it will draw more attention to the problem area.
If your dark circles have a purplish-blue hue, a yellow-based concealer works best to cover the pigmentation. People with brown-tinted dark circles are advised to use orange-based or peach-based concealers.
Additionally, you must always use a shade lighter than your original skin tone when concealing dark circles to brighten the under-eye area.
This method of color correction is the least invasive way to reduce the appearance of dark circles.
2. Topical aids
A number of over-the-counter products may help lighten skin discoloration while improving collagen synthesis, two factors that can minimize the appearance of dark circles.
Retinoids are among the most widely used topical agents that aim to enhance the structural quality and appearance of the skin.
They are essentially vitamin A derivatives that seep into the skin to promote collagen production and reduce melanin production. Thus, the proper use of retinoids can make your skin smoother and more elastic over time while evening out any pigmented patches.
Other skin-enhancing compounds that can be used to address under-eye hyperpigmentation include hydroquinone, azelaic acid, kojic acid, arbutin, vitamin C, vitamin K, and haloxyl.
These compounds can only help diminish the visibility of dark circles when applied in the right dosage. Overuse of such skin products can lead to irritation and other side effects.
Some individuals use Preparation H (hemorrhoid cream/ointment), but this medication mainly addresses under-eye swelling rather than pigmentation.
1. Medical tattoos
Blepharopigmentation is a minimally invasive medical procedure that involves tattooing along the lower eyelid to define its margin and smoothen out the hyperpigmentation in that area.
2. Chemical peel
Chemical peeling is a clinical procedure that may help lighten the dark circles caused by surface-level hyperpigmentation. Given that the skin covering the lower lids is extremely thin, only a mild exfoliant such as glycolic acid is used to prevent potential skin damage.
A chemical peel can be used as a standalone treatment for dark circles or in conjunction with other topical bleaching agents.
3. Laser therapy
Both invasive and noninvasive lasers have been used to improve under-eye darkening. The type of laser depends on the underlying issue with the skin.
Q-switched laser targets pigmentation, radiofrequency helps with collagen production and skin tightening, and intense pulsed light (IPL) can improve mild pigmentation secondary to sun damage.
Ablative laser resurfacing is a more powerful invasive laser that can improve skin pigmentation, stimulate collagen production, and soften fine lines. This laser has the ability to target multiple factors contributing to under-eye circles.
4. Hyaluronic acid gel soft tissue fillers
Blepharoplasty involves cutting into the lower eyelid area to scoop out the excess fat deposits, muscle, and skin that may be casting a shadow under your eyes. (4)
Even though this surgery is one of the more invasive measures, it is also one of the most effective ways to correct the contour irregularities that contribute to baggy eyelids and dark circles.
Dark Circles: Dos and Don’ts
- Sleep it off: People who do not sleep well usually develop puffiness and dark rings around their eyes, which make them look extremely strung out.
Lack of sleep is perhaps one of the most common causes of dark circles. Thus, you must get a minimum of 7 to 9 hours of sleep daily.
Your body needs restful sleep to re-energize and repair itself to function at its best. Additionally, your eyes deserve a break after working tirelessly throughout the waking hours.
- Elevate your head: Another common reason for dark circles is the buildup of fluid around the eyelids. The fluid drains into the periorbital area, causing swelling and pushing the blood vessels closer to the skin surface.
Sleeping on your stomach or flat on your back can worsen this kind of under-eye edema. Raise the head of your bed by a few inches or prop a few pillows under your head to keep it slightly elevated while you sleep.
The downward force exerted by gravity will keep the fluid from accumulating around your eyes as you catch up on your sleep.
- Apply a cold compress: If your dark circles are caused by dilated under-eye blood vessels, you can use cold therapy to constrict the vessels and reduce the pooling of blood in the area.
Take a clean soft paper towel, soak it in cold water, and wring out the excess liquid. Then, hold the towel against the affected area for some time while keeping your eyes closed.
You can use store-bought cold compresses as well. You can also simply place a chilled teaspoon or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a soft cloth over your closed eyes.
- Stay hydrated: Dehydration can contribute to the appearance of dark circles. Individuals who are prone to this problem are advised to drink plenty of fluids, preferably 7-8 glasses of water in a day.
Spread out your water intake throughout the day so that your body remains well hydrated all the time.
- Quit smoking: Smokers are more likely to develop dark circles than nonsmokers, all other factors remaining the same.
Nicotine shrinks the blood vessels and limits blood flow, speeding up skin aging. The skin around the eyes is thinner than that of the rest of the body, which makes it more prone to wrinkling, creasing, darkening, and sinking.
Thus, people who smoke should consider quitting this harmful habit in the interest of better skin and overall health.
Some other don’ts:
- Do not go to sleep with your makeup on.
- Do not rub your eyes too much or too vigorously.
How to Reduce the Appearance of Dark Circles
Lighten dark circles around the eyes by trying these remedies at home:
Cucumbers are water-logged plants that are renowned for their cooling and astringent properties, both of which can help lighten dark circles.
According to a small-scale study conducted on 21 women, the topical use of a cream with concentrated cucumber extracts can help lighten and moisturize the skin while shrinking the oil glands underneath it to curb sebum secretion. (5)
Moreover, cucumber is extremely mild and is therefore unlikely to cause any damage to the delicate skin around the eyes.
- You can safely apply raw cucumber slices over your eyes to help fade the dark circles and bring down the puffiness around your eyes.
- For this topical therapy to deliver the desired results, it is vital that you refrigerate the slices for a few hours before applying.
Caffeine, when used topically, can help diminish the visibility of dark circles by reducing fluid retention and melanin concentration in the under-eye area.
This effect was demonstrated in a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study wherein the application of a caffeine-based gel on the lower eyelid was found effective in reducing the pigmentation and edema-induced swelling that contribute to the development of dark circles. (3)
Moreover, a single-blind trial found that the use of eye pads containing caffeine and vitamin K in an emollient base reduced under-eye pigmentation and improved the elasticity of the skin. (6)
3. Tea bags
One of the simplest eye therapies to lessen the prominence of dark circles is placing soaked tea bags over them. Green tea is preferred for this purpose due to its high tannin and antioxidant content.
- Place damp tea bags over your closed eyes for a few minutes, and then rinse your eyes thoroughly.
Note: When applying used tea bags, check their temperature beforehand to avoid burning your delicate eyelid skin.
Other Popular Anecdotal Remedies
Potato: The skin-lightening properties of potato are much talked about but remain unsupported by science. A lot of general users have reported positive results after using potato slices topically for their dark circles.
Coconut oil: Another remedy for dark circles that enjoys considerable anecdotal success but has little to no scientific backing is coconut oil.
Turmeric: One study found that the topical application of turmeric extract helped lighten the appearance of facial hyperpigmentation, which is a major cause of dark circles. However, the bleaching effects of turmeric need to be investigated further by more rigorous clinical studies before pushing it as a standard treatment for dark circles. (9)
Aloe vera: Aloe vera is credited with multiple skin benefits, so it is no surprise that it may help reduce dark circles. Although there are no direct human studies to establish the efficacy of aloe vera in this regard, it is widely used as an anecdotal remedy for dark circles. (9)
Note: The skin around the eyes is extremely sensitive, so you have to be extra careful when using any of the above-listed topical agents. Patch testing the remedy on the underside of your arm before applying it on your face is a must to rule out the risk of any adverse reaction.
Can Children Get Dark Circles Under Their Eyes?
People of all ages can get dark circles, including children.
While several different causes can lead to the appearance of dark circles, kids usually develop them while fighting colds, allergies, or other forms of nasal congestion.
A clogged nose is a common occurrence during childhood, which can make the veins around the eyes expand and become dark due to the pooling of blood.
Because the skin around the eyes is very thin and relatively see-through, the dilated blood vessels become more prominent, imparting a dark discoloration under the eye.
Moreover, fair-skinned children and those who are born with genetically thinner skin than usual develop dark circles more easily.
When to See a Doctor
Dark circles are usually treated as a cosmetic concern rather than as a medical problem.
However, the condition may warrant medical attention if the pigmentation is limited around one eye or if it gets progressively worse.
What you may ask your doctor:
- What may be causing these dark circles?
- Why are my dark circles so noticeable?
- What is the safest treatment for my dark circles?
- Are there any cosmetic procedures to completely get rid of these dark circles?
What your doctor may ask you:
- Do any of your family members suffer from dark circles?
- What is your sleep schedule?
- How long have you had these dark circles?
- Have you been under a lot of stress lately?
- Have you taken any medication recently?
- Did you have a cosmetic procedure?
In general, dark circles are harmless and rarely indicate a serious underlying problem. But despite their overwhelming incidence, there aren’t enough published studies to explain the exact causes and pathogenesis of this condition. (10)