On a good day, a passerby probably wouldn't notice my dark under-eye circles. However, on a bad day...let's just say a few strangers have approached me to ask if I was okay because my purple swollen eyes misleadingly indicated tears. Truth be told, my biggest skincare baggage is definitely my under-eye area—especially because under-eye bags are rumored to be genetic, so I have little control over them. That's why I decided to ask a few specialists about the causes of dark circles, and if it's possible to get rid of them with an over-the-counter hydroquinone eye cream, which can lighten the often dark and discolored skin under my eyes.
If you've also been on the hunt for an under-eye lightening cream, you're in the right place. We reached out to five leading dermatologists for their expertise. Here, they explain the potential causes of dark circles, offer helpful lifestyle shifts and healthy habits that can minimize the unsightly appearance, and tell us how to find the best hydroquinone eye creams.
Eye Anatomy 101
"It's important to first understand the anatomy of the eye," says Melissa K. Levin, MD, a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center and Mount Sinai Hospital. "Eyelid skin is one of the areas where the skin is the thinnest in the body. So, essentially you have very thin delicate skin sitting over a hollow structure around the eyes where you have bone, blood vessels, fat pads, and muscles." Dr. Levin says that thin skin "dries and irritates easily, especially in women, since we are applying multiple products daily."
Dark Circle Basics
Doctors agree that dark under-eye circles are complex, and often have several underlying causes and variables at play. "[Some people] are born with under-eye circles, and therefore fall into the hereditary category," says Dendy Engelman, MD, a board-certified dermatologic surgeon at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery. "They're born with thinner, paler skin with more pigment under their eyes, and/or slower vascular movement." Cindy Yoon Soo Bae, MD, a dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York adds, "There can be a genetic component, but also environmental and lifestyle causes."
David Shafer, MD, FACS, of Shafer Plastic Surgery in New York City agrees. He says, "Dark under-eye circles are multifactorial." If you have dark circles, you may have several factors to blame, including genes. "There can be dark blood vessels, which are visible through the skin. Then there's the skin itself, which can be thicker and opaque, or thinner and translucent. Lastly, there's the surface of the skin, which can be dark with increased pigmentation. Many of these factors can be genetic, a result of your body's development, and environmental. However, in most cases, it's a combination of all the above."
Depending on your specific cocktail of factors, you should consult a dermatologist before deciding on the best dark circle treatment for you.
The Many Causes of Dark Circles
- Lack of sleep
- Sun damage
- Sinus congestion
- Rubbing eyelid skin due to allergies
- Excess pigmentation around the eyes
- Dilated blood vessels leading to infraorbital edema (swelling/puffiness) from inflammation
- Dry, irritated skin
- Bone loss and volume loss (maybe from aging or significant weight loss)
- Protrusion of fat pads (bags under the eyes)
- Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
Lifestyle Changes for Dark Circles
Before we get into treatment options and at-home remedies, let's start with some lifestyle changes you can make to help diminish the appearance of dark circles.
Protect Your Eyes From the Sun: "First and foremost is protection with sunscreen and sun protection with sunglasses in order to protect from ultraviolet damage that causes aging of the skin and further pigmentation," Dr. Levin says. Dermatologists recommend a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 50 for your face.
Hands Off: Avoid rubbing your eyes, says Dr. Francesca Fusco, MD, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai. "Individuals who have eczema or allergies tend to rub their eyes a lot, which can result in a form of dark skin called hyperpigmentation," she notes. Be gentle when washing your eyes or removing makeup, too, Dr. Bae advises. Keeping the skin around the eyes moisturized cuts down on dryness and irritation that will make you want to rub your eyes.
Reduce Sinus Congestion: Chronic sinus congestion can cause under-eye veins to fill with dark-colored blood. These veins may be visible through the skin or create a darkish hue around the eyes. Dr. Engelman suggests using "a daily sinus irrigation with a neti pot or similar product to clear the sinuses and improve the under-eye appearance." If that sounds too labor-intensive, she also says that "lymphatic drainage massages that you can do yourself can reduce the puffiness." Enter gua shas and facial rollers. Plus, they're relaxing and are a pretty accessory on a vanity or nightstand.
Treat Allergy Symptoms: Dr. Shafer reminds us that "allergies and sinus congestion can perpetuate dark under-eye circles. Controlling your symptoms and irritants can help reduce" the effects on your eyes. You can try over-the-counter sinus medications, or Dr. Engelmen suggests "speaking to your physician about getting antihistamines like Zyrtec and Claritin."
Since puffy eyes can have numerous causes, try to consult a dermatologist before shelling out the cash for a costly eye cream that may not be right for your skin concerns.
Get Enough Rest: Self-care—especially getting enough sleep—is essential. Dr. Shafer echoes that "being overtired can definitely affect your under-eyes." Your eyes are yet another reason to aim for eight hours of sleep a night.
Hero Ingredients in Eye Creams
While you can't change your DNA, Dr. Engelman says that "topically, there are products to reduce all the factors that contribute to dark circles." Our dermatologists shared the most effective ingredients to look for when choosing the best eye creams for dark circles.
Caffeine: Not only does it perk you up after a late night, caffeine does the same thing around the eyes by tightening blood vessels for a while. Dr. Shafer notes that "caffeine boosts the skin's energy." And Dr. Levin says that's why moist tea bags are a great at-home remedy to refresh tired eyes. "Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, which, in turn, reduces redness, swelling, and extensive fluid from pooling around the eyes. This will give a tightened appearance around the eyes." The benefits of caffeine don't stop there, though. "Caffeine has been shown to neutralize free radicals from DNA damage and contains anti-inflammatory properties, which can further improve skin texture," she says.
Hyaluronic Acid, Ceramides, and Humectants: That ultra-thin skin around the eye looks better when it's hydrated, and Dr. Levin recommends this trio for maximum hydration. "Keeping a strong skin barrier to this delicate area is crucial." Ceramides can boost collagen production and Dr. Bae is a fan of hyaluronic acid, which can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water.
Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide): All the B vitamins are cellular powerhouses, especially B3, which is also known as niacinamide. "This vitamin not only calms down redness and inflammation but also stimulates collagen production and increases free fatty acids in the skin to hydrate," Dr. Levin tells us.
Retinoids: "Retinoic acid creams should be used very cautiously to help slough the darkly pigmented skin," warns Dr. Bae. Dr. Fusco recommends looking for eye creams with retinal, another vitamin A derivative that promotes cell regeneration to keep your skin looking younger. Dr. Engelman adds, "For thin skin, a retinol can stimulate collagen production."
Vitamins A, C, and E: Dr. Shafer says, "Ingredients such as vitamins A, C, and E help with skin health and collagen." Vitamin C is integral in collagen production. It also helps brighten the skin and serves as a powerhouse antioxidant.
Kojic Acid: Kojic acid, derived from mushrooms, is touted for reducing hyperpigmentation. Dr. Fusco says it works well in eye creams, and so do licorice and rose oil for improving the appearance of the skin around the eye. Dr. Bae adds that "lightening products with kojic acid, glycolic acid [and] hydroquinone can be helpful."
The Best Eye Creams for Dark Circles
Dr. Levin suggests, "One of my favorites is SkinBetter Eye Cream that can be found in your dermatologist’s office. It not only targets hydration and dark circles, but focuses on anti-aging as well, since it is elegantly formulated with a number of active ingredients—peptides, neuro-calming peptides, vitamin C, humectants, antioxidants, moisturizing ingredients, and caffeine to decrease puffiness, dehydration, and under-eye bags without causing irritation."
"I love Cetaphil Hydrating Eye Cream as a 'gateway' eye cream that doesn't break your wallet!" Dr. Levin continues, "This eye cream focuses on hydration and brightening, since a primary concern is dryness and dark circles. The eye cream is chock-full of hydrating ingredients, including vitamin E, vitamin B3, and my favorite, hyaluronic acid, providing 24-hour hydration. It also has brightening ingredients—licorice root and grape extract—and is gentle enough to be used under the eyes and eyelids."
"Some dark circles appear that way because of thinning skin and an indentation or trough that appears. Individual[s] with this type benefit by using a deep puffing cream at night, which works while you’re sleeping, and then in the morning, as soon as they wake up, applying an eye mask that has been chilling in the refrigerator. Oh K! Ginseng and Eucalyptus Masks are excellent for this," Dr. Fusco recommends.
Dr. Engelman adds, "I recommend the SkinMedica TNS Eye Repair. It is designed to repair, nourish, and protect the delicate skin surrounding the eyes. Its rich texture supplies plumping moisture with hyaluronic acid in order to diminish dehydration lines and increase radiance and brightness. Vitamins A, C, and E provide antioxidant protection as they condition the skin and help to lighten dark under-eye circles. Peptides and TNS (Tissue Nutrient Solution) awaken and brighten the eye area, helping to preserve a youthful appearance."
As far as Dr. Shafer is concerned, there is one great treatment that works wonders. "Jack Black Protein Eye Booster contains grape seed extract and vitamins A, C, and E to help brighten skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines. I love the rollerball applicator so that you’re not rubbing your eyes with your fingers."
Dr. Fusco adds, "Under-eye wrinkles and crow's feet can make existing dark circles appear even darker, so it is very important to hydrate the under-eye. But you don't want to over-hydrate and cause the skin to puff. An excellent choice for this would be Weleda Renewing Eye Cream; it contains musk rose seed oil, which is excellent for delicate skin, and it hydrates without popping up."
Dr. Fusco also suggests using "an eye cream that has peptides and anti-agers like NeoGlucosamine, which is a non-acid amino sugar that diminishes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and works to alleviate any discoloration around the eyes." She adds, "NeoStrata Skin Active Intensive Eye Therapy works short term and long term."
"Having a dedicated eye product is very important for people after the age of 25. I like the Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Eye Capsules at night and the Valmont Eye Cream in the morning." Dr. Engelman suggests.
"Revision's Teamine Eye Complex has been a favorite of dermatologists for dark circles for many years," Dr. Levin admits. "It’s formulated with three different antioxidants, including vitamin C, green tea extract, and grape seed oil, as well as skin brighteners, including mica, silica, and titanium dioxide."
Dr. Shafer also recommends Jack Black De-Puffing and Cooling Gel, which contain peptides "to aggressively target crow's feet and expression lines. Peptides tighten the skin to reduce the sogginess that can contribute to the appearance of darker under-eye circles."
"Medical-grade products such as SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 can help lighten and brighten the skin. It's important to know that all of these products work at the molecular level, and improvement will be seen over weeks of regular use," Dr. Shafer advises.
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