Let’s be honest: Waking up with dark circles is, well, not ideal. Yet it’s something that many people experience every morning. “Dark circles are a common concern among my patients,” says board-certified dermatologist Courtney Rubin, MD. And while the internet might have you believe that a single, standalone approach will work to treat any dark circles, Rubin points out that myriad factors contribute to their development—and understanding each is critical to getting rid of them.
Ahead, Rubin, along with board-certified dermatologists Dendy Engleman, MD, and Alan Parks, MD, and board-certified cosmetic surgeons David Shafer, MD, and Reza Tigari, MD, outlines potential causes for dark circles and how you can address them.
Meet the Expert
- Courtney Rubin, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Fig.1.
- Dendy Engleman, MD, is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon at New York City's Shafer Clinic.
- Alan Parks, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Park Perfection.
- David Shafer, MD, is a cosmetic surgeon who leads Shafer Plastic Surgery in New York City.
- Reza Tirgari, MD, is a cosmetic surgeon and founder of the San Diego–based boutique laser treatment clinic and medical spa Avalon Laser.
"[Some people] are born with under-eye circles and therefore fall into the hereditary category," says Engelman. "They're born with thinner, paler skin with more pigment under their eyes, and/or slower vascular movement."
"There can be dark blood vessels, which are visible through the skin," Shafer further explains. "Then there's the skin itself, which can be thicker and opaque or thinner and translucent. Lastly, there's the skin's surface, 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, all the above."
Treatment options: “There are always things you can try to help mask the appearance of dark circles, such as eye creams that include caffeine, retinol, algae, hyaluronic acid, and more," says Parks. "Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, which, in turn, reduces redness, swelling, and extensive fluid from pooling around the eyes," adds Levine. "This will give a tightened appearance around the eyes."
Since the ultra-thin skin around the eye looks better when hydrated, Levine also recommends a trio of humectants, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid for maximum hydration, emphasizing "keeping a strong skin barrier to this delicate area is crucial." Engelman adds, "for thin skin, a retinol can stimulate collagen production."
You're Losing Volume
A major reason dark, sunken under-eyes become visible is due to a natural loss of volume in the facial area. “Underneath the eye is a special pillow of soft tissue called the SOOF (suborbicularis oculi fat),” explains Rubin. “Over time, this pillow of tissue shrinks and descends, leading to a decrease in the natural volume of the under eye and the creation of a shadow. This is one of the most common causes of dark circles.”
What’s more, she points out that as we age, the delicate skin covering that area of tissue is also prone to losing collagen and elastin, leading to thinner skin and even more obvious volume loss and shadows. Tigari adds that as volume diminishes under the eye and skin becomes thinner, the deeper capillary bed becomes more noticeable, which is why the under-eye area appears darker with age.
Treatment options: “Fortunately, [volume loss] can be corrected easily and quickly with specific dermal fillers that are made for this purpose,” Tigari says, noting that if that’s your goal, it's important to see a practitioner who has skill and experience with the procedure.
You're Not Getting Enough Sleep
Here’s another fairly well-known cause of dark under-eye circles. Tigari points out that sleep irregularities can lead to eyes appearing dark and/or baggy as a reflection of a hectic schedule.
Treatment options: “It always helps to sleep at the same time every evening so that your body's circadian rhythm can get used to a regular schedule and prevent insomnia,” Tirgari says.
You've Got Allergies or Sinus Congestion
Allergies have such a common impact on the appearance of under-eyes that Rubin says there’s actually a name for it: “allergic shiners.”
“Basically, the inflammation from allergic conjunctivitis (allergies affecting the eyes), along with frequent friction and rubbing of an itchy eye area, can lead to broken blood vessels and bruising,” she explains. “As the bruising heals, pigmented hemosiderin (a component of hemoglobin) is left behind, which causes dark marks under the eyes.” Even without rubbing, however, the periocular inflammation associated with allergic conjunctivitis is enough to cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation by itself, according to Rubin.
Treatment options: According to Shafer, "controlling your symptoms and irritants can help reduce" the effects on your eyes. You can try over-the-counter sinus medications, or as Engelman suggests, "speak to your physician about getting antihistamines like Zyrtec and Claritin." She also recommends "a daily sinus irrigation with a neti pot or similar product to clear the sinuses and improve the under-eye appearance" and notes that "lymphatic drainage massages that you can do yourself can reduce the puffiness" (think gua sha and facial rollers).
“Remember, water makes up about 60 percent of the human body,” Rubin says. “If you are seriously dehydrated, your body’s tissues will begin to shrink, including your skin and the delicate tissue under the eyes.” So if you’re, say, in your 20s, you might want to reevaluate your water consumption before automatically jumping toward cosmetic treatments.
Treatment options: If you find that you do drink plenty of water, perhaps it’s other beverages you indulge in that could be to blame. Tigari notes that caffeine, alcohol, and other diuretics may lead to dehydration and require even more water for recovery—so you may want to scale back.
You're Straining Your Eyes
Straining your eyes doesn’t just hurt your vision—according to Parks, it can impact your under-eye appearance, too. “When you struggle to see something and strain your eyes, your blood vessels enlarge under your skin and show through as dark circles more prominently,” he explains.
Treatment options: Parks suggests getting your eye prescription checked to avoid further straining and, as a result, darkening.
You've Got an Underlying Medical Condition
A less likely cause of dark circles is an underlying health condition. “There are conditions such as anemia, malabsorption syndromes, poor nutrition, vitamin deficiencies, hypothyroidism, and certain metabolic syndromes that can also lead to dark under-eye circles,” Tirgari says.
Treatment options: If you've tried just about everything and your dark circles persist, "it's always a good idea to have a thorough exam and get labs with your primary physician," says Tigari.