When it comes to things we’d like to change about our skin, dark under-eye circles are in a category of their own, and as more men are stepping up their routines to tackle the more technical aspects of skincare, they’re awakening to the fact that said circles are tougher to treat than, say, dryness or acne. In fact, treating dark circles in most cases means looking past skincare to the many root causes, which begs a very interesting question: do men experience dark under-eye circles differently than women?
We pulled together a panel of experts, dermatologists, and even an allergist to weigh in on the many causes of dark circles; if there’s a difference between the dark circles under eyes men experience and those that afflict women, and the measures we can take to treat (or at least) reduce them. We'll be talking to Ildi Pekar, celebrity facialist and supermodel skin whisperer, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Caroline Chang of the Rhode Island Dermatology Institute, Dr. Barbara Sturm, expert on all-things-inflammation and founder of the eponymous skincare line, Renee Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and skin expert, Katie Hitchcock, head of the Professional Skin Coaching Team at Skin Authority, and renowned allergist Dr. Tania Elliott.
Are Dark Circles Actually Different for Men?
While most of our experts agreed that the causes of dark under-eye circles are shared by both men and women pretty much equally, their appearance on men can be influenced by a variety of factors, including:
- Skin: “In general, men’s skin is about 25% thicker than women’s and has a higher collagen and elastin density so eye circles may be less prominent,” said Dr. Barbara Sturm. Dr. Caroline Chang added that men are also "less likely to have bluish discoloration as a cause because their skin is generally thicker." Chang also explains that skin discoloration due to conditions such as melasma may cause dark circles, but men are less likely to be affected by these types of dark circles.
- Bone Structure: "Men and women have different bone structures, so the appearance can be slightly different and the treatments can be slightly different,” says Chang. But the effect of your bone structure on dark circles can go two different ways: If you’ve got a strong bone structure that keeps your eye area taut and smooth, it usually means dark circles are minimized, but as Rouleau explains, “Some people can also have deep inset bone structures that can make shadows under their eyes more prominent," meaning—as Chang pointed out—treatment may have to go a bit deeper (more on that in a bit).
- Hormones: For women, "Estrogen dominance can darken the under eye area, so when women suffer from hormonal imbalances, there is a good chance that dark circles will appear," explains Pekar. But what does that have to do with men? Apparently, male hormones can lead to dark circles in men as well. According to Sturm, "Men’s decline in relevant hormone levels contribute to dark eye circles," which, she explains, usually occurs later for men than women.
- Allergies: If you’ve ever dealt with allergies, you’re no doubt familiar with the drawn, fatigued look they can lend your entire face, and the resulting under-eye circles (coined "allergic shiners" by Elliott), formed when allergies cause blood vessels around the eyes to dilate, are just the icing on the cake. But here, too, men find themselves at somewhat of an advantage, as Elliott explains that allergies are more common in women, which means women may be more prone to allergic shiners.
What Are Dark Circles?
Hitchcock filled us in on why dark circles tend to be exclusive to the eye area: “The skin around the eye area is fine and more translucent. When we are younger, we have more fat under the skin which masks the blueness of the veins under the surface of the skin. As we age, we lose that subcutaneous volume and the blood flow is more visible under the eye. Skin also loosens as we age and the fold gives the appearance of a darker brown 'circle.'" Adding to that, Sturm says, "Poor circulation in the lower eyelid, which can be caused by allergies or nasal congestion, can also cause the veins under the eye to dilate and become darker."
Hitchcock went on to explain the basic "types" of dark circles men can experience: Blue circles are a result of blood oxygenating and accumulating under the eye, and can look “bluer” in the morning because of the way blood builds up while we’re sleeping. Darker brown areas around the eye can be the result of trauma induced by hyperpigmentation, caused by anything from physical ablation (such as rubbing your eyes too hard or scrubbing off makeup too aggressively) to sun damage caused by unprotected exposure.
What Causes Dark Circles?
To better understand how to deal with dark circles, let’s take a deeper look at some of the root causes:
- Lifestyle: Everyone we talked to was quick to stress the effect our lifestyle choices can have on the formation of dark under-eye circles. "Lifestyle can play a huge role in the cause and treatment of under-eye circles," says Sturm. "Clinical research shows that that smoking worsens dark circles, as does unprotected sun exposure, which can cause pigmentation, poor diet, caffeine and alcohol, the latter being the cause of inflammation and dehydration which causes puffiness and swelling around the eye area." Chang also points out that water retention resulting from the consumption of salty foods can play a role in overall puffiness in the eye area.
- Not enough sleep: Sufficient sleep is a cardinal rule for healthy skin bar none, and the eyes are the first to show when you haven’t had enough. “When you are lacking sleep, your body’s circulatory system is compromised and you get stagnant blood in the vessels under the eyes because it hasn’t properly drained,” says Rouleau. Dr. Sturm added, "When we aren’t getting enough sleep, our skin’s reparative processes slow, meaning less collagen production, and subsequently, less ‘padding’ to hide the blood vessels underneath the skin. Stress and sleep deprivation can also cause our skin to pale, which exacerbates dark circles.”
- Allergies: “If you have allergies, you may see dry, pale patches around the corners of your eyes or eyelids, and experience a stuffy nose and a crease in your nose as well,” Elliott says. Hitchcock adds, “Your body can also release histamines in response to bacteria which causes inflammation, swollen and broken blood vessels.”
- Genetics: Like skin conditions, hair loss, and aging, your genetics may be to blame for your dark under-eye circles. “Genetically, people can inherit a darker brown pigment tone under the eye which can be more difficult to eliminate as it can be tied to anemia, blood conditions, and vitamin deficiencies,” Hitchcock says. Regarding facial features, Chang also points out that hollowing under the eyes can be due to familial bone structure. As in, “You’ve got your father’s eyes… and circles.”
- Health concerns: Occasionally, dark circles under the eyes may indicate a deeper issue. “Most of the time dark circles are a sign that something is wrong internally—your body is exposed to too many toxins and the liver and kidneys can't handle it properly, or there is an issue with your hormones,” Pekar said. “So you need to check yourself and see what you can improve.” A trip to the physician for persistent dark circles is advised.
How to Deal With Them
Our panel of experts was quick to provide a bumper of solutions, both traditional (the reason we keep a cucumber in the fridge at all times) to more advanced (read: downtime required).
While most of our experts were forthright in pointing out that topically-applied eye products were limited in their effects, they also shared a few ingredients and products that have achieved their share of acclaim. First on the list was Vitamin C, which Rouleau recommends because “it can aid in capillary-strengthening repair since it’s a vasoconstrictor and can help with leaky vessels that contribute to the accumulation of blood under the eyes.”
On the top of Hitchcock’s list were creams and lotions incorporating vitamin K, green tea, caffeine, and arnica to help mask the appearance of dark or blue circles.
Sturm said to look out for eye cream containing panthenol and glycerine to soothe skin and lock in moisture, as well as yeast extract, which has a brightening and de-puffing effect.
Taking a more clinical approach, Chang recommends targeted agents containing kojic acid, hydroquinone, and licorice extract to treat discoloration, as well as products packed with caffeine to diminish the under-eye bluish hue. One last tip: Rouleau recommends applying eye products using circular motions to stimulate stagnant blood flow that can contribute to under-eye darkness. And sunscreen. All the time. (Do we really need to mention that?)
It seems your grandmother’s suggestions weren’t as far-flung after all. Pekar is a fan of cool, moistened tea bags (chamomile or green) and recommends placing ice cubes or cold spoons under the eyes to boost circulation and wake up skin, while Chang sticks with that old bodega favorite—cucumber slices—which she says can also help calm and hydrate skin. She also recommends gently massaging with a jade or metal eye roller to help move fluid away from the under-eye area and reduce puffiness.
And if you are prone to allergies, Hitchcock recommends taking an antihistamine product like Benadryl or Claritin to relieve eye irritation which can cause excessive rubbing and darkening of the eye area.
If you’re willing to take a more invasive approach, there are a number of in-office procedures that can drastically lessen the appearance of your dark circles, from fillers to chemical peels. “Small amounts of well-administered filler can create a cushioning between the skin and blood vessels that temporarily hides any darkness and boosts density,” says Sturm. She also recommends micro-needling to stimulate collagen production and increase the absorption of skincare products. Pekar suggests facial cupping "to improve skin texture and improve circulation on the under-eye area," as well as chemical peels, which can be "extremely helpful when the circles are pigmentation related." Hitchcock points out that lasers are often used under the eyes to improve texture, but don't address the loss of volume typical to the area.
Lead image product provided by Renee Rouleau.