On a good day, a passerby probably wouldn't notice my dark circles. On a bad one...let's just say multiple strangers have approached asking if I was okay because the purple puffiness under my eyes misleadingly indicated tears. This has been my greatest skincare baggage—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 what causes dark circles, and if it's possible to get rid of them with an over-the-counter cream.
If you've been on a similar hunt, you're in the right place. We reached out to five leading dermatologists to share their expertise. Here, they explain the potential causes of dark circles, offer lifestyle shifts and healthy habits that can help reduce them, and tell us how to find the best eye creams and other fixes for dark circles.
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." Levin says that thin skin "... dries and irritates easily, especially in women since we are applying multiple products daily."
Dark Eye Circles: It's Complicated
All the doctors agree that dark eye circles are complex, often with several underlying causes and variables at play. "[Some people] are born with under-eye circles, and that falls into the hereditary category," Dendy Engelman, MD, says. "They're born with thinner, paler skin with more pigment under their eyes, and/or slower vascular movement. " Cindy Yoo Soon Bae, MD tells us: "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: "Dark under-eye circles are multifactorial." If you have dark circles, you often have several factors to blame. "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. Then 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 mix of factors, you may consider consulting with a dermatologist or plastic surgeon. "The problem is that many cosmeceuticals creams and gels on the market do little for chronically dilated veins, volume loss, and excess pigmentation and often require in-office procedures, such as injectable fillers and lasers," Levin adds.
Main Causes of Dark Eye Circles
- Lack of sleep
- Sun damage
- Sinus congestion
- Allergy shiners (rubbing the 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 to Reduce Dark Circles
Before we get into treatment options and at-home remedies, let's start with some lifestyle changes you can make to diminish 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," Levin says. Dermatologists recommend a broad spectrum sunscreen in SPF 50 for your face.
Reduce Sinus Congestion: Chronic sinus congestion can cause under-eye veins to fill with dark-colored blood. These veins can be visible through the skin or create a darkish hue around the eyes. 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, Engelman also says "lymphatic drainage massages that you can do yourself reduce the puffiness"—and so do jade gua sha rollers, plus they're relaxing.
Treat Allergy Symptoms: 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 Engelmen suggests "speaking to your physician about getting antihistamines (e.g., Zyrtec, Claritin)."
Avoid rubbing your eyes. Excessively touching them can cause hyperpigmentation, a darkening of the skin.
Hands Off: Avoid rubbing your eyes, says Francesca Fusco, MD. "Individuals who have eczema or allergies tend to rub at their eyes a lot, and this can result in a form of dark skin called hyperpigmentation," the New York dermatologist notes. Be gentle when washing your eyes or removing makeup, too, says Bae. Keeping the skin around the eyes moisturized cuts down on dryness and irritation that will make you want to rub your eyes, Levin adds.
Get Enough Rest: Self-care is essential, starting with getting enough sleep, Bae says. 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.
The Best Eye Cream Ingredients
While you can't change your DNA, Engelman says "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. Shafer says "Caffeine ... boosts the skin's energy." Levin says that's why moist tea bags are a home remedy to refresh tired eyes. "Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, which in turns reduces redness, swelling, and extensive fluid from pooling around the eyes. This will give a tightened appearance around the eyes. Furthermore, 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 Levin recommends this trio for maximum effect. "Therefore, keeping a strong skin barrier to this delicate area is crucial," says Levin. Fusco says ceramides can boost collagen production. He likes "Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Eye Capsules, which contain ceramides, cholesterol, and essential fatty acids that support the integrity of our skin's lipid layer." Yoo Soon Bae is another 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, also known as niacinamide. "This vitamin not only calms down redness and inflammation, but stimulates collagen production and increases free fatty acids in the skin to hydrate," says Levin.
Retinoids: "Retinoic acid creams can be used very cautiously to help slough the darkly pigmented skin," says Bae. Fusco recommends looking for eye creams with retinal, another vitamin A derivative that promotes cell regeneration, which keeps skin looking younger. Engelman says, "For thin skin, a retinol can stimulate collagen production."
Vitamins A, C and E: Shafer says "ingredients such as vitamins A, C, and E help with skin health and collagen. HSA from Senté is a cellular modulator, which triggers rejuvenation of the skin cells." Vitamin C is integral in collagen production, helps brighten the skin, and is a powerhouse antioxidant but also is incredibly unstable to formulate and the combination with antioxidants enhances neutralization of free radicals and can stabilize vitamin C, says Levin.
Kojic Acid and Other Goodies: Kojic acid, derived from mushrooms, is touted for reducing hyperpigmentation. 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. Yoo Soon Bae adds, "lightening products with kojic acid, glycolic acid [and] hydroquinone... can be helpful."
The Best Eye Creams for Dark Circles
Levin says: "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."
Levin says: "I love Cetaphil Hydrating Eye Cream as a 'gateway' eye cream that doesn't break your wallet! 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."
Fusco says: "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."
Engelman says: "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."
Shafer says: "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."
Fusco says: "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, which contains musk rose seed oil, which is excellent for delicate skin, and it hydrates without popping up."
Fusco says: Choose "an eye cream that has peptides and anti-agers like NeoGlucosamine; NeoStrata Skin Active Intensive Eye Therapy works short term and long term."
Engelman says: "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."
Levin says: "Revision's Teamine Eye Complex has been a favorite of dermatologists for dark circles for many years. 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."
Shafer says: "Jack Black De-Puffing and Cooling Gel contains 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."
Shafer says: "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."