En español | You okay? You look tired. Ah, those dreaded dark under-eye circles strike again. They aren't dangerous, but they may make you feel self-conscious, suggesting that you might be exhausted or unhealthy when you're perfectly fine, thank you very much.
The good news: If you can figure out the reason behind your shadows, you may be able to lighten them up.
Sometimes shadowy circles are caused by an excess pigment around the eyes, dark brown/black in color. This type of discoloration tends to be genetic, occurring more often in those with darker skin. It can also be triggered by frequent sun exposure. Allergies, alcohol consumption, which is dehydrating, and, yes, fatigue can also compound the problem.
And then there's aging: “As we age, our bodies don't produce as much collagen, which makes the skin under our eyes thinner,” says Edidiong Kaminska, M.D., a Chicago-based dermatologist. “As a result, it's easier to see dark blood vessels lurking beneath the surface.”
These shadows — actually oxygen-depleted blood — can be compounded by poor blood circulation and a buildup of fluid, which contributes to puffiness. “Sometimes, if there's chronic swelling,” Kaminska says, “blood can leak into the skin a little, and that can cause discoloration as well."
And as we get older, our facial structure changes. The bones around our eyes widen, creating a sunken look underneath. “It's kind of a double whammy,” says Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a New York City dermatologist. “Not only do our eyes hollow out more, but the fat pad that sits around the eye and cushions it pushes out. That puffiness highlights the hollowness that sits directly below it.” Light can't reflect evenly off the contours, leading to shadows in the area.
Fillers. A hyaluronic acid soft-tissue filler (Restylane is considered by many to be the gold standard) can be injected around the caved-in area along the rim of the eye socket to recontour the face. “By filling in those deep hollows, you're helping them blend in better with the puffy fat pads, so there's less of a dramatic disconnect,” Nazarian says. This can be done very safely by a board-certified dermatologist or a board-certified plastic surgeon, “the only two people who are allowed to put a needle in that area,” Nazarian notes. You'll see instant results, which last up to a year. Bonus: If you're not loving the look, the filler can be dissolved, using an enzyme, within about 30 minutes.
Fillers can be combined with another procedure, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) rejuvenation, to give eyes even more of a boost. PRP treatment “uses your body's own blood to stimulate collagen and rejuvenate the under-eye area,” says San Francisco-based dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D. How it works: A small amount of blood is drawn, then spun rapidly in a special tube, which extracts the PRP. The blood is then injected back into the skin. According to the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, these two procedures, performed in tandem, can lead to significant improvements in appearance. (A word of caution: Those on blood thinners may not be good candidates; everyone should discuss this and other possible risks with their doctor.)
Surgery. A lower blepharoplasty, a surgical procedure, usually done in an outpatient setting, involves “taking excess fat in the bulges underneath the eyes and repositioning it around the socket to fill in some of that indentation” for a smoother and less shadowy look, says Mary Lupo, M.D., a New Orleans dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine. It may take up to two weeks for the bruising to go away, and a few months for all of the swelling to subside.
Peels. If pigmentation is the issue, you might consider an in-office chemical peel, which dissolves layers of skin to lift some of that dark color and lighten discoloration. Peels come in varying concentrations and target different parts of the skin. A light chemical peel (or “lunchtime peel"), for example, removes the outer layer of skin, while a medium chemical peel targets skin cells from the epidermis plus part of the dermis underneath. “The benefits are twofold,” Lupo says. It exfoliates excess pigment and, like retinol, stimulates new epidermal growth and collagen production.
Lasers. One way shadows can be shushed is with lasers, which can be used to stimulate collagen production. “When you thicken the skin, you see circles less,” says Lupo. They can also be used to target blood vessels underneath the skin.
Other ways to minimize dark circles
Treat your allergies. Seasonal allergies — and the nasal congestion that comes with them — can lead to a kind of clogging in the small veins underneath the eyes. When the blood vessels become blocked, blood starts to pool, causing them to dilate and become darker. (There's even a name for this: allergic shiners.) To stay in the clear, down an oral antihistamine or use a saline nasal spray.
Double up by using eye drops to get the allergens out of the mucous membranes in the eyes. And play keep-away with pollen and other allergens. Wear wraparound sunglasses when outside, and wash your hair and bedding more often. And resist the urge to rub your itchy eyes: Rubbing can damage the walls of the blood vessels, causing them to break and release pigment. “Most people who do these things regularly see an improvement in vascular circles within 30 days,” Lupo says.
Smooth things over. Eye creams that contain vitamin K can help stimulate blood flow to prevent pooling around the eyes from leaky blood vessels. Caffeine is another ingredient to look for in skin products: “It helps constrict blood vessels to help temporarily with puffiness from lymphatic circulation — say, you had a long night, ate too much salt, or slept on your face and woke up a little puffy,” Nazarian says. Pop the product in the fridge. Anything that's cold will help constrict blood vessels temporarily, so you don't see as much discoloration. And yes, topical retinoids (like prescription Retin-A or an over-the-counter product) can help, too. With repeated use, they boost collagen production to increase skin volume and diminish blood vessels.
Watch the booze. “Limit alcohol intake,” Kaminska says. “It causes the small blood vessels under the skin to dilate and expand, making them more prominent.” What's more, that late-night glass of vino can dehydrate the skin, giving eyes a sunken look, which makes any discoloration lurking beneath the surface easier to see.
Sleep more. Poor sleep often leads to pallid skin, making any shadows you might have all the more conspicuous. Your sleep position matters, too: “No one has circles as bad as a face sleeper, because fluid tends to pool in the space below your eyes making the area appear swollen,” says Lupo, who suggests sleeping on your back, with your head elevated on two or three pillows.
Try skin-lightening creams or serums. They can fade pigmentation over time. Hydroquinone is a potent lightening agent that essentially bleaches out darkened areas of skin. It also minimizes the activity of tyrosinase, an enzyme needed to make melanin. It's available by prescription (at a concentration of about 4 percent) or over the counter at lower concentrations. Kojic acid is another bleaching agent that works in much the same way, though tends to be gentler on the skin.
Two ingredients you'll find in over-the-counter skin-care serums: licorice extract (which helps break up excess pigment and lighten discoloration) and vitamin C, an over-achieving antioxidant (it's brimming with brightening properties to improve a lackluster look and also neutralizes free radical damage, helping to prevent pigment from popping up in the first place). Before picking up a potion, keep in mind: “Care should be taken in this thin-skinned sensitive area,” says Campbell, who suggests consulting with a dermatologist to find the appropriate topical agent for your skin.
Shun the sun. That bright orange orb is bad news. Constant UV exposure can cause skin cells to produce more pigment. What's more, says Lupo, sunlight thins the collagen fibers in your dermis, so those pesky blood vessels show through more easily. Slip on sunglasses, and when applying sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) to your face, don't forget the vulnerable under-eye area.