Let’s be honest: Even though we firmly believe dark under-eye circles are not the devil, they're a big deal for women across the board. In our recent state of skin survey, 60 percent of women ranked under-eye circles as a top five skin concern — slightly beating out even cellulite and fine lines and wrinkles.
But the truth is, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for dark eye circles. In some cases, your genetics will overrule even the best under eye cream. Womp, womp.
Since there are plenty of myths about dark cirles under eyes, we asked two dermatologists to weigh in on the ins and outs of dark circles, including what really causes them — hint: it’s more than a lack of sleep.
VIDEO: The 8 Best Drugstore Concealers Under $15
What Causes Dark Circles?
Even though sleep is often pointed at as the root cause of dark circles, Caren Campbell, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in California, says that’s really only one of the reasons dark circles occur — and it’s not the main one. Here, the most common culprits.
“Dark circles around the eyes are a part of the normal aging process of the face,” she says, adding that other contributing factors, including genetics and skin type, will also determine whether or not you have dark circles.
As we age, Dr. Campbell explains, we naturally lose fat under the eye. This contributes to dark circles because the under-eye area becomes sunken in and “can't reflect evenly off the skin, leading to a shadow or darkness.”
Another reason you might have dark circles? Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, aka darkness that is left behind after inflammation, notes Dr. Campbell, adding that patients with these types of dark circles usually suffer from itchy eczema or allergies that cause them to frequently rub their eyes.
Of course, dark under-eye circles — or any skin issue for that matter — would not be possible without considering certain lifestyle factors, which play a part in causing dull, aged skin in general, says Dr. Campbell.
“This includes sun exposure, which breaks down collagen and elastin in the skin and causes increased broken blood vessels in the skin — all which contribute to dark circles,” she says. “Lack of sleep, stress, alcohol, caffeine, and smoking can also contribute.”
But it's genetics that takes the cake in determining the severity of dark circles, Dr. Campbell says,
Genetics play a part in dark circles in a multitude of ways: It’s genetics that can cause the aforementioned eczema and genetics that determines how quickly you age.
Genetics, of course, also determines skin type and tone, which may or may not make you more prone to dark circles, Dr. Campbell says. For instance, while all races can experience dark circles, as InStyle previously reported, they are known to affect people with higher levels of melanin in their skin (anyone olive-toned and darker).
People with a fair complexion might also more readily notice dark circles, says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
"Because the skin in this area is thin, you can easily see blood vessels under the skin," he notes, adding that these dark circles will typically have a purple-ish hue.
Can I Do Anything to Prevent Dark Circles?
Beyond simply getting as much sleep For starters, you’ll want to stay on top of your sunscreen, choosing a solid formula (SPF 30 or higher and broad-spectrum), or opting for an SPF-based undereye concealer, which will not only help cover up eye circles, but prevent future damage. (Dr. Campbell likes Colorscience’s Total Eye 3-in-1 Renewal Therapy SPF 35.) She also suggests wearing sunglasses with UV protection, which can help prevent worsening of dark circles caused by post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
You’ll also want to snag an under eye cream that can help rebuild collagen and elastin (or keep it from breaking down in the first place), Dr. Campbell says. Her favorite is Replenix All-trans-Retinol Eye Repair Cream, which is made with key ingredients like retinol, green tea polyphenols, vitamins A, C, E and K, and hyaluronic acid.
How to Get Rid of Dark Circles
When it’s time to decide how to treat existing dark circles, it all comes down to finding the best way to treat your particular brand of undereye circles. Here, Dr. Zeichner and Dr. Campbell breakdown the best ways to treat each of the most common types of dark circles.
Dark circles caused by aging:
The best way to combat the loss of fat under the eyes that comes along with aging is a topical cream with retinol, "which stimulates collagen and strengthens the skin’s foundation," Dr. Zeichner says. Dr. Campbell adds that her go-to in-office procedure for this type of dark circles is filler like Restylane.
Dark circles caused by hyperpigmentation:
Known as an “allergic shiner,” Dr. Campbell says these types of dark circles can often be treated by first addressing the irritant and then taking an antihistamine and/or applying a prescription anti-inflammatory cream that is safe to use around the eye.
When it comes to reducing the look of pigmentation, Dr. Zeichner leans on under eye creams that boast vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that interferes with abnormal pigment production.”
Both dermatologists agree that the best in-office treatment for this type of dark circles likely involves a chemical peel or lasers. Dr. Zeichner added: “Speak to your dermatologist to see if one is right for you.”
Dark circles caused by thin or fair skin:
If you are noticing more blood vessels as a result of naturally fair or thin under-eye skin, then Dr. Zeichner says you can try "a two-pronged approach to treatment" by pairing a hyaluronic acid serum and topical retinol to plump and strengthen the undereye area skin.
Dr. Campbell says these circles will also benefit from a trip to the derm for fillers, but you might also notice a reduced appearance with lasers, which can help to lessen the appearance of blood vessels.
Bottom line with any treatment for under-eye circles: "Perfection is never attainable,” she says. “But if your expectations are realistic (and you have the budget for in-office procedures), you can likely improve the appearance of dark circles.”