Updated 08/15/23. I’ve been an esthetician for over 30 years, and one of the most common complaints I hear from clients is that they have dark circles under their eyes. They want to know how to fix them, so they can appear fresh-faced and wide-awake. In this post, I’ll discuss what causes dark circles and share six ways to minimize their appearance. I’ll also share information about professional treatment options with the help of Dr. Sam Lam, a board-certified facial plastic surgeon with his own practice in Plano, Texas.
What Causes Dark Circles?
The main reason dark circles appear in the first place is that the skin around the eyes is extra thin. In fact, it’s some of the thinnest on the body. This is natural, although the loss of collagen can contribute as well (with age, our skin becomes even thinner and loses collagen and fat. When this happens in the under-eye area, it only accentuates dark circles). The thinner skin allows you to see blood vessels underneath. In fact, some people can get what is referred to as “leaky vessels” with age. This is when blood leaks from the capillaries and causes under-eye darkness as a result.
It’s also worth noting that some people have deep, inset bone structures that make shadows appear prominently under their eyes.
Genetics also plays a role, as can allergies and sun exposure. The former causes your body to produce histamines that dilate blood vessels and increase inflammation. The latter can lead to a premature breakdown of collagen and the appearance of dark spots.
Certain procedures can also have a major effect, such as a rhinoplasty (nose job). It can cause severe bruising under the eyes as well as the formation of iron, which can give a rust-colored appearance to the area (this is known as hemosiderin). This is especially prominent in those who get a rhinoplasty later in life when the skin and blood vessels are weaker due to age.
Does Lack of Sleep Contribute to Dark Circles?
Insufficient sleep doesn’t necessarily cause dark circles, but it can make them worse. That’s because less sleep translates to a decrease in circulation. When circulation slows down, it makes blood vessels under the skin become more apparent. As for the rest of the face, decreased circulation from lack of sleep can cause the skin to look paler than it normally would be. The contrast of pale skin to dark circles only exacerbates their appearance. No good!
How Can I Minimize the Appearance of Dark Circles?
1. Sleep 7-8 Hours Each Night
Getting enough sleep can benefit your skin in many ways. In regards to dark circles, when you are lacking sleep, your body’s circulatory system is compromised and you get stagnant blood in the vessels under the eyes. As I said before, this can make dark circles look even worse. The easiest way to fix this? Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. They call it beauty sleep for a reason!
2. Sleep With Your Head Elevated on Multiple Pillows
An easy way to discourage stagnant blood from pooling in the under-eye area is to keep your head elevated throughout the night. Try sleeping on two pillows to encourage proper drainage and reduce unnecessary fluid retention come morning.
3. Apply Eye Cream By Massaging It In Circular Motions
Eye cream is a great way to hydrate the eye area and make it look brighter and firmer over time. When it comes to dark circles, the way you apply it can make all the difference. Use your ring finger to massage it in circular motions around the eye area. This will stimulate stagnant blood flow and minimize the appearance of dark circles.
4. Use Skin Brightening Ingredients Like Vitamin C and Kojic Acid
If you have dark spots around your eye area, this can make dark circles look more prominent. That’s when I recommend using skin-brightening ingredients like vitamin C (particularly tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, which is a proven melanin suppressor/lightener found in the Vitamin C Eye Brightener) or kojic acid. While it won’t offer an immediate fix, most people can expect to see improvement in 4-6 weeks.
5. Use Vasoconstricting Ingredients Like Vitamin C and Caffeine
Another benefit of using vitamin C is that it can aid in strengthening capillaries. It works as a vasoconstrictor and can help with leaky vessels that contribute to the accumulation of blood vessels under the eyes. Again, I recommend using the Vitamin C Eye Brightener. It’s formulated with tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, as well as licorice extract to address puffiness, sodium hyaluronate to address dehydration, and peptides to address the loss of firmness (more on that in a minute).
Another ingredient that works as an effective vasoconstrictor is caffeine. One study found that caffeine can penetrate into the skin and diminish the appearance of under-eye swelling and pigmentation. This is because caffeine is a diuretic and constricts blood vessels. It might seem a little gimmicky, but it’s actually functional!
6. Use Collagen-Building Ingredients Like Peptides
Peptides are absolutely fantastic for the under-eye area. They help reduce wrinkle depth and provide a lifting effect through collagen synthesis, which are two things the under-eye area needs, especially with age! I formulated the Vitamin C Eye Brightener with Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7, which has the ability to break up the pooled blood that contributes to dark circles. (Read more about peptides and how they can benefit the skin.)
Are There Professional Treatment Options for Dark Circles?
According to Dr. Lam, dark circles are a “mixed bag,” and treating them depends on what’s causing them to appear in the first place. For example, if your dark circles are “allergic shiners,” caused by allergies, they can be fixed by addressing the actual allergies themselves. If it’s a lack of sleep and an unhealthy lifestyle that’s exacerbating your dark circles, you must get more sleep and adopt healthier habits to minimize their appearance. “Someone may also have cyclical swelling caused by toxins or other physical ailments that may cause engorgement,” he says. “Diet, lifestyle, lymphatic massage, and maybe even Eastern methods of intervention like cupping may help rectify one’s physical issues.”
With that said, the most common reason is due to hollowness around the eyes, which happens naturally and with age. If this is the reason for your dark circles, there are some professional treatment options. “The best method to manage that is fat grafting,” Dr. Lam says. “You can also use fillers but fillers sometimes lead to some visibility of the product over time, so it is not my go-to solution.” While this procedure usually gets a bad rap, due to two common complaints (lumpiness and lack of longevity), Dr. Lam says it all comes down to how well it’s performed. “I have not seen these issues, because I have a very consistent method of application around the eyes that is very safe,” he says. “I literally wrote the book on it in 2006—Complementary Fat Grafting. Also, I use PureGraft, which is a hyper-concentrated and purified fat that allows for very consistent long-term results.”
In combination with these treatments, you may also be a candidate for a lower blepharoplasty procedure to remove under-eye fat bags, which can cause a shadow to appear on the lower eyelid, making dark circles look worse. Dr. Lam uses a “transconjunctival” removal method. “I love it because there is not only no external incision (it’s all done from inside the eyelid), but it requires limited recovery. In 20 years of practice, I have never seen an eyelid change shape or be left with functional problems, which can be very common unfortunately with the external approach.”
The Bottom Line
Dark circles can be a stubborn skin concern to address, but if you follow these six tips, you’ll be well on your way to brighter, fresher-looking skin! And if all else fails, reach for a good concealer. It’s the simplest, quickest way to disguise dark circles. An added benefit is that, just like with all other makeup, it provides extra protection from harmful UV rays. This is important since the sun is a leading cause of dark circles. Remember, sunscreen is key!
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Her hands-on experience as an esthetician and trusted skin care expert has created a real-world solution — products that are formulated for nine different types of skin so your face will get exactly what it needs to look and feel its best. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”