It’s no fun at all to look in the mirror after a night of Junk Sleep and notice that you’ve got company: dark circles under your eyes. The good news is that dark circles under the eyes are rarely a cause of concern — they are usually just an aesthetic issue. Still, if you’re noticing them on a daily basis, they can become a source of frustration or even embarrassment.
Dark under-eye circles are typically cited as a sign of Junk Sleep. But you may be wondering what is causing the circles to form. Is it really from lack of quality sleep, or is there another cause? Most importantly, what can you do about them?
Let’s explore what causes those pesky dark circles to appear, along with some expert tips about how to make them go away — or at least lessen their appearance.
What are dark circles under your eyes?
The medical term for dark circles under eyes is “periorbital hyperpigmentation.” According to research published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, dark circles under the eyes is a common occurrence, and while the condition is rarely indicative of a serious medical condition, it can have a significant impact on a person’s emotional health and overall quality of life.
Dark circles appear differently on different people, depending on skin type, age, and what’s causing the circles to form. What you might notice is a darkening of your skin in the area below your eye and a “tired” look to your appearance as a result. People often report that bags under the eyes make them look older than they really are.
Usually the circles are brownish in color but can also appear reddish or purplish. Often, dark circles under the eyes are accompanied by bags under the eyes. Sometimes dark circles under the eyes result from shadows cast by the indentations from the bags.
What causes dark circles under your eyes?
The skin under our eyes is more delicate and more easily prone to damage than other parts of our face. This is because that skin has fewer oil glands and less collagen than other parts of our body. According to research published in Advanced Biomedical Research, these factors may be why the area under our eyes is also more susceptible to wrinkles, fine lines, and a “dull” appearance.
When we think of dark circles under the eyes, we usually first think of sleep issues as the cause: Junk Sleep, sleep deprivation, frequent waking, and lack of a restful night of sleep. While sleep problems are a top contributing factor — and yes, getting better sleep can help reduce dark circles! — there are actually several potential causes of dark circles under your eyes.
Here are some of the top causes of dark circles under your eyes.
Not getting enough sleep is one of the most common causes of dark circles under your eyes, explains Dr. Chris Winter, sleep neurologist and Sleep.com and Mattress Firm Sleep Advisor. How does lack of sleep cause these dark circles exactly? “When an individual does not sleep enough, it creates vasodilatation and increased blood flow,” Winter explains. “When the vessels under the eyes dilate, it creates the dark bluish color under the eyes.”
Dr. Jeffrey T.S. Hsu, a dermatologist and co-founder and co-director of Oak Dermatology, agrees that sleep issues such as fatigue and lack of sleep are major contributing factors to those dark circles. “Sleep deprivation can cause the periorbital area to become duller and thus show the blood vessels under your skin,” Hsu describes.
Sometimes, says Hsu, shadows from puffy lower eyelids — also often caused by lack of sleep — can make it look like you have dark circles under your eyes, but these may simply be shadows cast from your swollen lower lids.
Aging is another common cause of dark circles under the eyes, says Dr. Yuna Rapoport, ophthalmologist and founder and director of Manhattan Eye. “We have natural tissue and fat that sits between our eye socket and our cheekbones,” Rapoport describes. “With age, this tissue tends to sink and disappear.”
As the skin under our eyes changes as a result of the natural aging process, imperfections become more apparent, says Hsu: “When we age, our skin becomes thin, and the dark blood vessels under the eye become more apparent, giving the illusion of darker eye circles.”
Heredity seems to be a factor in why some people are more prone to dark circles under their eyes than others, though more research needs to be done to understand exactly how this works. One older study found that having more pigmentation under the eyes is often first noticed in childhood and gets progressively worse as time goes on. Not surprisingly, in families for which dark circles are common, stress seems to make their appearance worse, while resting and staying healthy improves them.
Allergies are a lesser-known but still common cause of dark circles under the eyes. It’s not just the allergies themselves that can cause the dark circles to form, says Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, dermatologist and Namesake Skincare Advisor. Seasonal allergies like hay fever can cause darkening of the skin as a result of rubbing and irritation, which causes skin trauma, McKinley-Grant explains.
Any kind of skin irritation or inflammation near the eyes can also contribute to dark circles under your eyes. Studies have found that dark circles are more common in people who experience atopic dermatitis (eczema) or allergic contact dermatitis (a rash caused by contact with an allergic substance). Dermatitis can cause dilation of the blood vessels under your skin, which can contribute to the darkened appearance.
There are also certain lifestyle factors that can contribute to dark circles under your eyes or make them worse, including:
- Too much salt intake
- Excessive eye rubbing
- Alcohol consumption
Do dark circles ever indicate a medical issue?
Dark circles under eyes rarely indicate a medical issue. But if your symptoms are accompanied by other symptoms, including sudden weight loss — which can make the under-eye area look hollow and darker — there might be something else going on, says Rapoport. Unintentional weight loss can be indicative of certain cancers, HIV or autoimmune conditions, she says.
“If the under-eye bags or hollow occurs over a fast time frame, it is a good idea to be evaluated by a doctor to rule out the various conditions I mentioned,” Rapoport explains. “If it happened gradually, then it is most likely due to aging, but preventive measures such as hydration, good nutrition, and proper sleep can help.”
How to get rid of bags under your eyes
According to research published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, dark circles under the eyes are one of the most common conditions dermatologists see — meaning that if you are seeking help for dark circles under your eyes, you are far from the only one. Thankfully, there are many options for treatment of dark circles, including at-home remedies and more medicalized solutions.
Here are some possible remedies, with advice and recommendations from dermatologists.
If you want to reduce the appearance of dark circles under your eyes, adopting a healthier lifestyle and — most importantly — getting more rest are key. Lack of sleep is a major cause of dark circles under the eyes, says McKinley-Grant, so doing what you can to get enough sleep is key to eliminating those dark circles.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night to eliminate bags or dark circles under your eyes. It also recommends elevating your head on a pillow to reduce the swelling that accumulates around your eyes while you sleep. (A pillow fitting can help you find the ideal pillow for your sleep style.)
Other lifestyle changes that may help reduce dark circles under your eyes include making sure to use sunscreen regularly, reducing stress in your life (which can help improve sleep too!), and cutting back on alcohol and nicotine use.
Some of those homegrown remedies you may have heard of to deal with dark circles under your eyes actually work, says McKinley-Grant. For example, that cucumber-on-the-eyes look you’ve probably seen in movies? There’s some merit to that method, she says, as cucumbers help reduce swelling and hydrate skin.
Using cold compresses to reduce under-eye darkening can work well too, McKinley-Grant says. Though you could simply use a washcloth dipped in cold water, she recommends steeping your compress in tea because tea has antioxidant qualities. Cooled green or black tea works great for this, she says.
If the lifestyle and at-home solutions aren’t cutting it for you, and the appearance of the dark circles under your eyes continues to irritate you, it may be time to visit your dermatologist to come up with a plan of action to work on reducing or eliminating the issue. “There are many treatments that can help alleviate dark circles depending on severity, ranging from medical-grade topicals to lasers,” assures Hsu.
Some medical procedures commonly recommended by dermatologists to tackle dark circles include:
- Topical treatments, including skin bleaching and topical antioxidants
- Dermal fillers, which can smooth out your skin and create volume under the eyes
- Laser treatments to reduce pigmentation
- Autologous fat transplantation to make the skin less thin and transparent looking
The bottom line
Dark circles are common and almost always benign. But that doesn’t mean they are something you need to live with. The truth is that many of us are quite bothered by the appearance of these dark circles and would love to have them gone.
Focusing on positive lifestyle changes like getting more rest and eliminating stress is good for both the reduction of your dark circles and your overall self-care. But if those things don’t work well enough on their own, you should feel empowered to reach out to your health care provider or dermatologist for more solutions and advice.