Why you have dark circles under your eyes and how to reduce them

The sensitive area under the eyes has a network of tiny blood vessels.

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By Maxine Lipner

Dark undereye circles can send anyone diving for concealer. These tired-looking crescents, sometimes called by wacky-sounding names like sunken or panda eyes, have many seeking answers about the causes and what to do.

One of three basic things is usually to blame for the buildup of pigment in the under eye area, known as periorbital hyperpigmentation. Obvious undereye circles can be due to true hyperpigmentation, often seen in those who rub or scratch the area reacting to conditions like eczema, the genetic lottery or they can be part of the normal aging process. Sometimes, the area just appears dark because of other changes.

“After the age of 30, we lose that fat that once protected that concavity around the eye," Michelle F. Henry, MD, a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, told TODAY. "When you have that hollow, then you have shadows that are evident.”

The skin around the eye is some of the thinnest on the body. This can allow a glimpse at the dark blood vessels just below the skin, Henry added.

Much of the time, dark circles appear gradually. If they show up rapidly, then it could be a sign of something else, ranging from hay fever or other allergies to conditions that can cause anemia.

“You want to make sure that you’re not having any bruising or bleeding in that area; that would be concerning,” Henry said. “If it happens abruptly, that’s something that you want to follow up with your doctor."

How sleep affects dark circles

For those who are saddled by the gradual emergence of dark circles alone, sometimes easy, do-it-yourself answers can work. These can begin with simply getting a good night’s sleep. Fatigue can lead to puffiness around the eyes and swell blood vessels in the area that can make the eye look baggy and dark. The good news is that stacking pillows and sleeping with the head elevated can help.

How diet can help

Eating anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits and vegetables, rich in pigment that fight free radicals in the body that can damage cells, may also help fight off dark circles. This may mean stepping away from processed fare in favor of a diet full of nutrient-heavy foods like sweet potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries, and oranges that can add a healthy glow to skin.

Cooling the area

Also, those cool cucumber slices on top of closed lids that have become synonymous with home beauty regimens are tailor-made for this. They contain lots of water to moisturize the skin, are high in vitamin C and are even rich in silica, a mineral known for promoting healthy skin.

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In fact, any kind of cold compress can help constrict blood vessels and make those dark circles less noticeable.

Over-the-counter creams

Henry finds slathering on lotions right off the drugstore’s shelf can also diminish dark circles. To do this effectively, this means shopping around and reading the fine print. She suggests looking for creams containing some of these key ingredients:

  • Caffeine – Stimulates more efficient flow of fluid, easing water retention, bags and darkness.
  • Glycolic acid – Helps to promote collagen production and gently exfoliate hyperpigmentation.
  • Hyaluronic acid – Plumps up the under-eye area, hydrates it, giving a fuller appearance.
  • Hydroquinone, arbutin, licorice extract, niacinamide, and cysteamine – Help to gently lighten the under-eye area.
  • Retinoids – Thicken the skin and help to increase collagen.

For prevention, wearing a little sunscreen can protect the eye area from darkening, Henry added.

Medical treatments

In some cases, however, home remedies alone aren’t enough and a doctor can provide more options.

“Technology has gotten better and smarter," Henry said. "There is a lot we can do with minimal down time."

Replacing the undereye fat that has thinned with age can get rid of shadows and reduce some of the pigment.

“If I see that concavity is playing a huge role, filling in and replacing that volume can give really dramatic improvement,” Henry told TODAY.

There are also chemical peels and laser therapies that can help lighten the look of the area. If all else fails, some of the undereye skin can be removed to get rid of the darkness, she noted.

Henry urges those who are concerned about undereye circles not to hesitate to see a doctor, who can evaluate if the dark areas are caused by underlying medical concerns or are just cosmetic.

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