The Anatomy of Dark Circles: Where They Come From and Why You Get Them
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Dark circles and puffiness are skin ailments so annoying (and common) I could write an entire memoir about my time spent worrying about them. Whenever I look in the mirror and notice those bluish-purple bags, I can't help but scream, "Why me!" to no one in particular and try to cover them up with every product in my arsenal. (FYI: Here's how one of our editors permanently removed her under-eye bags.)
After a lifetime of this behaviour, I decided to start asking experts instead of whoever can overhear me in my bathroom each morning (sorry, neighbours). I reached out to the pros at Onomie, a company that creates clinically validated skincare formulas to treat, brighten, and protect your under-eyes. Amy Fan, Onomie's general manager, gave a detailed rundown of the issues associated with dark circles. First, she broke down what they actually are: "There are two types of dark circles. The first is under-eye circles with a bluish tinge, which are actually pools of blood underneath your eyes. The skin right below your eyes is very thin and delicate, and when blood pools, it shows right through." She continues, "The second is under-eye circles with a brown tint. This is usually caused by hyperpigmentation, which is partly genetic and can be exacerbated with sun exposure."
Below, find a guide to every possible cause (and solution) for your under-eye circles.
"Dark circles and puffiness are a combination of life and genetics—that means they can become more prominent after pulling long hours at the office, too many margarita-filled nights, sun, and sometimes allergies," says Fan.
For bluish under-eye circles, the most common factor is fatigue. It causes puffiness and the formation of dark circles because the body's water is not balancing itself. Fan explains, "Lack of sleep causes your body to pump up your cortisol level, which can break down collagen to give you the energy you need, simultaneously engorging your blood vessels, which makes them appear all the more pronounced under that delicate under-eye skin."
The most depressing fact? "Dark circles can also be hereditary. Whether it's thinner skin under your eye or hyperpigmentation, some of us are just born with it."
Like most skin-related issues, under-eye circles may worsen as we age. Skin gets thinner and loses fat and collagen, which makes dark circles look more apparent. "However, there are bad habits that also make matters worse. Try to avoid rubbing your eyes (be gentle when you remove eye makeup), getting too much sun exposure, and pulling all-nighters, which all contribute to making under-eye circles worse."
Moreover, "Fluid retention from a too-salty diet, stress, allergies, and hormonal changes—they're all to blame for those puffy bags," says Fan. "Sometimes it's because the normal fat that supports your eyes is trickling down below them, and sometimes it's as simple as a few too many potato chips."
A concealer, particularly one with skincare actives, can do wonders. Onomie's A.C.E. Illuminating Eye Treatment ($52) and Pür's Disappearing Ink 4-in-1 Face Concealer have both really wonderful coverage and long-term benefits for your skin. The key is to gently pat the concealer underneath your eyes and slowly layer it on for your desired coverage. "To look like you got eight hours of sleep, think beyond just under-eye circles—use a subtle highlighter to look fresh-eyed. Put a small dab on the inner corner of your eyes and a C shape following your brow bone to underneath your eyes," recommends Fan.
"Onomie's Powerful Priming Serum ($78) uses a combination of hyaluronic acid and squalane to keep your skin hydrated and supple, which is key on the mornings you didn't get enough sleep and your skin hasn't had a chance to recover moisture." Indie Lee's Squalane Facial Oil ($42), SkinMedica's HA5 Rejuvenating Hyrdator, and Skin Inc.'s Pure Serum-Mist are other great options.
Getting a good night's rest is beneficial to your skin, your brain, and your immune system. But there are certainly other proactive steps you can take to break the cycle. When it comes to skincare actives, botanicals can do wonders for under-eye circles. Look for a product that helps to increase blood circulation. "Ginseng, white lily, and alfalfa sprouts have anti-inflammatory properties to reduce puffiness. Additionally, caffeine helps to calm down swelling by constricting blood vessels under the skin. Antioxidants like vitamin C are great at fighting free-radical damage—the unstable molecules that break down the structure of your skin. Vitamin C also has skin-brightening effects by slowing down melanin production," says Fan.
"Other de-puffing methods include holding cold spoons or a cold compress under your eyes to restrict the blood vessels. You can also try an extra pillow to elevate your head to prevent puffiness that develops when fluid pools in lower eyelids as you sleep."