What really causes under eye circles (and it’s not lack of sleep)

Dermatologist Dr Natasha Cook on how to do battle with under-eye circles when concealer just isn’t enough. 

If under-eye circles are the bane of your existence, you’re far from alone. Dermatologist Dr Natasha Cook from Darlinghurst Dermatology says it’s extremely common for women to lament about this issue.

“Absolutely. It’s one of their key concerns,” she says. Can we get an ‘Amen’?

So why do we get these pesky circles? And (more importantly), how can we say farewell to them for good? To find all this out, we decided to ask Dr Cook everything, starting with…

Why, oh WHY, do we get under-eye circles?

“Firstly,” Dr Cook says, “some people are genetically predisposed to dark circles due to their underlying anatomy of their skull”. She explains that people with underdeveloped or recessed floors of the orbit (eye socket) end up looking like they have “hollowing and dark circles”.

“This then gets worse with age as we lose further volume in bone, fat and skin,” she says.

Losing volume in bone, fat and skin means underlying structures become more visible, creating the look of more shadows, all of which adds to the darkness. Plus, we can be genetically predisposed to having protruding fat pads (or bags) under our eyes, which tend to worsen with age. (Talk about the joys of ageing…)

Also, just to add to the fun, some people have “baggy” lower eyelids, which create the appearance of dark under-eye circles.Genetics and facial structures aside, Dr Cook says there are other factors that can contribute to the appearance of dark circles. These include skin conditions like dermatitis or eczema, along with allergies. These problems irritate the skin, leading to chronic rubbing, which can then discolour and darken the skin. Pigmentation under the eyes can also worsen the appearance of bags.

So, how can we minimise the appearance of those dark under-eye circles?

If you’re genetically predisposed to having dark under-eye circles, Dr Cook says there’s “not a lot” you can do about that. However, she says, you can help reduce their appearance. For example, if you have those delightful-sounding ‘protruding fat pads’ under your eyes (a.k.a ‘bags’), you can have a procedure known as a blepharoplasty, which can help reduce their appearance.

Lifestyle factors can also help.

Being a stable weight, getting plenty of sleep (aiming for seven to eight hours a day), using sun protection, keeping the skin hydrated with good quality moisturisers, avoiding smoking, and eating a clean, anti-inflammatory diet can all play a part. It’s also important not to rub, or heavily manhandle, your eyelid skin.

That includes avoiding foaming or scrubbing cleansers that can irritate or inflame the area. When applying creams to the area, Dr Cook advises gently patting them into the area and avoid rubbing or dragging that skin.

The same goes for taking off makeup. Instead of scrubbing it off, Dr Cook says you should remove it gently by first patting in micellar water that can “lift” makeup off, then follow up with a gentle, non-foaming cleanser and gently rinse or pat that off.

What about skincare?

When it comes to what you put on your skin, don’t just reach for any old product.

Dr Cook says ingredients that strengthen the barrier layer of your skin – like vitamin B3 (niacinamide) – can prevent irritation and inflammation by repairing and strengthening that barrier layer. “It also is a stable anti-inflammatory and can reduce inflammation, preventing damage and darkening. It inhibits production of pigment, and soothes irritated skin,” she says.

If you’re hoping to grab some skincare product with vitamin B3 in it, Dr Cook says it’s best delivered in concentrations of five to ten per cent. Other ingredients that soothe, protect and hydrate the skin (and therefore reduce irritation and inflammation and ultimately limit discolouration) include barrier-protecting ingredients like lanolin, shea butter, glycerine and petrolatum.

Dr Cook suggests slathering on lanolin overnight as “a soothing, hydrating stabilising, and anti-inflammatory preparation”(sounds good to us.) And if you want to help reduce the colour of those dark circles, makeup like concealer can help. But, Dr Cook reminds, “always be gentle with application”.

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What about surgery?

If lose of volume of fat or bone is contributing to the appearance of under-eye circles, Dr Cook says fillers can be of use. As mentioned before, if those under-eye bags are more of a problem, then a lower eyelid blepharoplasty may help. Laser might be appropriate if your skin is discoloured, she says.

Sometimes, a combination of these kinds of things is recommended. If your under-eye circles are bothering you to the point that you’re considering such measures, Dr Cook reminds that proper diagnosis and assessment by a doctor is imperative.

In the meantime, remember to keep well-hydrated, moisturise, use sunscreen and, for the love of concealer, stop rubbing that delicate skin.