7 Reasons You Have Dark Eye Circles (And How To Treat Them)

Photo: Marina Demeshko / Shutterstock
woman with dark circles

Having dark circles under your eyes isn't a serious health concern, but it's also not the most flattering accessory. Who could blame you for wanting to treat and get rid of dull dark circles once and for all?

Sleepless nights and long days can weigh heavily on us, mentally and physically, producing numerous adverse effects. Dark under-eye circles make us look as tired as we feel, often aging us and ruining our natural glow.

They might arise overnight, but these pigmentation spots are hard to shake, even after a good night's rest.

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While there are a number of expensive medical procedures you can do to (allegedly) cure your dark circles, prodding your eyes with needles and lasers seems a little drastic, especially considering that there are plenty of simple remedies you can try at home first.

What causes dark circles?

These can be unavoidable and may require you to consult your doctor in order to reduce under-eye swelling and pigmentation issues.

But often, dark circles are caused or exacerbated by fatigue, bad sleeping habits, and poor nutrition.

1. Genetics

Studies have found that people who have dark circles under their eyes may end up passing that gene on, or have family members with dark circles as well. However, more research is needed to determine just how much genetics factors into this.

Ethnicity plays a role as well. Dark under eye circles are more common in darker skin tones due to pigmentation changes.

2. Aging

As we naturally age, we may find that we have dark areas under our eyes. Due to the thinning of skin and loss of fatty tissues under and around the eyes, this affects the skin's elasticity and color. It also makes the dark eye circles more pronounced.

3. Allergies

Whether it's nasal allergies, seasonal dryness, hay fever, or specific allergic reactions, these can all cause dark circles.

When you have an allergic reaction to something, your body produces histamines, which causes a dilation of blood vessels. These blood vessels become more visible as a result. This is known as allergic shiners.

Those histamines also create irritation or itchiness, and when you rub your eyes, it leads to dark circles. Essentially, rubbing your eyes during an allergic reaction creates swelling of the very thin skin under your eyes.

4. Skin conditions

Skin conditions like atopic dermatitis (or eczema) or contact dermatitis cause inflammation and darken the surrounding eye tissues. Similar to allergies, rubbing can cause irritation and itching to the delicate under-eye area.

5. Sleep deprivation

Dark circles under the eyes are often a result of a lack of sleep, fatigue, and even oversleeping.

Why? Because when you miss out on sleep, your body produces cortisol in higher numbers, also increasing the number of blood in your body. The blood vessels in your eyes expand, creating a darker appearance under your eyes.

Sometimes, a lack of sleep can lead to puffy eyes, which create the same appearance as dark circles, but are actually just shadows from swollen eyelids.

6. Dehydration

Dehydration can cause all sorts of conditions and symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, achy joints, fever, and even seizures. But not drinking enough water also causes sunken eyes and dull skin.

Think about it: the human body is made up of 60% water, so when the body isn't hydrated, the tissues shrink, including that very delicate, thin layer of skin under the eyes.

7. Anemia

Anemia and iron deficiency are conditions that cause dark under eye circles. This is because the lack of iron in one's diet, or lack of nutrient-rich foods, in general, leads to discoloration or pale skin.

In fact, one study determined that anemia was an underlying cause of dark under eye circles in about 50% of participants.

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How can you get rid of dark circles at home?

1. Get more sleep.

Sometimes, the most obvious solutions are the most effective.

Since fatigue and lack of rest cause dark circles, getting your required 7-8 hours of sleep per night could cure your pigmentation issues.

When you’re tired, your body produces more cortisol to boost energy levels, which results in more blood flow and larger blood vessels. Since the skin under your eyes is thinner than the rest of your body, dark circles are most visible there.

2. Elevate your head.

It’s not just about the amount of sleep you get — how you sleep plays a huge role in your sleep quality and facial appearance.

Do your dark circles look worse first thing in the morning but ease after a few hours? This could be because of that one thin pillow that you sleep on.

Sleeping on multiple pillows elevates your head and encourages blood to travel away from the head and face. This prevents blood from pooling under the eyes and exacerbating dark circles.

3. Try a cold compress.

Dark circles typically indicate that your blood vessels have expanded. So if you want to get rid of them, all you have to do is encourage your veins to retract to their normal size.

Applying a cold compress constricts vessels and decreases blood flow to the affected area, therefore brightening the skin.

4. Use cucumber.

Chilled cucumber is a great natural remedy for all your pigmentation problems. It works similarly to a cold compress, but with some added nutritional benefits thanks to its vitamin C and folic acid contents.

Vitamin C stimulates cell growth and wakes up the skin, while folic acid stimulates antioxidant activity and fights off toxins that are causing dark or puffy skin. Clinical studies have advocated for the role of cucumber in reducing swelling and removing toxins.

5. Apply a retinol.

Retinol/retinoid creams promote collagen production and can improve the appearance of dull-looking skin.

Lower potency retinoids can be bought over the counter in moisturizers and oils, but a doctor may choose to prescribe a more intense retinol, depending on your needs.

Other moisturizing ingredients that may soothe and ease dark circles include aloe and hyaluronic acid. Not all skin types should use retinol, so always consult your doctor before trying one out.

6. Apply almond oil.

Since high-quality almond oil contains vitamin A-derived retinol, it's another great natural alternative to medicated ointments. It also has a high level of vitamins C and E, which, when combined with retinol, is proven to reduce dark circles.

7. Soak your eyes with tea bags and vitamin K.

In a 2015 study, a compress containing caffeine and vitamin K applied under the eye was shown to minimize the appearance of dark circles and wrinkles.

Steep caffeinated black or green tea bags in warm water to activate the tea leaves before leaving them to cool in the fridge for at least 15 minutes. Then, add a vitamin K oil and leave the bags to sit on your eyes for 10-20 minutes before rinsing.

8. Minimize sun exposure.

Ultraviolet radiation can worsen dark circles in some people by damaging the skin, making blood vessels more visible.

Protect your skin by wearing SPF daily and covering eyes with sunglasses. This is particularly important if you’re using a retinol to treat under-eye circles as this can make the skin more vulnerable to sun damage.

What treatments do doctors suggest for dark circles?

If your dark circles are particularly hard to treat, your doctor may recommend a more intense procedure or topical treatment to reduce them.

1. Fillers

Depending on the shape of your eyes, dark circles may be more noticeable due to shadowing. A hyaluronic-based filler injected into the under eye area by a trained professional can add more volume and plumpness, disguising dark circles.

2. Laser therapy

Light treatment can vaporize damaged cells, promote collagen production, and lighten darker skin tones.

3. Chemical peels

Chemical facials can remove darker pigments from the skin and brighten skin tones.

Often, these include retinol or retinoic acid in a higher potency than what you can buy yourself. Chemical peels may also include glycolic acid, salicylic acid, or lactic acid.

4. Blepharoplasty

Fat can be removed from your lower eyelid by a plastic surgeon, oculoplastic surgeon, or dermatologic surgeon to remove the shadow cast by your eyelids.

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Alice Kelly is YourTango’s Deputy News and Entertainment Editor. Based in Brooklyn, New York, her work covers social justice, pop culture, and human interest topics. Keep up with her Twitter for more.