Dark Under-Eye Circles: What can you really do about them?

In the scientific literature, it’s referred to as ‘cutaneous idiopathic hyperchromia of the orbital region (CIHOR).’ But to you, it’s just annoying: those dark circles that never go away, no matter how much sleep you get or how many different vitamin C or caffeine-infused lotions and potion you religiously apply to the area.

So can you get rid of them, for good?

Well, to be totally honest, no. You can’t. And let me explain why and what you can do to help improve the appearance of your under-eye area before you stop reading and throw your laptop or iphone at the wall.

The first step to finding a solution is to understand the problem. One way to diagnose what is happening in skin is to take a piece of the skin and look at it under the microscope – called a skin biopsy. This can help to identify abnormalities in ‘diseased’ skin that aren’t present in normal skin. And that’s exactly what a group of researchers in Brazil did a few years ago to investigate what is going on in the skin of people with dark under eye circles: they found an increase in melanin (what gives your skin colour, the pigment), dilation or widening of the blood vessels in the upper dermis of the skin and a decrease in blood oxygen levels in patients with dark under eye circles (so poor circulation), compared to the normal skin behind their ears. The amount of melanin, dilation of vessels, and low oxygen saturation levels increased the darker the circles were.

why does this happen?

No one really knows but there is a lot of research trying to figure this out because it is such a common and annoying problem.

There is a good amount of evidence that the development of dark under eye circles is hereditary, especially if you have a female relative (mother or grandmother) who has the same problem. Interestingly, studies have also found an association between asthma and the development of dark under eye circles, though the reason why this connection exists is unclear. It might be because if you have asthma, you are more likely to be ‘atopic’ meaning you have allergies in general or this runs in your family. Atopy is known to result in inflammation around the eyes and poor circulation in the area as well, which is probably a big factor in causing the problem. Chronic inflammation around the eyes for whatever reason will result in a disruption of the pigment-producing cells in the skin and, in turn, cause more pigment to be deposited in the skin in that area. There is no relationship between hay fever, eczema, alcohol use or having acne and dark under eye circles. In addition, there is no evidence that sleep deprivation is linked to dark under eye circles. You might have noticed this yourself – no matter how much rest you get, you still have the underye darkness. There seems to be a cultural bias associating dark circles or their absence with general well-being or lack of sleep. For example, in Japanese, there are several words describing dark under-eye circles, which can also refer to exhaustion or sickness! But there is little evidence that this is actually true.

So dark under-eye circles are hereditary and possibly associated with asthma. From a scientific point of view, the factors cited for their occurrence include increased melanin pigment in the skin under the eyes, and poor circulation in the area. One big thing that is often forgotten about is your anatomy – the way your orbital bones ‘sit’ and how much fat you have on your face. As you age, you lose the youthful fat around your eyes and the bones around your eyes – your orbital bones – can become more prominent. This causes problems because it can cause shadows to develop under your eyes, which are then seen as the dreaded ‘dark circles.’ One really interesting way to correct this is through the very careful placement of a hyaluronic acid filler into the undereye area, known as the tear trough. When done well, this can slightly plump up the undereye area and actually dramatically improve the appearance of underye dark circles. If you want to try this, please make sure you find a qualified and experienced plastic surgeon or dermatologist to guide you and perform the procedure, as well as explaining to you the rare but serious complications that can occur if this procedure is done incorrectly.

Short-term changes in the appearance of your under-eye circles can also be due to dehydration, though this plays only a minor role. Your body is really good at regulating its fluid status (your hydration levels) if you are otherwise well, but this might be one reason to keep your water intake up during the day; there is no set rule about how much liquid one needs to have on a daily basis to stay ‘healthy’ as your body regulates thirst accordingly, but one way for you to monitor your hydration levels is the colour of your wee: a light yellow colour is a good indicator that you are well-hydrated.

Visually, studies have shown that the severity of dark under eye circles is directly related to the contrast between the darkened under-eye skin and the surrounding cheek skin. This is pretty obvious but has been confirmed by research. So trying to ‘match’ your undereye skin with your cheek skin via makeup is a good step forward in at least temporarily correcting the problem.

Yes, dark under eye circles are a cosmetic nuisance and there is no way to get rid of them permanently. Whether you have them because your mother does or because you have an underlying predisposition to allergies or asthma, these factors are not something that you can change. Investing in a high-quality foundation and concealer to even out your skin tone is probably the best investment of your time and money in helping to improve the overall appearance of your eyes. Drinking enough fluids to stay adequately hydrated is never a bad idea and might help. And, finally, having a consultation with a reputable plastic surgeon or dermatologist is a good way to see if having a more invasive treatment into the area like a filler might be helpful.

Until Next Time,

Dr. Natalia Spierings

SkincareNatalia Spierings