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The Spot

The Science Behind Your Dark Circles

By Madeleine Woon


Every cloud has its silver lining. For my dark under-eye circles and bags, it’s that the jokes basically write themselves.“Oh, these old things? They’re Gucci!” I’ve been known to quip, feverishly gesticulating towards the dark area of flesh south of my eyeballs. Responses to this joke vary from non-committal grunts, to laughs that actually meet the eyes. I graciously accept them all. 

When they’re not being mined for comedic gold, my dark under-eye circles moonlight as the bane of my existence. You too? Here’s the science behind why you get them, and a few tips and tricks to live in peaceful coexistence with them… 

Why Do I Get Them?
There’s a whole host of reasons as to why you might have prominent under-eye circles. The first, as is the case with me, is a simple case of genetics. Some families pass recipes down from generation to generation; mine prefer to bequeath those that come next with prominent under-eye circles (and matching bags, too). Cute guys! Thanks! A secret lasagne recipe would have sufficed. 

Can’t pin this one on your folks? Let science explain why the area underneath your eyes is a few shades darker than the rest of your face… 

Thinner skin 
The area of skin under your eyes is thinner than the rest of your face The blood vessels here will therefore be closer to the surface, which makes them look darker. As we inevitably age, our skin gets thinner and we lose collagen—this can make the blood vessels stand out more.Sun exposure 
Constant exposure to the big burning ball in the sky can create dark circles under the eyes, by increasing the melanin content. Pigmentation is more likely to occur in this area because the skin is more sensitive.

A lack of sleep 
Chances are if you’ve got dark rings under your eyes, at least six thousand people throughout your lifetime will tell you that you look tired. As unsolicited and annoying as it is, there is merit in this observation. Your rings can be worsened by general fatigue, and especially a lack of sleep. The daily fluctuation is due to swelling of the skin, leading to a change in light diffusion, which gives the appearance of darker skin.

The anatomical shape of your eye sockets can be the cause of your dark circles: some are hollowed more than others.

Skin conditions
Eczema, psoriasis, allergic contact dermatitis, inflammation from dry and sore skin, and excessive rubbing can also cause melanin production, and in turn circles.

Allergies trigger histamines in the body, which can lead to dilated blood vessels. Since the skin around the eyes is so thin, these blood vessels are easily seen. 

Can I Do Anything About Them? 
If Vogue is to be believed, under eye circles are actually très chic. Like the basket bag that came before them, under-eye circles/bags are very in with French girls, who, far from attempting to cover them with concealer, embrace them wholeheartedly.

Clémence Poésy—a.k.a. someone who we are very inclined to agree with—believes that “Dark circles under the eyes can be one of the most moving things on a human face.” She’s right. They are perfectly natural and normal, after all. 

If they are bothersome to you, though, there are a few things you can do to blur their appearance. Treating dark eye circles depends on what causes them in the first place. Topical retinoids can help lighten the look of dark circles, and using a prescription retinoid can help to thicken the skin and increase cell turnover. Creams and serums that contain hyaluronic acid, ceramides and peptides help to hydrate and stimulate collagen and elastin production, which helps to plump skin. This plumping effect physically lifts the eye skin away from the areas of blood pooling, creating higher opacity and suppressing dark shadows. Products containing caffeine help to ~wake up~ your tired looking eyes, by constricting visible blood vessels. 

For skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis that cause redness or darkening in the skin (which is exacerbated by itching), removing the cause of inflammation will help to stop an overproduction of melanin in the body. For those whose under-eye darkness is caused by allergies, reducing the appearance of dark circles can be as simple as taking an antihistamine and getting a good night’s sleep. 

Not to be completely inflammatory! But is sleeping actually breaking you out?!