FAQ’s: Under Eye Problems (Part I: Dark Circles)

By Voxy  

eye2Before we even get started, let me remind you that EVERY SINGLE PHOTO you see in a magazine — every single close-up of someone’s face (including this one right here to the left) — has been airbrushed, Photoshopped, or otherwise altered. Yes, those women all have eye areas that are beyond flawless — but they’re also way beyond “realistic.” Keep your expectations appropriate. That doesn’t mean that you can’t improve conditions substantially (there are some products out there which are, quite frankly, kick-ass), but you will never again look like a 20-year old. (On the plus side, you won’t ever have to be a 20-year-old again, which is considerable consolation.)

Undereye skin problems mostly fall into one of four areas, as detailed in the first four items of the list below. These first four posts will cover an overview of the problem and suggest some skincare solutions to help improve the underlying conditions. The last post in the series deals with how to use makeup to go the rest of the way in making those problems disappear, or at least be less obvious.

Part the First: Dark Circles

Part the Second: Puffiness

Part the Third: Dryness and Flakiness

Part the Fourth: Fine Lines and Wrinkles

Part the Fifth: Undereye Concealers and Correctors

Part the First: Dark Circles

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, on at least one morning in their lives, stared at themselves blearily in the mirror wondering if some mischievous little imp snuck into the bedroom and applied purple eyeshadow under their eyes while they were sleeping. Dark undereye circles, whether occasional or constant, are one of the most common problems, and occur for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are hereditary, some are related to lifestyle factors or medication, and sometimes those annoying little purple or brownish-purple patches just pop up for no apparent reason. I like to think they’re karmic punishment for sins committed in a previous life, and the only reason I like to think that is that it implies that I must have had one rockin’ previous life, which I hope I enjoyed greatly.

Getting and keeping good skin usually involves working on the problem from both the outside and the inside. In the case of dark circles, working from the inside includes not smoking, avoiding situations that might trigger nasal allergies, drinking enough water, eating a balanced diet (including enough iron and Vitamin K), getting regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and keeping stress levels under control.

I’ll wait while you stop laughing. Ready? OK.

Those of you who (like me) fail at one or more of those areas with depressing frequency are in luck, because a veritable army of skincare manufacturers lies ready to bring us creams, lotions, and serums to help remedy this situation. As you probably already know, the skin under your eyes is thinner than on other parts of your face, and therefore betrays the effects of fatigue, dehydration, etc., more readily than other areas. (This area also has fewer sebaceous glands, which is why moisturizing the undereye can be a challenge. Just wait till we get to lips.) The fat pad under your skin becomes thinner as you age, so blood vessels under the skin are more visible, especially the blue veins and capillaries carrying blood that’s been depleted of most of its oxygen. This can easily lend a purplish undertone to the skin. Broken capillaries can also cause discoloration. I can’t overstate the importance of dealing with the internal causes of dark circles, but this is a blog about skincare products, so of course let’s talk about some of the things that you can slap on to help work on things from the outside.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is important in maintaining proper clotting action in the blood, and while that might not sound super-important from a beauty point of view, it can be useful in helping to fix the broken capillaries that contribute to some kinds of under-eye discoloration. Ideally, you want to incorporate into your diet foods rich with Vitamin K (most of these are dark green leafy things: kale, turnip or collard greens, broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, etc.), but you may also benefit by topical application of a Vitamin K eye cream. The problems, of course, are these: how much K is in the product, is it formulated to penetrate effectively, and do you actually have the kind of discoloration that vitamin K could help you solve? There are still a lot of questions about how much K should be in a product to be effective, how much is too much, etc., so keep that in mind. (Standard warning: This blog is not a source of medical advice. Talk with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or vitamin regimen, particularly if  you are pregnant, nursing, or have an ongoing medical condition.)

Vitamin C

This is another one where you might want to consider fighting on two fronts. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, and helps to repair and prevent free radical damage. It also helps your body to absorb the iron in foods, and since low iron can contribute to dark circles, you want to be sure that you’re getting sufficient C in your diet. (Also, not getting enough C causes scurvy, which is excessively unpleasant.) Vitamin C is also necessary for the synthesis of collagen, which is one important ingredient of healthy, firm, non-wrinkly skin.

In the last few years all sorts of skincare products with Vitamin C have hit the market; in fact, there are whole lines devoted to Vitamin C. One of these is Cellex-C, which has some rather interesting studies and photo evidence on its site (check out the “Half-Face Studies,” which are not nearly as gruesome as they sound). There’s some excellent reading there about the wide variety of C products available and whether all of them are really effective.


Yay, retinol, magical fire from the gods! Where would we be without you? It slices! It dices! It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping! (No, I’m kidding about that dessert topping business — this is one ingredient that you definitely don’t want to ingest.)

I could go on, but you get the idea. Don’t get me wrong; retinol is a good, solid, well-researched ingredient that can help address a host of skincare problems. But you have to choose your retinol products carefully — I mean, if you expect them to actually work.

Often presented as a fix for both dark circles and fine lines and wrinkles, retinol is the Scrappy Doo to its stronger prescription cousin, Retin-A. Both of these are Vitamin A derivatives, but the prescription Retin-A is too strong for many people and produces irritation. Retinol and Retin-A each come in various concentrations and you may need to experiment until you find the one that’s right for you — maximum benefit while maintaining tolerable side effects. Unfortunately, with many OTC products, the retinol concentration is not listed on the packaging, which is not terribly helpful. If it has been pulled out as an “active ingredient,” the percentage will generally be listed, but if not, you will have to go on the basis of where it appears in the ingredient list if you want to make an educated guess about the strength of the product. In general, the closer the ingredient in question is to the beginning of the ingredient list, the more of it there is in there, but the concentration of it (with OTC retinol, anywhere from 0.15% to 1%) is still unknown. Also, retinol and Retin-A both break down when exposed to light and air, which is why it’s such a spectacularly bad idea that so many retinol-containing products are sold in glass and plastic jars. Look for products in packaging that doesn’t expose the product to light or air (RoC Retinol Correxion Eye Cream is a good example: the product comes in an opaque tube with a narrow-ended spout so that exposure to light and air are really minimized).

The real spanner in the works here is that no matter how good the skincare products are that you buy, not one of them is going to be an instantaneous miracle remedy for dark circles (except, of course, concealer, but that’s not till Part the Fifth). So anything that you try will need weeks or months to produce results, during which time you may also have changes in your sleep schedule or diet or stress level or hydration level or allergies or what-have-you that can be interfering (either positively or negatively) with the topical products you use.

I’ll get to undereye hydration issues in a future post, but let’s just start with the assumption that unless your skin is very oily, you will want to put some kind of moisturizing product on the undereye skin, and so you might as well pick one that has as many antioxidants and other skin-friendly ingredients as possible. Products that truly multitask, and do it effectively, are rare, so choose carefully; you may end up with different products for different tasks and it’s a good idea to think about how they’re going to work together. A very emollient cream with Vitamin K for dark circles, plus another cream for puffiness, plus another cream for undereye wrinkles, might end up being way, way too emollient.

All this being said, the two best things you can probably do for non-hereditary dark circles are to regularly get more sleep and to make sure you are drinking enough water. Boring? Yep. But also free!

Other ideas? What’s worked (or not worked) for you? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. avatar Inthelab
    Posted October 27, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Meant to add, , knew it, defeated by bone structure. Bring on the Spackle, er, concealer.


  2. avatar Inthelab
    Posted October 27, 2009 at 7:33 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Accutane is Vitamin A acid (retinoic acid), an analogue of vitamin A rather than a naturally-occurring form of it.

    Retinol is also known as “animal” vitamin A, and is formed in animals from retinal and carotenoids. Retinol is the vitamin A found in meat and dairy products, and of course your own liver makes it from these precursors.

    It’s the other stuff in the eye cream that probably tastes awful… though the fad for foodie fragrances makes so many skin care products smell like cake or candy!


  3. avatar Inthelab
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 7:17 pm | Permalink | Reply

    You already ingest retinol; you just call it Vitamin A.

    Now what do those of the deep-set eye do about dark circles,please?


    • avatar Voxy
      Posted October 26, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Well, yes, but there’s vitamin A and then there’s vitamin A. Accutane (acne med) is also vitamin A, but because it is linked to birth defects it’s very strictly regulated. (Besides, I don’t think anyone really wants to eat their eye cream, although the PTR one I’m testing now does have the consistency of frosting, so I can see how it would be tempting.)

      If you want to really make a difference for dark circles with deep-set eyes, I think you are going to have to rely on cosmetics more than sleep and hydration. The extra battle for deep-set eyes is that the bone structure creates shadows where you don’t want them, so anything that reflects light is helpful. I would go for a really good concealer and a light-reflecting highlighter or something like that. I’m posting a review of a DuWop undereye concealer in a day or two; I don’t know how it would be for your sensitive skin.


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