What Causes Dark Circles Under Eyes? A Dermatologist Explains

And how can you make them go away?

Originally Published: 
A man with dark circles under his eyes.
Allison Michael Orenstein/Getty

Poets say the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, but there’s more to the eye than the eyeball itself — in fact, a lot can be told from an eye’s surroundings. It can go both ways: A puffy or droopy eye can serve as a tell for somebody who’s been partying loads…or who’s been up three nights in a row with the baby. So, what causes dark circles under eyes, should you ever be worried that your eye bags are a sign of a health issue, and how can you get rid of dark circles under eyes permanently? This is what you need to know.

What Causes Dark Circles Under Eyes?

Everybody can get dark circles under their eyes — from children to adults — but undereye bags tend to worsen with age.

“I see eye bags in almost all decades of adult life, and the most common age that I see them begins really in their 40s and onward,” says Christopher Zoumalan, M.D., an ophthalmologist and plastic surgeon based in California. “But some people are more prone to having them show up earlier, for instance, even in their 20s.”

When undereye bags show up is often related to why they’re there in the first place. And like most things happening to your body, there are a number of factors that can contribute to the baggage.

Some lifestyle conditions can change whether you have undereye bags from day to day, causing dark circles or bags to wax and wane, says Beth Goldstein, M.D., a dermatologist and founder of Central Dermatology Center in North Carolina. A common explanation is lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep makes your body produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, which can make blood vessels dilate and therefore appear darker under the eyes, an area where the skin is thin and see-through. This can cause a dim shadow circling the lower lid, Goldstein says, and some puffiness.

The effect of sleep deprivation on undereye bags is scientifically proven. A 2013 study published in the journal Sleep noted that “faces of sleep-deprived individuals were perceived as having more hanging eyelids, redder eyes, more swollen eyes, darker circles under the eyes…” Another 2022 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine followed 24 women who usually sleep well and then endured sleep restrictions for two days; the researchers noted significant changes to the participants’ facial appearance and skin.

Temporary undereye bags can also be caused by smoking or drinking too much, which also causes blood vessel dilation under the eyes, Goldstein notes. In some cases, fluid retention after a salty meal can cause the skin to bulk up on water and get a little puffy under the eye, also casting a circular shadow, she adds. Having an allergic reaction or a skin condition that causes irritation in the eye area can also cause some pigmentation under the eye.

Some people, however, are genetically predisposed to having dark circles and undereye bags, just like they’re predisposed to a certain eye shape. A Brazilian study from 2015 notes that family history is the most significant factor in the appearance of “peri-orbital dark circles.” That’s because genetics can affect collagen — a protein the body produces that determines how stretchy your skin is and therefore how likely it is to droop under the eye — and melanin production, including some people’s hyperpigmentation under the eyes.

In extreme cases, undereye swelling could be due to a medical condition affecting the thyroid or the kidneys — but that’s rare. Thyroid diseases such as Graves' disease or hyperthyroidism can result in “bulging” and irritated eyes because the immune system attacks the thyroid gland and other tissues in the body, such as behind the eye. Kidney malfunction can have the same type of effect because excess toxins that aren’t tackled by the kidneys are stored in other areas of the body.

Mostly though, Zoumalan says, some people think they have dark undereye bags when they simply have an aging lower eyelid, which means they might have loose skin, under-eye hollowing, and shifting fat pockets simply as a result of getting older. “True undereye bags are due to prominent fat pockets,” says Zoumalan.

How To Get Rid Of Dark Circles Under Your Eyes

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having dark undereye circles. But because they can signal certain health conditions and unhealthy lifestyle factors, it’s important to make sure you see your doctor regularly and maintain a healthy lifestyle to get at the root of your undereye bag problem.

Dark circles or undereye bags due to aging are usually not reversible, says Zoumalan. However, there are treatments available — which are solely about aesthetics and don’t serve a medical purpose.

“There is no one-size-fits all solution for managing the appearance of dark circles and under-eye bags,” says Zoumalan. Each person is different and requires customized solutions to treat the area, so there’s a plethora of ways you can conceal or treat dark undereye circles and bags, from cosmetics to surgery.

Skincare can be a good start, Goldstein says. “The easiest treatment is to conceal the dark circles using optical diffusers with minerals such as nitride, mica, silica, silicone powder, talc, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide,” she says. These compounds can help lighten up your visage and hide the circles. Using creams containing peptides or retinoids, or chemical peels, can also improve collagen and decrease melanin production, which can help plump up the lower eyelids.

And a cup of coffee may also help in a pinch. “Products with caffeine can improve the blood vessel function, reducing the leakage of the small capillaries into the thin eyelid tissue that causes dark circles, as well as reducing swelling,” says Goldstein.

For more severe cases of bags caused by undereye hollowing, injectable fillers using hyaluronic acid products can quickly even out the fatty pads in the under-eye area, Goldstein says.

If your undereye bags are really bothering you, you can resort to plastic surgery. Zoumalan is specialized in cosmetic eyelid surgery, technically termed blepharoplasty, which is an intervention aimed at improving the appearance of the upper eyelids, lower eyelids, or both. “Fat, excess skin, bags, pouches, and wrinkles in the eyelid area can be removed to make the eyes and eyelids look more youthful,” he says.

Or, just work on accepting the dark circles under your eyes. We promise we won’t judge.

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