What Causes Dark Eye Circles And How Science Can Help

eye bags woman

Dark eye circles are a universally recognized symbol of tiredness – many say those dark circles are an instant clue that you didn’t get enough sleep last night. But is the lack of sleep really the cause of those bags? And can you cure it by throwing a couple of cucumber slices over your eyes? It turns out it’s a bit more complicated than that. Circles and bags under your eyes can be affected by genes, hormones, diet, water retention, and the presence of fat in your eye sockets, and there are many complex ways to treat them.

Many people see under-eye circles as unattractive and undesirable. But those in high-stress jobs often wear them proudly as a badge of honour, showing that they are working hard. They are also connected to ageing, the horrifying notion that as we continue living our lives, gaining experience, knowledge, and wisdom, we don’t look the same as we once did. But, if you are committed to seeing your under-eye puffiness and circles disappear, knowing the actual science behind what causes them will help you understand how to eliminate them.

Drooping Eye Fat Causes Dark eye circles

When most people talk about eliminating fat on their body they are usually referring to their stomachs, hips, or thighs –not their eyes. But without a layer of orbital fat lining your eye socket, your eyeball would feel like it’s grating against bone whenever you move it. The fat around your eye acts as a cushion to protect it from outside forces and keep it moving smoothly around in your skull.

As you age, gravity pulls that fat downward, and your muscles are unable to keep it in place. This also makes it a target for fluid to collect, fill the fatty cells, and puff up the area under the eye.

Salt, Allergies, and Lack of Good Skin Care Worsens Dark Circles

The fluid that pools under your eyes is lymphatic fluid, which is a mixture of water and white blood cells, that your body pumps around to fight off infections as part of the lymphatic system. This accumulates in those fat cells, and certain factors affect the amount of fluid retention and swelling.

Most people are aware that salt signals the body to retain more fluid, but many don’t make the connection that a high-salt diet can increase the puffiness of under-eye bags. Nasal and sinus congestion from allergies disrupts the transport of fluids around the face and can cause it to collect under the eyes. Skincare products that reduce wrinkles by increasing “plumpness” are actually causing your face to retain that fluid, so be careful what products you put around your eyes.

dark eye circle cream

Your Period Can Increase Puffiness and Dark Circles

Women’s bodies tend to retain more fluid at the start of their menstrual cycle, which is usually most recognized as bloating or apparent weight gain, but it also means that under-eye puffiness can be more pronounced at that time. Scientists are still working to discover the causes and implications of this effect, but it is clear that changes in hormones affect the way the body regulates fluid transport and retention.

Thyroid or Adrenal Issues Can Lead to Under-eye Bags and Dark Circles

Generally, under-eye bags are purely an aesthetic issue and not associated with true health problems, but constant, pronounced bags with a dark strip of hollow skin below can be a sign of thyroid problems or adrenal fatigue. The thyroid is involved with the balance of hormones, and we learned above that hormone shifts can cause increased puffiness. Adrenal fatigue comes from the body being under constant stress so that it’s internal stress-reduction response shuts down. When that system breaks down, it can also lead to pretty significant under-eye bags.

Genes and Thin Skin Cause Dark Circles

Dark circles under the eyes are an entirely different problem to bags. The darkness results from the skin under the eyes thinning as we age, so that dark blood vessels below the skin become more visible. The thinning is part of the natural ageing process; just as the fat migrates downward with time, the muscles responsible for holding the skin in place begin to weaken and the skin sags and thins. The skin under the eyes is already thinner than most other parts of the body, so the result is much more pronounced in this area.

Your genes can also affect the appearance of dark circles. Genetic hyper-pigmentation is the phenomenon of certain people inheriting darker skin around their eyes. There is really nothing to be done to prevent or treat this, but many beauty experts recommend people with hyper-pigmentation can reduce the darkness by applying red lipstick under the eyes, counteracting the dark pigments and making the skin appear brighter.

cosmetics to conceal dark eye circles

The Connection Between Bags or Circles and Tiredness Isn’t Clear

Though most of us associate puffy, dark eyes with lack of sleep, the science on how sleep affects the under-eye area isn’t very clear. There is not much research available on the topic, but what little there is suggests that dark circles are a more likely sign of tiredness than bags. Since bags are due to fluid retention, and the causes of fluid retention are well known, it’s not likely that tiredness affects fluid retention as much as the other factors explained above. A possible explanation for dark circles is that blood pools in your face when you’re lying down, or that the darkness could be caused by dehydration, which is often associated with lack of sleep.

“Curing” Under Eye Issues is Extreme

Dark circles can be easily concealed by makeup, but eye bags are trickier to treat. There are types of cosmetic surgery to get rid of them, but they are intense and risky procedures. One type of blepharoplasty (surgery around the eyes) involves completely removing the fat under the eye socket. This is a surgical technique that should be performed only by a plastic surgeon. There are also laser treatments that tighten the skin rather than removing the fat.

A less invasive treatment for temporary fluid pooling is lymphatic massage. This encourages your body to drain fluids by stimulating the lymph glands on your face. You can get it done by a professional or find tips online on how to do it yourself. It is not recommended to have this done on your period due to the effects of hormones on lymphatic drainage.

The last option is to just embrace them – they are a normal result of being human, and they might even make you look mysterious and sexy. Next time someone calls you out for looking “haggard”, you can reply that it is just part of the natural process of ageing, and it shows you are experienced and wise.