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The 3 causes of dark under eye circles and how to fix them

The Three Causes of Dark Circles (and How to Tackle Them)

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As someone with under-eye circles so dark it looks like I haven’t slept since 1996 even when I’m fully rested (thanks genetics!), my hunt for a solution that will make me look wide awake- and well, less panda-like- has spanned several years.

Along the way, I’ve tried everything from facial massage and under-eye patches, to retinols, eye creams and electronic gadgets.

And the main thing I’ve learned?  That the solution doesn’t lie in just one product or tip, but in understanding what causes them and then combining a couple of different tricks to tackle your own specific issues.

There are a couple of different culprits that cause dark circles, and knowing which one is making you look less than well-rested is key to working out a fix.

Dark Circles Culprit 1: Skin Thickness

Dark circles are most commonly caused by the thinner skin around the eyes (around 10 times thinner than on the rest of the face) allowing the blood vessels below the eye to show through, resulting in a dark purple or blue colour.

While the thickness of the skin under the eyes is mostly determined by genetics- meaning that some people will have dark circles at 17 and others may not get them until they’re 50- the skin around the eyes does get thinner as we age, so circles tend to get worse over time.

Healthline backs this up, saying that “as you get older, your skin tends to sag and become thinner. You might experience a decrease in the fat and collagen that helps maintain your skin’s elasticity.

“As this occurs, the dark blood vessels beneath your skin become more visible, causing the area below your eyes to darken.”


The Fix…


Retinols (a form of Vitamin A) have been shown to increase cell turnover- boosting collagen levels, which can thicken the skin and help improve the look of dark circles.  My personal favourite is Dr Dennis Gross’s Ferulic + Retinol Eye Cream, which combines retinol with ferulic acid an antioxidant to protect skin from environmental damage.

Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic + Retinol Eye Cream

Image – Live That Glow


I also like Sunday Riley’s A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum, a slightly stronger formula designed for the whole face but which can be used up to the eye socket.

Suday Riley A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum

Image – Live That Glow


While I’m definitely a fan of retinol, it can be sensitising when you first use it, so start with gentle formulations like the Dr Dennis Gross product, try using every three nights until you can build up tolerance, and use plenty of moisturiser.


While there is some evidence to suggest SPF can actually reverse some signs of ageing, its main strength lies in protecting against the environmental damage that can cause skin to thin out further, so may help to prevent dark circles from getting worse- and is a definite must if using retinol.

Healthline says that “prolonged sun exposure or injury may cause dark circles to form under your eyes. This is known as post-inflammatory pigmentation.

“Too much sun may produce excess melanin, which is the pigment that gives your skin color. Your body might then deposit this excess melanin beneath your eyes, resulting in hyperpigmentation.”

Since the under-eye is delicate, try sticking to alcohol-free formulas to avoid drying out or irritating the skin.

One of my favourite SPFs for every day is Dr Sam’s Flawless Daily Sunscreen, which combines mineral and chemical sunscreens for broad-spectrum protection that wears well under makeup.

Dr Sam's Flawless Daily Sunscreen

Image – Live That Glow

Brightening pigments

Not a long-term fix but certainly a quick one is using eye creams that contain light-reflecting particles. These create a subtle brightening effect- helping to hide the look of dark circles- and can be found in one of my favourite budget eye creams, The Inkey List’s Brighten-I Eye Cream.

The Inkey List Brighten I

Image – Live That Glow



Finally, cool temperatures can help to temporarily constrict blood vessels- therefore improving the look of circles- so any of the steps above can be helped by popping products or any tools like facial rollers in the fridge before use (just keep them away from any stinkier foods if you value the scent of your products).

Dark Circles Culprit 2: Tear Troughs

The rather unflatteringly-named tear troughs are really just those ridges that you see from the inner corner of the eye along the eye socket.

Like dark circles, the appearance of these is largely genetic and down to the thickness of skin around the eyes, so some people may never have them while others (like me) have quite a pronounced hollowness under the eyes.

That skin hides a layer of fat under the eye which keeps the area plump and smooth when we are younger.  Sadly this fat can shift downwards as we age, resulting in a hollow look, while the thinning of the skin over it can make the effect even more obvious.

This in turn can create a shadow effect under the eye, which may appear as a dark circle even when wearing concealer/colour corrector/brightening makeup.

The Fix…

Facial Toning

Since tear troughs are mainly caused by a sagging of the fat below the eyes, I’ve personally found a facial toning device like the Nuface Mini Facial Toning Device, which uses microcurrents to strengthen facial muscles, can help to lift the whole area and reduce hollowness. I have literally recommended this little device to loads of friends and every single one has been happy with the results too so this is possibly one of the few facial tools I would say is really worth the splurge.


Similarly to treating dark circles, one of the aims here is to strengthen the skin around the eyes, so a retinol like the Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic + Retinol Eye Cream can be really helpful here too.


One fix that I haven’t tried myself but which is commonly used to treat tear troughs is filler injections.  Administered into the hollow area they can temporarily plump and fill, with effects lasting between 6 and 18 months and costs starting from around £390.

If going down this route, take time to find a fully qualified doctor or medical aesthetician who will talk you through the results you want, as well as the potential side effects and risks.

Dark Circles Culprit 3: Pigmentation

Sometimes the darkness around the eye area is down to hyperpigmentation- an excess of melanin in the skin- and is called periorbital melanosis or periorbital hyperpigmentation.

This can be genetic and is most common in darker skin tones, and can be exacerbated by UV damage.

The Fix…


Laser treatments can help to lighten under-eye pigmentation. Treatments cost from around £170 for IPL (Intense Pulsed Light), and should only be carried out by a doctor or medical aesthetician who can discuss the results you want, as well as possible side effects and risks.


A common skin-lightening agent, hydroquinone works by blocking the melanin-producing enzyme tyrosinase.  Only available on prescription within the EU, hydroquinone comes with several possible side effects and should be used in consultation with a dermatologist.

Other Ingredients

While the gold standards for tackling hyperpigmentation may be lasers and hydroquinone, milder pigmentation cases can often be treated with gentler ingredients that can disrupt the production of melanin.  These include kojic acid, licorice root extract, niacinamide, retinol and vitamin C.

One of my favourite Vitamin C products for the eyes is Drunk Elephant’s C-Tango Multivitamin Eye Cream

Drunk Elephant C Tango Multivitamin Eye Cream

Image – Live That Glow


Since UV light can make hyperpigmentation worse it’s especially important to use an SPF under the eyes, as well as to reapply often.

The Takeaway

As you can see there are quite a few causes of those pesky dark circles, and finding the right routine for you may come down to combining a few different fixes.

Finding a routine always takes a bit of trial and error, so it’s sometimes a good idea to try some reasonably-priced products when first trying out a new ingredient (I’m a particular fan of anything from The Inkey List and Good Molecules), and introduce new products one at a time so you can see what’s actually working and what’s not.




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Sally Underwood is a journalist, *serious* beauty fan, and Editor-in-Chief of Live That Glow. Formerly Editorial Director of one of Europe's largest newspaper groups, Sally has been a beauty obsessive since her teen years spent dragging her long-suffering (but immaculately-groomed) friends around every beauty counter in London. She now leads Live That Glow's editorial operations.

Expertise: Skincare, Body care
Education: University College London

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