ALL the Ways to Tackle Your Tired-Looking Eyes
Main image – Lightfieldstudios/Adobe
As someone whose under-eye circles are so dark it looks like I basically never sleep- and as well as all the puffiness, fine lines, and bags that just go hand in hand with proper grown-up life- I’m constantly prowling for ways to look more awake.
And this hunt has taken me to everything from retinols, creams and gadgets to diet changes and facial massage techniques.
And the main thing I now know? That the solution doesn’t lie in just one product/tip/technique, but in combining a couple of different tricks to tackle your own under-eye concerns… Because as it turns out, tired under-eyes often aren’t just caused by one thing, but a mixture of a couple of different issues.
And while yes, you might just have plain old darker circles under the eyes (and if so, you can take a look at this dark circle-specific guide here), most of us (me included) actually have a couple of things going on at once.
So what are the main culprits of tired-looking peepers (and how do we fix them)? We spoke with famous Beverly Hills Oculoplastic Surgeon Dr Kami Parsa to get the lowdown on how to appear more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed without breaking the bank or going under the knife (phew!)
This is new, up-to-date information. We updated this article in July 2023 to add further important and expert information as well as more ways to tackle tired-looking eyes.
Culprit 1. Puffiness
If you’re like me then missing so much as 45 minutes sleep can result in both my under eyes and lids puffing up like a particularly easily-startled blowfish.
Puffiness is most normally caused by fluid building up below the eyes because the “Inflammation leads to deposition of pigment on the skin. This can be caused by chronic low-grade inflammation from allergies, which may see patients frequently rubbing their eyes and bringing on this unwanted pigmentation.”
“The best treatment sounds simple but definitely requires ‘training’ – refrain from rubbing your eyes! If you are beset with itchy, allergic eyes, try patting them with a tissue or warm washcloth vs. rubbing,” advises Dr Parsa.
Similarly, foods and drinks which promote water retention (think salty, processed foods, and alcohol- basically anything fun), are common culprits.
Luckily, the solution is often quite a simple one and involves some sort of massage or pressure to help bring under eye swelling down.
Dr Parsi explains that “Because the skin around this area is the thinnest, and thus more susceptible to dehydration, wrinkles and crepeness – moisturising with eye cream is essential.” And caffeine is somewhat of a *wonder ingredient.*
Caffeine Eye Creams: “This is a stimulant that can help constrict the blood vessels under the eyes and reduce the appearance of dark circles. It can also help reduce puffiness and inflammation by draining excess fluid from the tissues,” Dr Parsa explains.
Studies have shown this energising ingredient may not just make early mornings more tolerable; it may also decrease eye puffiness caused by allergies, crying, or lack of sleep.
For a caffeine kick to reduce puffiness, one personal favourite is Dr Dennis Gross’s Hyaluronic Marine Dew it Right Eye Gel or for a more budget-friendly alternative, check out The Inkey List’s Caffeine Eye Cream
Reduce Irritation: To prevent fluid retention before it even happens, try to avoid common irritants that can cause inflammation. These include fragrance-heavy or otherwise skin-irritating eye creams (try to stick to gentle, fragrance-free formulas if you’re prone to puffiness), as well as rubbing eyes too much.
Face Massage: This can be done while applying eye cream so don’t worry about making time for an extra step if you’re already pushed for time. Just take your ring finger (your fourth one, next to your pinky), and gently tap the under-eye – working from the inner corner to the outer edge. Your ring finger is your weakest one and therefore less likely to be able to cause damage to the delicate under-eye skin.
Facial Rollers: If manual massage just seems too much of a faff though, facial rollers (generally made from jade, quartz, or other crystals) can take some of the leg-work out of the whole thing.
If you do opt for a roller, try to aim for one with a smaller head specifically designed for under eyes, as well as a larger head for the rest of the face. Amazon offers lots of pretty reasonably priced options.
Following the same principles as manual massage, start from the inner corner of the eye working outwards and repeat five or so times before doing the same to the upper lids (I find de-puffing my upper lids can make a surprising difference to how awake I look).
Under Eye Patches: One of the biggest skincare trends to take off over the last few years, under eye patches are generally gel-based, half-moon-shaped patches soaked in some sort of serum.
The idea is that leaving them under the eyes for 10 or so minutes will cause the serum to hydrate the skin, while the cooling effect of the patches will help to de-puff. In my own experience, patches are useful for giving a temporarily more wide-awake look. But since the effects are definitely more on the short-term side, they’re best saved for pre-events etc.
My personal favourites are The Good Molecules’ Caffeine Energizing Hydrogel Eye Patches, which are both good value (at $18/£13.65 for 30 pairs) and also impressively effective. Or for an (almost) free alternative, the classic slice of cool cucumber under each eye will have a similar cold-compress effect.
Cooling: Finally, cool temperatures can also have a vasoconstriction effect, therefore reducing puffiness. So any of the steps above can be helped by popping products or tools in the fridge before use (just keep them away from any stinkier foods if you value the scent of your products).
Culprit 2. Dark Circles
Dark circles are most commonly caused by the thinner skin around the eyes, allowing the blood vessels below the eye to show through and resulting in a dark purple or blue colour. While in some skin tones, dark circles are caused by hyperpigmentation specifically around the eyes (known as periorbital hyperpigmentation).
According to Dr Parsa, “Dark circles are a common cosmetic concern that can have various causes, such as genetics, ageing, allergies, stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, sun exposure, etc.”
And 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 (lucky!)- the skin around the eyes does get thinner as we age, so circles tend to get worse over time.
“Interestingly, many patients incorrectly identify whether they’re puffy or hollow, so it’s best to get a doctor’s feedback before committing to a treatment, which can vary from surgery to volume replacement depending on your anatomy,” Dr Parsa reveals.
Retinols: One of the keys to improving the look of dark circles, therefore, lies in increasing the strength of the skin under the eyes, “This is a form of vitamin A that can help increase cell turnover and exfoliate the dead skin cells that make dark circles more visible. It can also help boost collagen synthesis and smooth out fine lines and wrinkles,” Dr Parsa tells LTG HQ.
Retinols (Vitamin A), have been shown to boost collagen levels and therefore improve the appearance of everything from fine lines and wrinkles to skin thinness. My personal favourite is Dr Dennis Gross’s Ferulic + Retinol Eye Serum, which combines retinol with ferulic acid to leave skin brighter and firmer.
The Inkey List also offers an affordable alternative, which should be fine to be taken up to the eye area (but if you’re concerned about irritation, buffer it by using on top of your regular moisturiser or eye cream).
Brightening Pigments: Not a long-term fix- but certainly a quick one- is sticking to eye creams that contain light-reflecting particles (generally mica). These diffuse the light that hits the under eye, creating a brightening effect and helping to hide the look of dark circles.
One brightening option is Sunday Riley’s Autocorrect Brightening and Depuffing Eye Contour Cream or The Inkey List’s Brighten-I Eye Cream. Or you can always stick to good old-fashioned concealer too.
SPF: 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 the skin to thin out further, so may help to prevent dark circles from getting worse. Since the under eye is a delicate area, try sticking to alcohol-free formulas which might dry out or irritate the skin.
One of my personal favourite SPFs for every day is Dr Sam’s Flawless Daily Sunscreen, which combines mineral and chemical protection with niacinamide to control redness and breakouts. Or for a slightly more budget-friendly alternative that gets fantastic reviews, take a look at Thank You Farmer’s Sun Project Water Sun Cream SPF 50
Lasers: For circles caused by genetic periorbital hyperpigmentation, there are several professional-grade treatments available. These include fractionated resurfacing lasers (like the brand name Fraxel) and other laser treatments.
Dr Parsa tells us that “treatments such as radiofrequency, microneedling with PRP, Co2 laser resurfacing, IPL or Botox can help with fine lines/wrinkles, skin tone, hyperpigmentation and skin laxity.”
As ever, if opting for a professional treatment, do your research, always go for a consultation beforehand to discuss any risks, your expectation of the results, and to get a general feel of the clinic/doctor. Wherever possible, go with recommendations from friends who have had good experiences with a particular professional, and if your instincts ever tell you something is off, don’t hesitate to walk away.
Culprit 3. 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.
I’m someone with pretty noticeable tear troughs (thanks once again, genetics) and they tend to look the worst whenever I’m tired (or whenever I’m directly below any sort of light source- so quite a lot of the time as it would happen).
Like dark circles, their appearance 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.
And that’s partly because under eye skin hides a layer of fat which keeps the area plump and smooth when we’re younger. Sadly that 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.
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, which uses microcurrents to strengthen facial muscles, can help to lift the whole area and reduce hollowness. This is probably my number one tip for tear troughs since the effects are pretty much immediate and can get better with time too (without the need for needles, lasers, or surgery).
Retinol: Similarly to treating dark circles, one of the aims here is to strengthen the skin around the eyes, so a retinol like Dr Dennis Gross’ can be really helpful here too.
Injectibles: One fix that I haven’t tried myself but which is commonly used to treat tear troughs is filler injections. Adminstered into the hollow area they can temporarily plump and fill, with effects lasting between six months and a year. Dr Parsa agrees that “There are some patients with skin so thin that you can actually see the muscle underneath, giving an appearance of a dark circle.”
“Nanofat injections under the skin around the eyes are a great way to help thicken skin and build collagen, and can reduce the appearance of dark circles caused by thin skin.”
Culprit 4. Lines and Wrinkles
They come to us all at some point; lines and wrinkles around the eyes are just a normal part of life- and can actually be absolutely charming when combined with a twinkly-eyed smile- but if their appearance has become a nuisance, there are a few things you can do.
Retinol: Once again, good old retinol comes to the rescue. Since it increases turnover, it can also help with fine lines and wrinkles. It does its best work after around 12 weeks of use, however, so expect to be consistent to see results. For a complete guide to starting with retinols, take a look at dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting covering everything you need to know here.
Moisturiser: Although keeping skin moisturised won’t in itself do much to reverse the hands of time, keeping skin plump and hydrated certainly gives the effect of healthy, youthful skin.
The great news is that this doesn’t even need to be a specific (and generally pretty expensive) eye cream. Instead, as long as your normal face moisturiser is non-irritating, you can simply use this around the eye area too (a beauty win!).
Injectables and Microneedling: Injectables like Nanostem, neurotoxins, and Botox are having a *bit* of a moment right now. Nanostem is “A signature combination treatment at Parsa MD that administers stem cells around the eyes, improving overall skin quality by reducing wrinkles, tightening skin and improving skin tone and texture.”
“Neurotoxins (Botox, Xeomin, Jeaveu, etc.) are also used to relax movement lines around the eyes which helps with reducing wrinkles like crow’s feet. And Microneedling can help stimulate collagen production around the eyes, great for fine lines and skin texture. Radiofrequency microneedling like Morpheus8 stimulates collagen production and can be used to treat lines and malar oedema around the eyes,” Dr Parsa tells us.
Botox and Co2 laser resurfacing treatments “Can definitely provide an improvement without having to undergo surgery. Botox is also great to lift the brow – by injecting small amounts of Botox around the muscles that lower the position of the eyebrow (by the tail of the brow) we can get a little lift and add an arch” – PERFECT!
Have an Eye Test: This sounds a little off-topic, but actually squinting due to bad eyesight is exactly the sort of repetitive, dynamic muscle movement that can cause and worsen expression lines. Dr Parsa backs this up and says that “constantly using the muscles around your eyes to squint, blink and smile over time can cause fine lines and wrinkles to form.”
“The skin around the eyes is also the thinnest skin on the body, and it lacks the fat normally found under the skin everywhere else – which makes it extra prone to fine lines, wrinkles and volume loss as you age.”
Squinting can also cause headaches so if you’ve caught yourself straining to focus more than normal recently, it might be worth taking a new eye test to see if your prescription needs changing.
Don’t Rub Your Eyes: We know rubbing our eyes can sometimes feel *slightly* orgasmic but Dr Parsa says “The skin around the eyes is the thinnest on the body. Rubbing the eyes irritates the skin in this area. When removing makeup, it’s best to find a makeup remover that allows the makeup to easily come off. When removing makeup, try to pat the area rather than rubbing it.” Damn.
Wear Sunglasses: Again, in much the same way as an incorrect glasses prescription, lots of bright sunshine can make us squint more than normal (even if we don’t notice we’re doing it). This bodes well for giving in and finally grabbing that pair of designer shades, however, since sunglasses can dramatically cut down on the amount of brightness-related squinting.
Better still, since UV rays are one of the most common causes of ageing and sunglasses should cut out up to 99 to 100 per cent of them, wearing your shades can also prevent further fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.
Similarly, to further protect against UV, aim for skincare that contains SPF, and whenever in direct sunlight opt for a hat so wide-brimmed that you look like an extra from Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Antioxidants: As well as SPF, another essential step in protecting skin against future signs of ageing is to use antioxidants. Able to protect skin from free radical damage (think UV, pollution, cigarette smoke etc), antioxidants go hand in hand with SPF and are found in everything from moisturisers to toners and serums.
For more on what antioxidants are, how to use them, and where to find them, take a look at this complete guide here.
Culprit 5. Pigmentation
Hyperpigmentation can affect skin all over the face and body, but in some skin types, it can be especially localised under the eyes and can worsen with age.
Cleveland Clinic says “Hyperpigmentation is a common condition that makes some areas of the skin darker than others. Extra melanin creates spots or patches that look brown, black, gray, red or pink.
“The areas are not painful or itchy, but they can make people self-conscious. Several lifestyle changes and treatments can help, especially sun protection and skin care.”
“There are some patients who are genetically born with darker pigmentation around their eyes – and that’s just the way it is,” Dr Parsa tells us.
“How do you know if this is you? If others in your family also have dark undereye pigmentation, it’s likely to be genetic. Makeup and certain brightening creams may help cover the circles, but genetic pigmentation is stubbornly resistant to aesthetic treatments.”
There are some fixes, however.
Hydroquinone: Doctor prescribed, hydroquinone works by inhibiting the production of melanin (the naturally occurring pigment in skin and hair), therefore lightening hyperpigmentation over time. It does have several downsides, however, including the risk of darker pigmentation, mottling of the skin, and even ochronosis (a blue tinge to the skin). There is also some debate over its safety.
For this reason, it is essential that if you go down the hydroquinone route you do so with a prescription from, and under the supervision of, a doctor- especially if using near the delicate eye area.
Please never ever be tempted to buy any un-licenced hydroquinone products you may find online; since they’re unregulated you have no idea what’s in them or whether they’re safe, there are just too many risks, and you only get one skin- so treat it lovingly.
Lasers: Another gold standard in tackling pigmentation, lasers can be very effective, but can also be harder to use around the delicate eye area. Again, if going down this route, take time to find a clinic/doctor you trust and be aware of any potential risks or side effects.
Peels: Dr Parsa tells us that “TCA peels can treat hyperpigmentation around the eyes for some individuals,” this is a trichloroacetic acid peel that is performed to treat a wide range of skin problems, such as visible signs of ageing, sun damage, acne scarring, and hyperpigmentation.
Retinol: Quite the hero ingredient, retinol is also capable of tackling pigmentation thanks to its cell-renewing abilities.
Gentler options: If the thought of hydroquinone, retinol or lasers isn’t for you though, happily there are plenty of other over-the-counter options to tackle pigmentation.
These work by interfering with the production of melanin in various ways and are broadly considered safe enough for use unsupervised by a dermatologist (it’s still always worth patch-testing any new product 48 hours before use either way though). Some examples include:
L-Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C)
Not familiar with these wonder products? Dr Parsa explains that Niacinamide “is a form of vitamin B3 that can help decrease hyperpigmentation and lighten the skin under the eyes. It can also help strengthen the skin barrier, regulate oil production and prevent moisture loss” – sounds fab to us!
And L-Ascorbic Acid? Well, “This is a powerful antioxidant that can help block the production of melanin, the pigment that causes darkening of the skin. It can also help stimulate collagen production and thicken the thin skin under the eyes,” Dr Parsa continues.
The Ordinary does a really affordable, useable line of all these individual ingredients, like their Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%.
As you can see, there are quite a few pesky under-eye issues which can make us look less than well-rested, and finding the right routine generally comes down to combining a few of the fixes for each of the concerns you have…
But you’ll also notice that a lot of different issues can be resolved with a retinol. And while I’m definitely a fan of this all-in-one ingredient, it can be sensitising when you first use it- so start with gentle formulations like the Dr Dennis Gross or The Inkey List product, try using every three nights until you can build up a tolerance, and use plenty of moisturiser.
Finding a routine can be something of a trial and error process, so don’t be afraid to start out with 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 gently and one at a time so you can see what’s actually working and what’s not.
But, like most things, lifestyle choices are a *huge* factor, and “Things like eating healthy, getting enough sleep, reducing stress in life and reducing alcohol intake will help reduce the signs of ageing. Without these best practices, there is no eye cream or surgery that will help,” Dr Parsa warns.
You heard it here first, guys and gals.
Meet the expert
Dr Kami Parsa is an Oculoplastic and Reconstructive Surgeon who specialises exclusively in reconstructive, revisional and cosmetic surgery of the eyes and surrounding tissue.
His expertise in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery has made him the choice for patients who have had previous plastic surgery and now need revisional surgery around the eyes.
Dr Parsa has appeared on numerous media outlets around the world, including The Doctors show, Botched by Nature, Discovery Channel, The New York Times and the Miami Herald.