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How to deal with tired looking under eyes

How to Tackle Tired-Looking Eyes

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)?


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 and so commonly affects contact lens wearers and those who suffer from allergies (since any irritation to the area can cause more fluid to build up). 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.


The Fix

Caffeine Eye Creams: While any sort of cooling eye cream will help depuff, one ingredient which particularly helps may be caffeine, which is a vasoconstrictor (meaning it constricts blood vessels and therefore may reduce blood flow to the area, and therefore also reduce inflammation).

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 a pretty reasonably priced option here.

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 skin care 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 eyes for 10 or so minutes will cause the serum to hydrate 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).

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.


The Fix

Retinols: One of the keys to improving the look of dark circles therefore lies in increasing the strength of the skin under the eyes. 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


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 skin to thin out further, so may help to prevent dark circles getting worse. Since the under eye is a delicate area, try stick 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 review, 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.

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 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.


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, 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 the 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. If going down this route, again take time to find a fully qualified doctor or medical aesthetician and make sure you feel comfortable in their hands before you go ahead.


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.


The Fix

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!).


Have an Eye Test: This sounds a little off-topic, but actually squinting due to bad eye sight is exactly the sort of repetitive, dynamic muscle movement that can cause and worsen expression lines. 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.


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 and 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 moisturiser 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.

There are some fixes, however.


The Fix

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 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.


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 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)
Tranexamic Acid

The Ordinary does a really affordable, useable line of all these individual ingredients, like their Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%.


The Takeaway

As you can see, there’s 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 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.

This post contains affiliate links, meaning that if you buy a product after clicking on it I may earn a (very) small commission in sales at no extra cost to you. All my opinions are entirely my own, however, and affiliate links never change how I write about or present a product. The money earned from them helps towards the running costs of this site, allowing me to continue writing and reviewing thoroughly and honestly.

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