If the skin on your face is a delicate flower, then the skin under your eyes is its stamen, even more delicate and precious. Likewise, if the eyes are the peephole to the soul, then your under-eye area is their ever-important frame.
How Is Eye Skincare Different from Other Skincare?
The skin under the eyes is thinner and more sensitive than the other skin on your face. It’s so thin that it’s almost sheer — the discoloration you see under your eyes is often your veins shining through.
If the eye area is more sensitive than other skin, it follows that eye skincare should be more cautious. The eye area is not going to get too oily. (Have you ever had a pimple under your eye?) Emphasis should be on moisture, inflammation reduction, and restoration. In this case, we don't want exfoliation. Under the eyes, we want a sturdy exterior layer. We want lipid. Anything to protect the skin's most delicate area.
Why Is the Area Underneath the Eye So Delicate?
The skin under the eye is a pseudo-eyelid, whether or not you think of it that way. Our eyelids are thin so they can easily cover our eyes. (You wouldn’t see a plump convertible top, would you?) The skin under the eyes is the same type of skin, just sitting pretty below the eye. This part of the epidermis bears little to no subcutaneous tissue, i.e. absolutely no padding for the skin.
The function of the skeleton, too, makes the skin appear thinner. At this juncture, our skin is at its closest to the orbital ridge, the bone that protects your eyes. Think of other spots in your body where the skin is close to the bone — the elbow, the knees, the knuckles. These spots tend to dry out more easily because the skin is thinner and more flexible than in other places.
As we age, the skin gets ever thinner, as our fat tissues and muscles generally start to atrophy. That lends the under eye skin the “droop” that you may associate with aged eyes.
Under Eye Skincare: Common Under Eye Ailments
The under eye has a lot of different directors. On a long-term level, under-eye ailments come down to inflammation and age. In the short-term, the look of the under eye can change according to minor things like how you slept, how long you slept, or what the pollen levels are like outside. With these factors, the look of the under eye can fluctuate even within the span of 24 hours. Treatment varies widely for different ailments because the causes are wide-ranging.
Puffiness or “Periorbital Edema”
The puffiness that you see in the morning around your eyes is periorbital edema. It is excessive fluid retention in the eye and it can occur for a number of reasons, including too much salt, too little sleep, too much alcohol, smoking a cigarette, and even environmental irritants. The reason for the puffy eye is not that important, although some health factors may be good things to change anyway. Know that, most often, puffy eyes just occur because the body is moving fluid around.
Periorbital Dark Circles
Periorbital dark circles are more often the result of inflammation, although some lifestyle factors can affect them. Inflammation results in hyperpigmentation as the melanocytes hop to cover the wound with melanin (which protects us from the sun). The skin under our eyes is particularly vulnerable to hyperpigmentation because it is thinner than the rest of our skin.
Rubbing or itching the eyes can also lead to dark circles under the eyes. The friction leads blood vessels under the eye to rupture, effectively a bruise. As the blood vessels heal, the body leaves pigmented hemosiderin in its wake, creating a darker appearance.
Eye bags are the result of looser skin. These are not just dark circles; they are actual loose skin that hangs over the “tear trough,” the small ridge that tracks from the inner eye to the beginning of the cheek. Eye bags occur in aged skin, when elastin and collagen are less present. The loose skin gathers and “hangs” such that it looks like a bag. Treatment for eye bags themselves is more complicated — interventions tend to be surgical.
How Can I Take Care of My Eye Skin?
Taking care of the eye skin is a matter of careful, regular upkeep. It is not that dissimilar from other skin care — you just have to shift your understanding of your skin several notches more sensitive. If you have oily skin, taking care of the undereye skin is going to be like taking care of a smaller, more sensitive face. If you already have sensitive skin, taking care of the periorbital region is your opportunity to get out the kid gloves for real.
What Should I Use to Reduce Dark Circles?
Cucumbers over the eyes are helpful, but treatments for reducing dark circles tend to be more sophisticated. What differentiates discoloration under the eyes as compared to elsewhere in the skin is the blood vessels, which are significantly closer to the surface of the skin. This is why elements like caffeine can work under the eyes but not elsewhere.
Perhaps the most popular under eye de-puffer, topical caffeine, is a vasoconstrictor. It tightens the blood vessels so they don’t appear as dark brown as they normally would. A 2011 study found that caffeine gel was an effective method for easing pigmentation under the eye as well as puffiness. (The same study claims that people used to put refrigerated tea bags under their eyes to erase dark circles. If it works, it works!) Caffeine is not a long-term solution to darkness under the eyes, but it works in a pinch.
Vitamin K is another blood-related ingredient. In the body, it helps blood coagulate in the wake of wounds. Anti-coagulants, the medications used to prevent stroke and blood clots, actually prevent the body from using Vitamin K for coagulation. Research indicates that Vitamin K does similar work under the eye, helping the blood circulate to prevent the look of overfed blood vessels.
Peptides are one of a few fatty substances that make up sebum, the lipid excretion in our stratum corneum. Peptide-containing treatments have recently become popular, as they may support the stratum corneum. Research suggests peptides can encourage collagen synthesis and even protect existing collagen, an essential component of the SC. Under the eyes, this is especially important. We want the skin to be thicker, stronger, and more protected. Peptides, the building blocks of the skin’s protective layer, may help the periocular area achieve this. A 2018 study found that a peptide treatment around the eyes significantly decreased the appearance of crow’s feet, fine lines, eye bags, and dark circles.
Vitamin C is our number one collagen champion. The vitamin actively encourages the skin to produce collagen and protects it from photo damage. Many eye creams contain vitamin C, and for good reason. A 2009 study found that vitamin C “thickened” the dermis under the eye and reduced the appearance of dark circles.
Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it draws moisture into the skin. It can transport 1,000 times its volume in water, that sturdy little ingredient. It delivers major hydration, which can keep the SC strong and inflammation-free. HA works best in multi-weight solutions, though, because larger HA molecules may not be able to sink beneath the skin. For a more drastic approach, you may also inject HA “fillers” underneath your eyes for a plumper, more hydrated look.
How Can I Prevent Dark Circles?
Dark circles happen as a result of both controllable and uncontrollable factors. For the most part, all you can do is hydrate the skin under your eye, protect your stratum corneum, and get a lot of rest.
Inflammation is a tricky beast. Research suggests it occurs more frequently when we are stressed because cortisol hampers the immune system. Anything that hurts the immune system can also affect the circles under your eyes. Sleep affects the immune system. Diet affects the immune system. For all of these reasons, taking care of yourself can also take care of your periocular region. Focus on your sleep hygiene, and you may see a decrease in puffiness under your eyes in the morning. Reduce the salt in your diet and you might get the same results.
Lastly, while we’re here, don’t itch your eyes! The more you poke and prod at your eyes, the more you may be damaging the diaphanous skin under your eyes.
Inflammation is a bit of a skincare albatross. It hangs over our necks, promising of worse skincare ailments to come. Preventing inflammation can be done with an anti-inflammation skincare routine. Niacinamide and zinc are two of the most powerful anti-inflammatory products on the market. Antioxidants, too, can prevent the skin from reacting with the outside world. The more you apply vitamins to your skin, the less likely you are to see dark spots glaring up at you in the morning.