However, on a bad day…let’s just say a few strangers have approached me to ask if I was okay because my purple swollen eyes misleadingly indicated tears. Truth be told, my biggest skincare baggage is definitely my under-eye area—especially because under-eye bags are rumored to be genetic, so I have little control over them. That’s why I decided to ask a few specialists about the causes of dark circles, and if it’s possible to get rid of them with an over-the-counter hydroquinone eye cream, which can lighten the often dark and discolored skin under my eyes.

If you’ve also been on the hunt for an under-eye lightening cream, you’re in the right place. We reached out to five leading dermatologists for their expertise. Here, they explain the potential causes of dark circles, offer helpful lifestyle shifts and healthy habits that can minimize the unsightly appearance, and tell us how to find the best hydroquinone eye creams.

Eye Anatomy 101

“It’s important to first understand the anatomy of the eye,” says Melissa K. Levin, MD, a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center and Mount Sinai Hospital. “Eyelid skin is one of the areas where the skin is the thinnest in the body. So, essentially you have very thin delicate skin sitting over a hollow structure around the eyes where you have bone, blood vessels, fat pads, and muscles.” Dr. Levin says that thin skin “dries and irritates easily, especially in women, since we are applying multiple products daily.”

Dark Circle Basics

Doctors agree that dark under-eye circles are complex, and often have several underlying causes and variables at play. “[Some people] are born with under-eye circles, and therefore fall into the hereditary category,” says Dendy Engelman, MD, a board-certified dermatologic surgeon at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery. “They’re born with thinner, paler skin with more pigment under their eyes, and/or slower vascular movement.” Cindy Yoon Soo Bae, MD, a dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York adds, “There can be a genetic component, but also environmental and lifestyle causes.”

David Shafer, MD, FACS, of Shafer Plastic Surgery in New York City agrees. He says, “Dark under-eye circles are multifactorial.” If you have dark circles, you may have several factors to blame, including genes. “There can be dark blood vessels, which are visible through the skin. Then there’s the skin itself, which can be thicker and opaque, or thinner and translucent. Lastly, there’s the surface of the skin, which can be dark with increased pigmentation. Many of these factors can be genetic, a result of your body’s development, and environmental.

However, in most cases, it’s a combination of all the above.”

Depending on your specific cocktail of factors, you should consult a dermatologist before deciding on the best dark circle treatment for you.

The Many Causes of Dark Circles

  • Lack of sleep
  • Sun damage
  • Sinus congestion
  • Rubbing eyelid skin due to allergies
  • Dehydration
  • Excess pigmentation around the eyes
  • Dilated blood vessels leading to infraorbital edema (swelling/puffiness) from inflammation3
  • Dry, irritated skin
  • Bone loss and volume loss (maybe from aging or significant weight loss)
  • Protrusion of fat pads (bags under the eyes)
  • Smoking
  • Inflammation
  • Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

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