What Causes Dark Circles & Under-Eye Bags? And How Can You Treat Them?

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Chances are, if you're a human being, you've experienced dark circles and/or under eye bags at least a few times in your life. There are so many products and gadgets on the market designed to treat them, but sometimes it's hard to tell whether the ingredients are (1) anything different than what's in your regular face moisturizer, (2) safe, especially for use around your eyes (hello, sensitive area), or (3) if they even work. Today I want to get into the causes of dark circles & under-eye bags, mainstream ingredients used to treat them (& their downsides) and what to expect in our upcoming eye serum.

First, let's get into what dark circles really are - the hyperpigmentation (darkening of skin) under the eyes and/or the thinning of skin under the eye so our blood vessels underneath are more visible. Let's get into causes of dark circles. 

1. Genetics. Yep, unfortunately it's true. There is a strong genetic component to having dark circles, so don't beat yourself up about it if you've been prone to them your whole life.

2. Darker skin tones. Again, out of your control, but the more active melanin you've got, the more likely you are to experience hyperpigmentation in general. Whether that means dark circles or more stubborn post-acne marks, darker skinned folks are more likely to fight hyperpigmentation.

Bright Body Darker Skin Tones Hyperpigmentation

3. Sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep leads to dull, pale skin, and an uptick in cortisol production to keep you awake. Cortisol increases blood volume and blood pressure, so you're more likely to experience swelling & darkening of the vessels below the thin skin of your eye area.

4. Stress. Since cortisol plays a role in circulation (see #3), prolonged chronic stress is also another contributing factor to dark circles.

5. Natural aging process. As you age, your skin becomes thinner. That means the vessels below the skin of your eye area will become more and more visible over time.

6. Eye strain. Staring at screens all day? The increased blood flow to your eye region to help you see can cause dark circles.

Bright Body Eye Strain

7. Allergies. Ever experienced itchy, watery, dry or puffy eyes during springtime blooming? Well, dark circles are another one of those allergy side effects that happens when you body is releasing histamines in an allergic reaction.

8. Dehydration. A lack of sufficient water will cause a lot of skin changes, one of which being a sunken appearance, especially around the eyes.

9. Sun damage. A major cause of hyperpigmentation is excessive sun exposure! And if you're already prone to dark circles, spending too much time in the sun will make it worse.

10. Liver disease. A more serious cause of persistent, pronounced dark circles could be early liver disease. It's always a good idea to see your doctor if you're concerned about this one.

Now, what about under-eye bags or puffiness? While dark circles & under-eye bags often go together - and there's certainly some overlap in the causes - sometimes they appear independently of one another.

Under-eye bags are caused by an accumulation of fluid around the eyes. Here are a few common causes:

1. Genetics. Again, some people are just more prone to under-eye bags than others. Don't get down on yourself!

2. Sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can cause you to retain water around the eyes.

3. Natural aging process. As you age, the muscles around your eyes weaken, and normal fat in your eye region can settle into the under eye area.

4. Alcohol & tobacco. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can absolutely contribute to fluid retention in the whole body, especially so in the face and around the eyes.

Bright Body Smoking Skin Damage

5. Excessive salt intake. Eating super salty foods will cause your body to retain water, and it can show in your eyes!

6. Poor lymphatic drainage. Our lymphatic system runs parallel to the circulatory system, but it doesn't have a pump. Our lymph nodes act as filters or valves, but we have to move our bodies (think: exercise) and our skin (think: Lymphatic Drainage) to get it to move around and not accumulate in one place. A very common place for lymph to become stagnant is the face, causing symptoms like clogged pores, dull skin, breakouts, and yes, puffy eyes!

7. Sun damage. Excessive sun exposure can do permanent damage to the collagen that keeps your under eyes firm.

Bright Body Sun Damage

8. Allergies & sinus problems. Swelling in the sinuses is likely to cause swelling under the eyes.

9. Sleeping in your eye makeup. In addition to staining your pillows, not washing off your makeup can cause eye irritation (especially if you're using conventional beauty products) and therefore eye inflammation and puffiness.

So first, let's get to the lifestyle changes you can make to treat both dark circles & puffy eye bags:

  1. Prioritize a good night's sleep.
  2. Manage your stress healthily. 
  3. Monitor your salt intake.
  4. Stay hydrated.
  5. Don't smoke & minimize alcohol intake.
  6. Address allergies & sinus problems.
  7. Take off your makeup every night before bed, and use a gentle, alcohol-free makeup remover like ours.
  8. Wear sunscreen and minimize time in direct sun.
  9. Eat foods naturally rich in antioxidants.
  10. Add lymphatic drainage to your routine.

Pretty obvious, right? The challenge comes when we look at recommendations for topical skincare products to combat dark circles & under-eye bags.

  • Dermatologists & conventional beauty recommends the use of retinoids. Retinoids are a class of ingredients chemically related to and/or derived from Vitamin A. They are commonly used to treat acne and to reduce the visible signs of aging. The problem with retinoids is that they can cause something called "retinoid dermatitis" - redness, scaliness, flakiness, dryness, and itchiness. Can you imagine how unpleasant that would be for use around the eyes? No thanks. Plus, according to the Environmental Working Group, many retinol can cause cellular changes that interfere with cell signaling, create cell mutations, and cell death. They may also contribute to cardiovascular diseases. You won't find any retinoids in Bright Body products.
  • Conventional beauty recommends the use of skin bleaching products. 😳 Even if we put aside the obvious racist & colorist implications of bleaching products, can we just all agree that this is not addressing the underlying issue and is just disrupting the skin?! Caveat - there are some natural and safe ingredients that can provide a mild, brightening effect (e.g. vitamin C, azelaic acid, rice water, some essential oils, herbal teas, etc.), and those are fine, but always, always, always think about what exactly your products are doing and how they are doing it! Does the product contain antioxidant-rich ingredients that might promote brightness? Or does it rely on harsher bleaching agents that aggressively alter the skin?

So, what ingredients treat dark circles & puffy eyes topically that are safe and gentle?

  • Antioxidant-rich ingredients. Straight-up antioxidants like Vitamin C (when formulated with the proper pH and sister ingredients) do well to fight the visible signs of aging, mitigate sun damage, and promote cellular turnover. Also, Vitamin C specifically helps the production of collagen. Then there are ingredients like herbs & herbal teas that are naturally rich in antioxidants that work synergistically with Vitamin C and other similar ingredients. In our upcoming Eye Serum, you'll find Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and several other antioxidant powerhouses.
  • Caffeine. Ingredients containing caffeine can help constrict the blood vessels under the surface of your thin skinned eye area, thereby reducing the appearance of dark circles. I much prefer using the source of the caffeine as a whole part of the formula since they're loaded with benefits broader than caffeine (e.g. green tea, green tea extract, coffee, coffee bean extract), though you might find some formulas use straight-up caffeine in their eye products. In our Eye Serum, you'll find both green tea and green tea extract!

Herbal Teas Caffeine Bright Body

  • Herbal extracts. Of course it depends on the mechanics of the herb we're talking about, but choosing plant-based extracts that promote microcirculation, cellular turnover & regeneration, and with strong antioxidant action are great ingredients to fight dark circles and puffy eyes. You'll find ginseng extract, gotu kola extract, and thyme extract in our upcoming Eye Serum.
  • Essential oils. I've said it once and I'll say it again: never, ever apply straight-up essential oils to your skin. Just. Say. No. That being said, products formulated with soothing & anti-inflammatory essential oils (at the proper concentrations) can be super helpful for dark circles and puffiness. You'll find geranium and frankincense essential oils in our Eye Serum.
  • Hydrating ingredients. Remember, hydration refers to the water content of a formula. Rather that plain ol' water, consider nutrient-rich plant-based hydrosols and gels. Green tea and aloe vera will be the star hydrating ingredients in our Eye Serum.

Bright Body Aloe Hydrating

  • Hyaluronic Acid (medium or high molecular weight). Another powerful hydrating ingredient is Hyaluronic Acid. Since initial studies have shown that low molecular weight HA is pro-inflammatory, I'm partial to medium & high molecular weight HA. You'll find high weight HA in our Eye Serum.
  • Moisturizing ingredients. Moisture refers to the oil content of a formula. Products with nourishing plant-derived oils help maintain the health & glow of your skin. Hemp seed and rosehip oils will be the primary moisturizers in our Eye Serum.

Excited about our Eye Serum launching in March? Follow us on Instagram at @mybrightbody to get special insider updates on product development & be in-the-know when it launches!


Until next time,

Gabi Day


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