Here's What Really Causes Those Dark Circles Under Your Eyes

Those dark circles under your eyes definitely tell a story. Either you didn't sleep a wink because, well, you couldn't sleep a wink — or you didn't sleep because you were having the best night ever with your girls. And if that's the case, who has time for sleep? (Kidding, sort of.) While we don't actually recommend going out without your daily recommended ZZZs, we do recognize that not every night can deliver a next-level slumber that sees you waking up as fresh as a daisy, with not a dark circle in sight. You're human, after all.

At the same time, it's important to note that it's not just a lack of sleep that could be responsible for those shadows. Several possible culprits may be to blame, which could explain why you still wake up with raccoon eyes even after you get a glorious eight hours of sleep. Recognizing what causes them is the first step to identifying the right solution for this all-too-common skincare concern. 

People of all age groups, genders, and races are affected, according to Cleveland Clinic. However, those at most significant risk include the elderly, individuals with dark skin tones, and those with a family history of dark undereye circles. What's a dark-circle sufferer to do? Here's what's really going on beneath your eyes.

Your iron levels could be low

Low iron levels can manifest in different ways. When you're deficient in this important mineral, you may feel more tired than usual. Without enough iron, reports Healthline, your body can't produce the hemoglobin it needs to deliver sufficient oxygen throughout your body.

This affects muscles and tissues throughout the body and can even deplete the vital oxygen that the tissues around your eyes need to look their best. A study conducted by the Indian Dermatology Online Journal found that some 10% of participants experiencing periorbital hyperpigmentation, also known as dark circles, had iron-deficiency anemia. The authors also concluded that because those with anemia experience pale skin, the darker skin under the eyes may appear more pronounced.

Professionals at the Duchy Hospital advise patients to consume more iron-rich foods in an effort to boost levels, such as egg yolks, lean red meats, seeds, and lentils. Consuming foods enriched with vitamin C aids in iron absorption, according to UVA Health, so incorporating items like bell peppers and citrus fruits into your diet may also be helpful.

You may have smoker's circles

If you smoke cigarettes, your risk of developing undereye circles increases. Much like low iron levels disrupt oxygenated blood levels throughout the body, smoking can lead to a problem called vasoconstriction. Dr. Christopher Zoumalan shares that this side effect occurs when the nicotine in cigarettes causes the blood vessels to constrict and prevents oxygen delivery to muscles and tissues.

When the delicate skin under and around the eyes is deprived of that blood, it can lead to telltale dark circles. According to Dr. Zoumalan, nicotine can even disrupt collagen production and make the skin less elastic, leaving the area less resilient to visible signs of aging. The resulting fine lines and bags can aggravate the appearance of dark circles.

Per Forefront Dermatology, smokers may also develop these circles because they experience "nicotine withdrawal" when they lie down at night. The symptoms associated with withdrawal, such as insomnia, anxiety, and increased appetite, can make it difficult to enjoy a full night's rest, causing dark circles to worsen.

Your undereye skin might be thinning

The skin around the eyes is naturally thinner and more delicate than other parts of the body. That's due to a variety of reasons, explains Healthline, including a lack of subcutaneous fat that otherwise plumps up the skin, fewer oil glands, and reduced collagen levels. This leaves the undereyes at greater risk of developing premature signs of aging, like bags and fine lines.

However, some people have naturally thinner skin under the eyes. Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green tells Rodan + Fields that key signs your undereye skin might be thinner than average include excess dryness, eyes that appear sunken, increased wrinkles, and especially dark circles.

She explains that while this is typically genetic and therefore impossible to reverse, there are some lifestyle changes that you can make that may make a difference. Among them is using an eye cream formulated with brightening ingredients and retinol-based treatments to reduce visible signs of aging. Using sunscreen is also vital, as is consuming foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids. These "will help cellular turnover and increase collagen production, giving you radiant and smoother-looking skin," she says.

You could blame genetics

Maybe you sleep so well that you'd make Rip Van Winkle envious. In that case, it's entirely possible that good old heredity could be to blame. Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko write in The Spokesman-Review that this is a broader culprit medically known as genetic hyperpigmentation.

"That is, due to genetics and heredity, the skin beneath or around the eyes is actually a darker hue," they share. They add that there are some treatments that may be effective, including "lightening creams" and "laser therapy." However, lifestyle changes, like changing your diet, may not be effective in the case of hereditary circles.

Dr. Brett Kotlus, a plastic surgeon, shares that epigenetics could have something to do with it, too. This refers to changes in gene expression that aren't related to your actual genetic code. He explains that a function known as DNA methylation can affect the production of certain proteins or essentially "silence suppressor genes that keep other genes in check," in turn impacting the way the skin under the eyes looks.

You might worship the sun too much

While it may give you the golden glow of your dreams, the sun can also leave your undereyes looking like you haven't slept well in days. It all comes back to that pesky thin skin, Dr. Melanie Palm tells Sunday Riley. "This means this area is susceptible to sun damage and hyperpigmentation, as excessive sun exposure increases the melanin content in your skin, which can give you darker circles."

She adds that because ultraviolet rays are often to blame for inflammation, they could cause dark circles, too. The solution is to protect your skin from sun exposure as much as possible. Wearing sunscreen is key, but there are other things that you can do to shield your undereye skin from the sun.

Wearing a hat with a wide brim, for example, is a great way to minimize exposure (it doesn't hurt that it looks incredibly chic in that vacationing-in-the-Riviera way, either). Add a pair of oversized sunglasses and you'll not only look fabulous but also feel good knowing you're doing everything possible to cut back on sun-related dark circles.

You're just plain dehydrated

Water is vital to your overall health, but it turns out that it can also play a role in the appearance of undereye skin. While dehydration can naturally make dry eyes even worse, causing symptoms like burning and sensitivity, Healthline reports that it can also lead to sunken eyes.

When you don't drink enough water, the already thin skin in the area may appear less full. Because it's not as plump, the eyes may take on a recessed appearance. That can aggravate the look of darkness around the eyes, leaving the area hollow and tired, creating dry, itchy, and uncomfortable skin. 

Fortunately, drinking more water can help, whether it's plain, carbonated, or flavored. However, you'll want to avoid coffee and tea at all costs when your goal is to rehydrate, Dr. Dendy Engelman explains to Byrdie. "Sun damage, caffeinated beverages, dehydration, and/or alcohol can make dryness worse, so it's important to remember to avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol and wear sunscreen!"

Your allergies are in overdrive

Between the sneezing, the congestion, the itchy eyes, and the general misery of it all, allergies can leave you feeling like a shadow of your usual self. Unfortunately, they could also trigger allergic shiners. These dark areas develop in response to congested nasal passages and can resemble standard circles or take on a darker, bruise-like appearance.

When you're congested, the tissues in your nose swell up as fluid accumulates in your passages. Sometimes, that congestion can affect the veins beneath the eyes, per Healthline. This causes blood to collect in the area and the veins to dilate, resulting in dark, puffy circles. Virtually any allergen can trigger these shiners, including dust mites, certain foods, fragrances, pollen, and mold.

Fortunately, the measures that you take to treat your allergic symptoms should address your shiners. Over-the-counter antihistamines may help you control congestion, watery eyes, and sneezing, but your doctor might recommend allergy shots if you don't respond to that treatment.

You're dealing with undereye hyperpigmentation

Sometimes, the discoloration is inherent. Known as undereye hyperpigmentation, it occurs when the pigment beneath your eyes is tan or dark brown in color. Many factors may be to blame for this problem, from rubbing your eyes too frequently to sun damage.

Again, it all comes back to that pesky thin skin, Dr. Marisa Garshick tells Aedit. Even a hint of additional pigment, she states, "can give the overall appearance of darkness under the eyes." People who are "prone" to rubbing their eyes or have eczema around the eyes may experience post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, she adds. While it will heal, it can leave the skin discolored.

Dr. Joshua Zeichner told Aedit that there's an easy way to discern between undereye hyperpigmentation and run-of-the-mill dark circles. "Go into the bathroom or another very well-lit area with forward-facing light and a mirror," he advises. "Directly facing the light, take your thumb and index finger and gently pull the skin out towards the mirror. If the pigmentation in the skin improves, then it's a shadow. If, when you pull the skin away, it remains, it is true pigmentation."

You could be pregnant

If you're expecting a baby, you already know that your body is — or already has — gone through some changes. While some changes are obvious, others may take you by surprise: Hello, dark circles! Sometimes, they can occur as a result of the discomfort you feel at night, leading to sleeplessness. However,  hormonal fluctuations may also be to blame.

On occasion, the culprit could be related to a malfunctioning thyroid gland, which may become prominent during pregnancy. Fluid retention or poor absorption of lymph fluids could occur as a result, according to Dermstore. That could cause the blood vessels around the eyes to dilate, leading to everything from the dreaded dark circles to chronic puffiness. 

You can't do too much when the problem is related to hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy. However, you can take steps to improve your sleeping habits by resting in a room that's the optimal temperature and keeping your head elevated. That will minimize fluid collection beneath the eyes, which may reduce retention and help diminish some of those shadows.

You might rub your eyes too much

It's natural to rub your eyes when you're tired, when they feel itchy or uncomfortable, or when you've stared at a computer screen for too long. Anything that has the potential to tire your eyes may compel you to rub away the discomfort.

Unfortunately, chronic eye-rubbing can eventually lead to dark circles. According to Washington Eye Physicians & Surgeons, rubbing the skin actually damages the blood vessels in your eyelids. In response, they begin to "leak blood," which eventually pools beneath your skin. The resulting dark circles can be very difficult to eliminate, if not impossible.

If you're guilty of rubbing your eyes when you go to bed, you might consider pairing an eye mask with your pajama set to shield them. If chronic irritation causes you to rub incessantly, then it's crucial to tackle the root cause. Eye drops formulated to address your concern, be it itchiness or redness, can be helpful. However, your eye doctor may prescribe something stronger if an over-the-counter remedy isn't effective.

You're having side effects from your glaucoma medication

Glaucoma is a common progressive condition that causes increased pressure in the eyes. Over time, this can damage the nerves and lead to blindness. If you're at risk, your doctor might prescribe glaucoma eye drops, which is the "most common treatment," per GoodRx Health. When used as directed, they reduce pressure and protect the nerves from damage.

They can have side effects, though; one of the most common is discoloration of the skin around the eyes. The Glaucoma Research Society of Canada recommends reducing contact with your skin as you apply the drops. For best results, apply the drops approximately one hour before bed, then wipe the skin around your eyes with a dampened cloth. Right before going to bed, rinse your eyes and pat dry.

Louis B. Cantor tells the American Academy of Ophthalmology that there is no specific cure for medication-specific undereye circles. The only solution is to stop using the drops, but this can have serious consequences for patients. Makeup, including heavy-duty concealers, can help you minimize the appearance of these circles while allowing you to continue with your prescribed treatment.

You're just really sleepy

For all of the medical culprits that could be to blame for your undereye circles, the most likely is the simplest of all: You didn't sleep enough. Dr. Fatima Fahs, a dermatologist, explains to Newsweek that it's one of the leading causes. "There's a reason why they call it 'beauty sleep' — lack of sleep can make the undereye area look dark. This happens because the blood vessels under our eyes dilate from lack of sleep, and the thin skin can make this change pretty obvious."

Improving your sleeping habits is the obvious solution to this common concern, although that may be easier said than done if you have a habit of burning the midnight oil or lead a lifestyle that forces you to keep an unusual schedule. There are several reasons why you may not be getting a good night's sleep; maybe it's due to work, being a new parent, or caring for an elderly loved one, all of which can shake up your sleeping habits in unexpected ways.

Fahs suggests using skin care products formulated to improve the look and condition of the undereyes, including creams enriched with anti-aging powerhouses like retinol and hyaluronic acid. They'll "plump up" the skin and minimize the look of bags and fine lines, helping the area look more vibrant.

You're experiencing natural aging

Congratulations: You're human! With old age comes a natural loss of volume around the eyes. "Darkness under the eye that looks hollow is shadowing caused by complexion changes and lack of fullness associated with normal skin aging," Dr. Zeichner tells Shape.

You can point the finger at aging if your circles tend to disappear — or at least look a little less pronounced — when you stand in front of the mirror and tilt your head up toward the light. If the circles are barely visible, it means the light has basically filled in the shadow. This is mainly because, according to Dr. Caren Campbell, a loss of fat beneath the eyes causes dark circles. The skin "can't reflect evenly off the skin, leading to a shadow or darkness," she tells InStyle.

Although it sounds like kind of a bummer, it's actually good news where your dark circles are concerned because it means you can tackle them with a variety of cosmetic solutions. A retinol-based cream can make the skin more elastic and resilient, lending it a fuller and healthier look in the process.

Your lifestyle can take its toll

You're coasting along, living your best life, only to discover that the very things you do every single day might be to blame for your dark circles. Really? Yes, really. A host of different lifestyle choices and habits can take their toll, Dr. Campbell shared with InStyle. "Lack of sleep, stress, alcohol, caffeine, and smoking" are all common culprits.

Naturally, making changes to your routine could be just what you need to see a difference. That's easier said than done in some cases, but putting the phone away at night instead of scrolling through your FYP is a good first step. Think about areas where you could improve (do you really need to drink four cups of coffee every day?) and take baby steps to reverse those habits.

Per Today, your diet could also have an effect on the appearance of your undereyes. Dr. Keri Glassman recommends increasing your intake of foods rich in "vitamins A, C, E, and K," all of which support brighter and more radiant skin. Strawberries, almonds, kale, grass-fed beef, and sweet potatoes are all excellent sources.

Your eyes are under strain

Strained eyes can occur if you use screens too frequently, but you might be surprised to learn it can also leave the undereyes darker. Dr. Lipika Roy tells Vogue India, "Light emitted by personal electronic devices is not bright enough to damage human retina, but it is able to stimulate blue light sensitive ganglion cells leading to delay sleep onset, reduce sleep quality, stress-related disorders and anxiety and headaches."

This can encourage dark circles to form — and exposure to blue light can also disrupt your natural sleep patterns. Dr. Geetika Mittal Gupta explains to Vogue India that using night mode may be helpful because it isn't as bright. "... and make sure you don't sleep next to your phone. It messes up the circadian rhythm of the body leading to disturbed sleep which has a direct impact on your skin."

Applying a cool compress to the eyes for approximately 10 minutes is a tried-and-tested method of relieving tired eyes and may help alleviate some of the associated symptoms. Some people place cucumbers on their eyes because they may lighten the skin. For best results, it's best to use thick, chilled slices of cucumber twice a day for 10 minutes at a time. Rinse with warm water to complete the session.