From squinting in full sun to gazing at backlit screens, the eyes have their work cut out for them—ditto the delicate skin surrounding them. Exposure to UV light, dehydration induced by travel and climate, and the usual wear of a life well lived often occasion less than hospitable effects, ranging from dark undereye circles and puffiness to finely etched crows’ feet.
The reason for this is simple. “The skin of the eyelids is thinner, drier, and more sensitive to irritation than the oil-rich skin of the face,” says Corey L. Hartman, MD, a dermatologist in Birmingham, Alabama. “Therefore, it is more likely to benefit from intense active ingredients due to its predilection to premature aging.” One might wonder if a face cream couldn’t do the same job. But a moisturizer, however potent, isn’t the ideal replacement, as the ingredients often found in facial products could potentially irritate that fragile skin. Such all-over usage could exacerbate rather than solve problems, Hartman explains.
A site-specific product is key, agrees Minneapolis-based dermatologist Jenny Liu, MD. “Eye creams are often formulated with eyelid skin in mind—so even with active ingredients, like retinol, [they] are less irritating,” she says. Such targeted actives aim to maintain supple, healthy skin around the eyes for years to come, and they include some recognizable players in skin care. “Retinol is an important ingredient because it acts as a collagen stimulator and thickens the delicate eyelid skin, whereas antioxidants like vitamin C act as coenzymes for the production of new collagen,” says Hartman. “That keeps the skin taut and elastic.”
Liu also notes the power of caffeine, whose eye-opening effects extend beyond the morning macchiato. As a vasoconstrictor—meaning it shrinks the blood vessels—caffeine can improve puffiness beneath the eyes. Meanwhile, Hartman says, a combination of hyaluronic acid (a humectant that draws in water) and ceramides (lipids that bolster the skin barrier to better retain that moisture) can help protect and plump the area.
Bear in mind that eye creams are not one size fits all. That’s because the concerns around the area can vary in both cause and treatment. With dark circles alone, “there are so many contributing factors, from volume loss to skin hyperpigmentation to visible blood vessels,” Hartman says. If you have yet to see results from an eye cream, a visit to the dermatologist might be in order. One of these cutting-edge formulas might also do the trick.