- The most common causes of dark circles under the eyes are lack of sleep and genetics.
- Dark circles under the eyes can also be caused by allergies, excessive alcohol consumption, and aging.
- More serious medical conditions like anemia or iron deficiency may also be causing your dark circles.
- This article was medically reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in New York City.
Dark circles under the eyes are a common problem many people deal with and they can have several different causes. Here’s what you need to know about what causes dark circles and how you can treat them.
What are dark circles under the eyes?
Dark circles are when the skin beneath both eyes appears darkened. Dark circles are often the result of two dermatological conditions:
- Thinning of the skin under the eyes which makes blood vessels appear more visible.
- Puffy eyes which result in the appearance of dark shadows under the eyes.
Dark circles under the eyes can happen for many reasons and may or may not be associated with a health problem. They can also be an inherited trait seen in early childhood that may worsen as you age.
However, dark circles can usually be treated depending on what’s causing them. Here are six causes of dark circles under the eyes and how you can lessen their appearance.
1. Lack of sleep
Sleep deprivation can cause your skin to grow pale. This causes blood vessels beneath the skin to become more apparent, giving the appearance of dark circles, says Karly O’Keefe, an esthetician and owner of facial treatment spa, SkincraftLA in Los Angeles. Getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night can help reduce the appearance of dark circles.
As you get older, the tissue around the eyes starts to thin, making them look puffy and swollen. There are some medical treatments that can specifically target age-induced under-eye circles, like fillers and laser therapy. Not everyone is a candidate for these procedures though so talk with your doctor about the right choice for you.
Allergies and dry eyes can also contribute to dark circles, says Michele Green, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist who runs her own practice in New York City. When you have an allergic reaction, your body releases histamines, which can cause itchiness and redness in the eyes. This might lead you to rub your eyes, increasing irritation, swelling, and the appearance of dark shadows.
If you are experiencing other allergy symptoms, like itchy eyes, sneezing, or congestion, allergies could be the reason for your dark circles.
Taking an antihistamine, like Benadryl or Zyrtec, can help reduce allergy symptoms that may exacerbate the presence of dark circles, Green says, but this is only effective if allergies are the cause of your dark circles. It is not recommended to take an antihistamine if you are not suffering from allergies.
While dark circles can have many environmental causes, they may also be genetic, O’Keefe says.
In fact, a 2015 study published in the Brazilian medical journal, Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, examined the physiological and lifestyle factors contributing to the risk and severity of dark circles in the Brazilian population.
The researchers found that family history was the most significant factor associated with dark circles and that the average age of onset for dark circles among participants was 24 years old.
Genetics can determine a couple of factors that contribute to dark circles: collagen levels and melanin production.
- Collagen is a protein in the body that helps keep skin elastic and lessens the appearance of wrinkles.
- Melanin refers to dark brown or black pigments in the skin. This is often referred to as “genetic hyperpigmentation” and can be treated by a dermatologist.
5. Iron deficiency and anemia
Anemia is a medical condition characterized by an insufficient amount of red blood cells. It is usually due to a lack of iron in the diet.
With anemia, blood cells are unable to carry enough oxygen to the body’s tissues — including those under the eyes. This can result in dark eye circles, Green says.
A 2014 study published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology found that about half of the 200 patients with dark circles had iron deficiency anemia. While addressing anemia did not completely get rid of their dark eye circles, many participants in the study reported an improvement when their anemia was treated.
Signs of anemia include fatigue, dizziness, and pale skin. If you think you may be anemic, seek medical attention. Your doctor might suggest taking an iron supplement.
Eating a healthy diet with iron-rich foods, like spinach, beans, and seafood can prevent and treat anemia.
6. Smoking and alcohol consumption
Both smoking and drinking can increase dark circles by dehydrating the skin, O’Keefe says.
Drinking alcohol can cause blood vessels to dilate under the eyes, making dark circles look more prominent. Alcohol can also negatively impact sleep, which also exacerbates the appearance of dark circles.
Carbon monoxide in cigarettes deprives your skin of oxygen, Green says, which can make it appear darker in places where the skin is thin, like under your eyes. Smoking also speeds up skin aging by breaking down collagen.
“Smoking damages the skin and leads to premature aging,” Green says. Similar to age-related dark circles, less collagen production can lead to dark circles under the eyes.
The bottom line
Dark circles under the eyes can have many different causes, and in some cases can be a sign of a health problem like anemia. If your dark circles don’t get better with adequate sleep or at-home remedies talk with your doctor to help determine the underlying cause.