Dark Eye Circles
30 July 2019
You’ve heard the claims: the periorbital skin is the thinnest and most delicate in the body, so skin around the eyes are the first to show signs of aging and tiredness. And there’s no lack of options for eye creams, eye serums, eye gels, eye masks…etc. These eye rejuvenating products promise to brighten and illuminate the eyes and better yet, correct structural problems like dark eye circles, eyebags and wrinkles. The topic of whether eye creams are a necessary step in our skincare routine has always been a point of contention since time immemorial. Believers (that include doctors), skincare companies and Sephora fans swearing by these potions; and non-believers that feel that eye creams are glorified, overpriced moisturisers that offer a placebo effect at best. Which camp are you in?
A search for eye creams at Sephora’s website will reveal a plethora of eye products for different concerns and age ranges. Notice that ingredients like antioxidants and AHA can be found in facial products too?
This blog post will take you through the basic anatomy and differences unique to the skin around the eyes (also called the periorbital or periocular skin); concerns unique to the periocular region; and case for and against eye creams. Scam or misunderstood skincare step? Let’s look at the great eye cream debate together.
The thin skin around the eyes is also why blood vessels can be easily seen. One of the reasons for dark eye circles is the prominence of veins being seen through the thin lower eyelid skin.
It is true that the periorbital skin is one of the thinnest in the body. The thin periorbital skin makes the skin around the eyes more vulnerable to insults like UV rays. As our skin loses collagen, becomes looser and thinner when we age, the periocular skin being the thinnest in the face tends to show signs of aging like wrinkles; laxity; dark eye circles and eyebags easily.
Signs of aging around the eyes: descent of the eyebrows; crows’ feet wrinkles, hollowing of the infraorbital region, lower eye lid eye bags; dermatochalasis and dark eye circles.
Secondly, the skin around the eyes less muscle and tissue support compared to the rest of the face. So as our skin ages, the descent or sagging by the skin around the eyes becomes more pronounced. This is especially so for the skin of the lower eyelid, which sinks down to accentuate the hollowness of the orbit. This is one of the causes for dark eye circles and lower eyelid eye bags. In addition, just under the skin of the eyes is a muscle called the orbicularis oculi. This muscle functions to open and close the eyes. With constant squinting and smiling, the superficial nature of the orbicularis oculi muscle accentuates the appearance of wrinkles lateral to the eyes called crows’ feet.
The skin around the eyes also has fewer sebaceous glands that keep the skin moisturised. Keeping skin moisturised and hydrated, as I’ve mentioned in my skincare and Skinbooster blog posts, is crucial in protecting the skin from aging. As such, the skin around the eyes is more susceptible to fine lines and wrinkles because it is more prone to dryness.
Related post: Skinboosters/ 水光针- All You Need to Know About It
Having understood these differences that make the periorbital skin more vulnerable to aging and other insults, it is obvious that we need to protect the skin around the eyes. So does this mean a case for specialised eye creams?
Let us next examine what eye creams are made of before we proceed with the crux of the debate.
Some time back I received a sample of Murad Professional’s Eye Lift Firming Treatment; an eye serum from the luxury/ professional line by Dr Murad.
And the “exclusive, proprietary surface-filling and firming technologies that instantly lift, firm and visibly reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles” as stated from Dr Murad’s website for this product are… *drum roll* cotton eye pads and hyaluronic acid microspheres. Sounds like a fancy way of calling a hyaluronic acid eye mask, no?
Majority of eye creams have been marketed to be ‘specially formulated’ with ‘special delivery systems’. However, a closer look at most of these products will reveal that the ingredients- be it nanosized or low molecular weight hyaluronic acid, caffeine, green tea extracts, botanical extracts, retinoids…etc- are the same type of active ingredients and delivery systems that are used for facial moisturisers.
TFW you realise your eye cream has the same ingredients (underlined in red) as your facial moisturiser but costs more for the same amount. Screenshots taken from La Roche Posay’s website of its Redermic C range for a side by side comparison.
Perhaps one difference between eye creams vs facial moisturisers is that eye creams contain a lower concentration or potency of these active ingredients. This is to avoid irritation because the skin around the eyes is thinner than the rest of the face. The thinner skin around the eyes also means that these dedicated eye creams allows for lower concentrations of active ingredients to be absorbed by the periocular skin as compared to thicker skin in the rest of the face. This is somewhat ironic because eye creams or eye serums tend to come in smaller containers and cost more than facial moisturisers. The reason why eye creams may seem to work is because of the active ingredients (like hyaluronic acid and retinoids) that plump up the skin or reduce fine lines regardless of where they are applied on the face.
Another anti-aging skincare favourite among some of my friends is Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair. A look at the ingredient list for the eye serum and face serum under the same range will reveal the same active ingredient: hyaluronic acid (underlined in red). Screenshots taken from Sephora’s website for a side by side comparison.
The second irony of eye creams and their promises is that they also do not contain any sunscreen filters to protect against UV rays, which is the greatest external cause of aging!
Short answer: yes eye creams work. But the caveat is that it will depend on the active ingredients that are in your eye cream. And what works for the skin of the face will work for the periorbital skin.
Perhaps the more relevant question would be: are eye creams necessary?
My take is that the skin around the eyes are more vulnerable to signs of aging so they need to be protected and moisturised. However eye creams are really just moisturisers with the same skincare ingredients as facial moisturisers albeit at a higher cost. The active ingredients in the eye creams may work; so a cheaper alternative to eye creams is…your facial moisturiser.
If the skin around your eyes does get irritated with using your facial moisturiser, consider using selecting a moisturiser with a lower concentration of active ingredients. Or, if it makes you happy, get an eye cream.
Milia around the eyes. Milia are formed when dead skin cells get trapped in the pores on the surface of the skin. When eye creams or serums clog the pores, milia can also occur.
This is by far one of the most common problems I hear about eye creams. Milia are tiny, stubborn white cysts that can appear anywhere on the face; including around the eyes. Milia occur because of dead skin cells build up and get trapped in skin pores. Eye creams and facial moisturisers can also cause of milia by obstructing the clearance ofskin cells and clog the pores.
I’ve shared about milia seeds in this post and the treatment options in Milia Seeds 101 . Milia seeds present a cosmetic problem because bigger ones can be difficult to conceal.
Honestly, I’ve always approached eye creams with a healthy dose of skepticism. My experience with an eye cream many years ago left milia around my eyes without improvement in my my crows feet wrinkles. You know the disappointment when you splurge on an eye cream and it creates another problem without living up its promises?
(Fortunately, botox now keeps my crows feet wrinkles at bay and I got my milia removed by laser.)
My bottle of Drunk Elephant’s Shaba Complex Eye Serum. The packaging is very sleek with this shade of mint green and twist cap opening.
I recently ventured very cautiously into eye creams again because I was tempted by Drunk Elephant’s Shaba Eye Complex. Drunk Elephant is a cult US skincare brand that is a favourite among beauty reviewers. The active ingredients in Drunk Elephant’s Shaba Eye Complex are Edelweiss Stem Cells and copper peptide. There is some evidence for both ingredients for skin repair and rejuvenation and you can find these ingredients in….yep, you guessed it, facial moisturisers and serums too.
Some serums that contain copper peptide
Squeezing in a concise summary of Drunk Elephant’s Shaba Eye Complex here. It’s a decent eye cream. It feels light on application, dries quickly and my milia prone skin has not developed new milia….yet. The skin around my eyes does feel less dry throughout the day. I don’t expect this eye cream to work for my crows feet wrinkles around my eyes. I’d say Drunk Elephant’s Shaba Eye Cream makes for a decent eye cream for keeping the periocular skin moisturised.
So if it makes you happy, get yourself an eye cream.
My recommendations for selecting an eye cream or a facial moisturiser that doubles up as eye cream:
Related post: All About Topical Vitamin C
That said, remember that eye creams are not going to perform miracles, so have realistic expectations. Even with the right active ingredients in your eye cream, it is only the skin around of the eye that is going to improve. Structural problems related to aging like crows feet wrinkles, eyebags and dark eye circles will not improve. Let’s see why.
Wrinkle/ Crows feet
Wrinkles at the outer corners of the eyes are also known as crows feet wrinkles.
Wrinkles are an inevitable part of aging and they appear most commonly on the upper half of the face- the outer corners of the eyes (“crows’ feet”); the glabella (“number 11” between the brows”) and the forehead.
With repeated facial expressions (e.g. smiling and squinting) over the years; the muscles of the face pull the overlying skin to create grooves under the surface of the skin at the corners of the eyes to form wrinkles. Coupled with loss of collagen and elasticity with age, the crows feet wrinkles continue to deepen.
Understanding the fundamentals of how wrinkles form will help with understanding why eye creams will not correct wrinkles. Eye creams can only improve the texture of the skin but not relax the orbicularis oculi muscles that cause the wrinkles. The only treatment that will work for crows feet wrinkles is botulinum toxin or Botox. To learn about how botulinum toxin/ Botox treats wrinkles and the safety issues surrounding botulinum toxin, please read this post 5 Things You Need to Know About Botox Safety.
Dark Eye Circles and Lower Eyelid Eyebags
Dark eye circles on the left and lower eyelid eye bag on the right
Deep to the skin of our lower eyelids are fats called fat pads. As we get older, the skin, muscles and tissues that support the structures of the face (including the fat pads) get weaker. The weakened support to the fat pads beneath the lower eyelids causes these fat pads to protrude (pseudoherniate) more superficially. The pseudoherniation of these periorbital fat pads are the cause of the lower eyelid eye bags.
Tear trough deformity
The loss of support and sagging in the under eye area also causes a hollowing effect at the under eyes, called the tear trough deformity. The tear trough deformity creates a shadow at the under eye; and contributes to the formation of dark eye circles.
Besides surgery, the mainstay for lower eyelid eye bags and dark eye circles are tear trough fillers. Tear trough fillers fill up the hollowness under the eyes. By adding volume to the lower eyelid, the sunken appearance is masked and this reduces the shadowing effect; stretches the skin and supports the fat pads that have descended. To learn more about eye bags and see how under eye/ tear trough fillers are done in my clinic in Singapore, please read this post How to Get Rid of Eye Bags Without Surgery: Under Eye/ Tear Trough Fillers.
With careful selection of active ingredients, you can keep the skin around your eyes moisturised and protected with either a dedicated eye cream or a facial moisturiser. If you are worried about the skin around the eyes being more delicate and sensitive, choose a product with a lower concentration or potency of the actives.
Lastly, eye creams will not be able to treat structural problems that lie deep to the skin around the eyes. So for problems like crows feet wrinkles; dark eye circles and eye bags- you’re going to have to turn to your doctor for help!