Dark circles are one of the most stubborn aesthetic concerns we face, but have you ever considered what their color means? While the tone of your skin can filter the color a bit, generally under-eye circles that are the same color tend to be related to the same group of issues. “The discoloration can be a window to our health and wellness in addition to how we are managing the aging process,” says Beverly Hills, CA oculoplastic surgeon Raymond Douglas, MD. We talked to experts about what each color can mean and how to treat them.
Brown dark circles
According to Miami dermatologist Dr. Deborah Longwill, brown dark circles can have a few causes, including allergies, hyperpigmentation, overexposure to sunlight, post-inflammation, frequent eye rubbing, dermatitis, hormones, medication and genetics. However, experts say the most common cause is melanin. “Brown discoloration that is still seen when pulling the skin to remove any shadow or with a wood’s light (which picks up superficial epidermal and deeper dermal pigment) is indeed melanin,” says Nanuet, NY dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD.
Beverly Hills, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD, notes that this overproduction of melanin is generally due to genetics. It can be exacerbated when there is hollowing, loss of fat or thinning skin that comes with aging, she adds. “Most patients who complain of dark circles under their eyes actually have a dark shadow from hollowing of the tear trough,” says Dr. Waldorf. “That’s why all the eye creams they’ve used don’t work.”
If not melanin-related, allergies or poor circulation may be to blame as vessels under the eyes dilate, explains Dr. Shamban. “It can also be lifestyle choices—sleep deprivation or a life at the beach with a career as a lifeguard without the protection of sunglasses—good old fashion sun damage can be one additional explanation,” she says. Additionally, Dr. Douglas says a deficiency in iron or vitamin B12, K or D can be the culprit.
Solutions for brown dark circles
Depending on the cause, there are a few ways to attack brown dark circles. To start, Dr. Longwill advises patients to “refrain from rubbing their eyes, remove makeup gently and wear sun protection.” If you suspect the cause is related to hormones or allergies, Dr. Longwill suggests paying a visit to your dermatologist to explore ways to reduce inflammation.
“Topicals containing retinoids, alpha hydroxy acids, tranexamic acid, vitamin C, viniferine and other antioxidants and botanicals may be helpful” when it comes to brown dark circles, says Dr. Waldorf. However, she warns of the potential for irritation. “The eyelid skin doesn’t have the dense sebaceous glands like the rest of the face and is far more prone to irritation,” she notes. “For significant pigmentation, we treat with pigment-targeted lasers and resurfacing with lasers like the Fraxel Dual or chemical peels.” If the dark circles are a byproduct of hollowness, Dr. Waldorf says, “the answer is either injectable hyaluronic acid fillers in moderation or a lower blepharoplasty.”
Red dark circles
Dr. Shamban says it’s unlikely that red under eyes are a result of genetics. Red dark circles can be result of a skin condition that needs to be addressed, including allergies, dermatitis, eczema, a pH disruption or a sign of sensitivity, she says. However, this redness may just be a result of translucent skin.
“The skin around the eyes is the thinnest skin of our body. With aging, the tissue gets thinner as the collagen becomes less structurally sound. It can also be more translucent so that we see the colors of what lies under this tissue,” says Delray Beach, FL dermatologist Dr. Janet Allenby. “The colors can be modified based on the person’s ethnicity as the skin is like a filter which light reflects through.” Since muscles beneath the skin are maroon, under eyes may look reddish for fair-skinned people, she notes. Additionally, “if you have a bruise at some point the red blood cells may leave a residual rusty look as they clear very slowly,” says Dr. Allenby.
Since fair-skinned people tend to have more translucent skin, “enlarged blood vessels and the small capillary system can show up very clearly through the delicate surface skin under the eye,” says Dr. Douglas. As we age, skin gets thinner, and this gets exacerbated. If the reddish discoloration disappears when placing pressure on the lower eyelid, it’s vascular, a product of superficial capillaries, says Dr. Waldorf.
Solutions for red dark circles
If the discoloration is vascular, Dr. Waldorf says vasoconstrictors like Rhofade or those including caffeine may help temporarily. However, long-term improvement requires a vascular laser like the Vbeam or intense pulsed light, says Dr. Waldorf.
Plumping up the under eye can help reduce the translucency of the skin, thereby mitigating the red appearance. To do this, Dr. Douglas recommends prescription retinol or retinoid cream. Although it may cause additional redness at the start, this will dissipate. Retinol “can help to improve the condition of your skin by increasing the collagen in the area and thickening the skin,” he explains. He adds that dermal fillers can also help camouflage the redness. He also suggests incorporating hyaluronic acid to topically plump and rehydrate skin.
For irritation-related redness, Dr. Waldorf says you should see your dermatologist if moisturizing doesn’t help. The doctor “can determine if it is atopic, irritant or allergic.” Treatments vary from bland moisturizers to topical corticosteroids to anti-inflammatory agents, says Dr. Waldorf. She adds that if it’s due to an irritant or allergic dermatitis, you must avoid the causative agent.
Blue/green dark circles
A common cause of blue or green under eyes is fat loss and dissipating volume in the region, says Dr. Shamban. “When the buffer or cushioning is gone, it can expose the network of veins and systems underneath through the translucency of the skin.” If the blue hue manifests in lines across the lower lid extending to the temples, it’s simply visible veins, says Dr. Waldorf. According to Dr. Longwill, other possible causes include lack of sleep, dehydration, smoking, thinning skin, poor circulation or nutrition, iron deficiency and stress.
If you’ve ever had hyaluronic acid filler injected in the area, the hue could be from the Tyndall effect. “The Tyndall effect is caused by light scattering by superficial hyaluronic acid gel seen through thin skin. It can be seen years after filler was initially injected,” says Dr. Waldorf. Dr. Shamban says this can be a result of improperly placed filler or overfilling the area.
Solutions for blue/green dark circles
Those experiencing the Tyndall effect will need to get the hyaluronic acid gel dissolved. This procedure involves injecting hyaluronidases like Hylenex or Vitrase, says Dr. Waldorf. She notes that improvement starts to be seen immediately. For visible veins that you’d rather not see, Dr. Waldorf suggests a long pulsed Nd:YAG laser like the Lutronic Clarity.
Dr. Longwill advocates for a balanced lifestyle with a healthy diet, no smoking, decreased stress, ample hydration and good sleep. Additionally, she says the N-lite laser and BBL light “dramatically help minimize blue dark circles.” Dr. Douglas suggests a cream with high active antioxidants to improve circulation or an eye serum with humectants followed by a cream with plumping factors, lipids, fatty acids and emollients to soften and seal. He also notes that the cold can help. Dr. Douglas advises using a cold spoon to dilate blood vessels.
Purple dark circles
According to Dr. Douglas, purple under eyes are most commonly linked to pigmentation or a genetic family trait. This shade of dark circles is also most commonly seen in medium to dark skin tones and those with prominent eyes.
Solutions for purple dark circles
While purple under eyes are not often defeated by topicals, Dr. Douglas says you can try a “skin lightening or brightening cream containing retinol or antioxidants like niacinamide, kojic acid, arbutin, azelaic and a daily vitamin C.” A form of laser resurfacing, like Fraxel, may help decrease dark pigment, he adds. Microneedling RF, like Vivace, may help as well.