What Causes Dark Circles Under Your Eyes?

Kaiden asks: What causes the dark circles under my eyes when I’m tired?

It is often claimed that periorbital dark circles are caused by tiredness or working too hard or even just staying up late. While this can be true, the truth is that your genes play a huge role here. So what exactly is happening when you get dark circles under or around your eyes?

Simply put, periorbital dark circles are a result of the thin layer of skin below your eyes showing the blood vessels and the blood they contain more clearly than anywhere else on your body. (For reference, this skin around your eyelids, called periorbital skin, is on average about 0.5 mm thick compared to an average of about 2 mm thick on most of the rest of your body.)

Now, as you may or may not already know, the reason veins often look blue isn’t because the blood inside them is blue; it’s because your skin/subcutaneous tissue only lets blue/violet wavelengths of light pass through it. As a result, only blue light is reflected back and the veins look, well, bluish. (Veins often won’t appear blue if a person has darker or lighter skin. Rather, the veins tend to appear green or brown. On the other hand, people with extremely light skin, such as albinos, will typically have veins that show up as dark purple or dark red, more closely resembling the actual color of the blood running through the veins.)

It’s the exact same concept with the skin below your eyes. Those dark bluish circles are (usually) just the result of light being reflected back off of the blood vessels sitting just below the surface of that incredibly thin patch of skin. This is the same reason facial bruises are more prominent below or around the eyes; the thin skin just shows the blood from the ruptured blood vessels a little bit more clearly.

Again, as you may or may not know, as we age, our skin loses its elasticity and ability to regenerate and as a result, it becomes thinner. This is why more often than not, elderly people will have rather prominent periorbital dark circles regardless of how much they sleep. As with those who are genetically predisposed to having thinner skin below the eyes, it’s just biology.

Another thing that can cause dark circles beneath the eyes is something known as periorbital hyperpigmentation, which is basically a condition that results in more melanin being produced by the skin below the eyes, resulting in it appearing to be a darker color. This is mostly a condition that affects (or is at least more noticeable in) darker skinned people. According to Pratik B Sheth et al. of the PDU Government Medical College and Hospital in India, this is one of the most common complaints dermatologists have to deal with. Unfortunately, as explained in this case study about an Indian gentleman with a particularly severe case of periorbital melanosis, it’s very difficult to treat in darker skinned patients, which has led to a booming niche market of cover up make-up for people with darker complexions.

All that said, there are a number of factors that can make dark circles appear worse, even if you’re not genetically predisposed to them. One of the more serious sounding is the oxidisation of blood leaking from the periorbital blood vessels, which is just a fancier way of saying that sometimes the blood vessels around your eyes can get damaged, blood leaks out, and you’re left with puffy dark circles under your eyes. It’s a relatively harmless problem and even the chronic sufferers of this sort of blood leaking need not worry too much about it. It is also technically reversible with the right treatment, though changes in lifestyle are often recommended before one should consider opting for surgery.

Another problem that goes hand-in-hand with periorbital dark circles is periorbital puffiness, aka bags below your eyes. In young folk, this is almost always caused by fluid buildup below the eyes, either due to illness, allergies or simply excessive salt consumption which can result in the body retaining more fluid than usual. This can place increased pressure on the skin and blood vessels around the eyes which can force blood vessels closer to the surface of the skin, making dark circles appear more prominent. Eye puffiness can also simply be a result of old age.

Now all of that is (hopefully) interesting to you, but we still haven’t specifically answered the question: Can those dark circles be caused by fatigue and, if so, why? Well the answer to the former is: sometimes. So why exactly is this the case? It’s not like lack of sleep makes your skin thinner, right?

Well the answer is thought to lie in how the body acts when it’s low on energy. When the body is tired, production of the chemical cortisol is dramatically increased to help give you the energy you need to stay awake. Among many other things, cortisol actually increases the volume of the blood in your body, which causes the blood vessels (including the ones below your eyes) to engorge to accommodate it. As we’ve already mentioned, dark circles are mostly caused by us seeing our blood vessels / blood through our skin, so it stands to reason that when those blood vessels are engorged, they’d be easier to see, even in people who may have been blessed with thicker skin below their eyes.

So, whether by passing on their genes to you or for not letting you sleep in after a gaming all-nighter when you’re young, it’s all your parent’s fault. 😉 Something that is/was even more reckless of them as cortisol promotes fat accumulation. So your lack of sleep is likely contributing to more than just under-eye cosmetic issues.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Other things that can contribute to dark circles under the eyes include: medication that causes blood vessels to dilate; scratching or rubbing your eyes excessively, such as during allergy season; regularly sleeping on your stomach; and in our best WebMD impression, you should know they can also be caused by liver disease… possibly deadly… And by possibly, we mean most likely.  You had a good run.  But now there are these dark circles under your eyes clearly indicating some life threatening liver disease you have. /WebMD. 😉
  • A similar light diffusion process is happening when we see people who are suffocating and have purple lips and fingertips. In this case, the blood is so oxygen deprived that it turns an extremely dark shade of red. When the light diffuses through the skin of the lips or through your fingernails, it then often ends up looking dark blue or purple.
  • Bags under your eyes can cause dark circles to appear darker, simply because of the shadows they cast under certain light.
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22 comments

  • I dunno, I’m one of those people that had the dark circles around my eyes most of my life, I went to several doctors, believing that I had issues, I spent a LOT of money on blood work and other tests. It turns out that if you stay up until midnight each day, on a computer, and wake up at 5 AM each morning, you are shorting yourself on sleep. Since adopting an 8 hour sleep schedule and getting to bed before 10 PM my dark circles have completely disappeared. My last doctor told me it was genetic, it most certainly is not.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Bob: I think the point there is you’re genetically predisposed to dark circles perhaps due to the thinness of the skin around your eyes perhaps being even more so than most. And lack of sleep, as noted, can exacerbate the issue.

    • What does getting to bed by 10 PM have to do with it? What if you are on a late shift but still get enough sleep?

      • The more sleep your get before 12am (midnight), the healthier the quality of sleep. Researchers have been studying this subject for years. You can still get a healthy dose of sleep after 12am, but the approximation about the quality is for every 1 hour of sleep you get in between 8pm and 12am, it is equivalent to 2 hours of sleep after midnight. Peace.

        • Sleep Scientist

          I looked around online to try to find where you might have seen such statements, and there were plenty of websites / blogs that may leave you with that impression. But this is just not true – you will find in these blogs make statements based on the human biological clock, which measures the levels of light to detect night / day changes. This would work perfectly well in the desert, forest, jungle, far away from towns and cities, but you will notice that we have artificial light all the time.

          When there are street lights, flashing ads, and well-lit homes, there is no difference between 10 pm and 12 am. Your personal night starts when you close the blinds and finally allow some darkness in your bedroom – if you have an hour of relaxation in dim light and no bright devices before you go to sleep, that’s even better. This is what your biological clock would be tuned to, not the actual sunset and sunrise (how would my biological clock detect the sunrise light when the blinds are closed? My sunrise starts when I open the window and allow the sun in every morning).

          What your biological clock cannot handle, though, is abrupt change. So if you sleep for 5 hours in weekdays and try to make up for it on the weekend, your sleep quality would suffer – try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day and you will notice the difference.

  • Is this entire article plagiarized from gizmodo, or vice versa?

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Jessica: Gizmodo has full permission to re-publish any of our articles at their leisure (with a few minor stipulations). So yes, Gizmodo technically copied it from us, but we don’t mind. :-)

  • i am 22 year old, i am getting dark circles these days. what reduces dark circles rather than sleep??

  • I’m 16 and I have the same problem for most of my life. Is there any way to get rid of it???

  • I m now getting a large dark circle under my eyes.it is seriously big that I don’t want to talk about that! Can anyone of u guys give me some tips to fade the dark circle I
    Under my eyes? And btw is Eye cream effective for this?

  • Brynhildur Björnsdóttir

    In Iceland we have only 3 hours of light in the winter and 24 hours of light in the summer so I don’t buy this sleep before midnight. But this article was very informative

  • Randall William Slobojan .jr

    So by chance would creating scar tissue reduce the visual effects of darkness by increasing the amount of flesh present on top or would it simply produce the same effect because veins would grow into the added tissue? Could just toughen the bottom of the eyes up and thicken the flesh if that were the case. Though, I think for most people that ideal is a little scary. Suppose you could compare it to thickening your gums when you brush your teeth so they don’t bleed anymore.

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