Our go-to guide to understanding your under-eye circles & some of the reasons behind them

What is hyperpigmentation?

Dark circles under the eyes – they’re totally normal and common (despite what Instagram and TikTok filters may lead us to believe). But have you ever wondered what they are exactly and what might be causing them? Us too, which is why we spoke to Dr Elizabeth Hawkes, consultant ophthalmic and oculoplastic surgeon at the Cadogan Clinic, and Dr Ahmed El Muntasar, GP and an aesthetics doctor, to find out what’s going on beneath the surface and why.

For more expert insights, check out our guide on how to combat under-eye circles.

What are dark circles?

"Put simply, dark circles can be characterised by rings of darkened discoloration around the eyes," says Dr El Muntasar.

The key to understanding them better involves taking a closer look at the make up of the skin around the eye area. "It’s unique to the rest of the body," explains Dr Hawkes. ‘"There's little subcutaneous fat underneath, unlike the rest of the face."

The skin here also has fewer oil glands and less collagen. As a result, under-eye skin is thinner and more delicate, making it more prone to darkness and redness, as well as fine lines and dehydration, which can make it look dull.

What causes dark circles?

Dark rings can affect anyone. However, some people can experience more pronounced darkness than others.

"Two common causes of dark circles are a more hollow bone structure and hyperpigmentation," says Dr El Muntasar. "Hyperpigmentation occurs through melanin (the brown pigment that produces the normal colour of skin) building up in excess. This is when patches of skin become darker." This can give dark circles a brown tinge.

Also, poor circulation around the eye can result in less oxygenated blood, leading to dark circles that look blue. Discoloration may also occur as a result of the blood vessels underneath becoming dilated and, as under-eye skin is thinner, they can look more visible. Lack of sleep and allergies may cause them to appear worse.

Here’s a deeper dive into some of the most common causes:

Genetics: If your parents have dark circles, there’s a greater chance you may develop them, too.

Ageing: "Volume loss and changes to the bone structure around the eyelid can lead to dark circles developing as we age," says Dr Hawkes. "This usually causes the exaggerated appearance of the tear trough (the area between the lower eyelid and upper cheek) and, over the years, bones can atrophy, causing the eyes to sit further back in the socket and appear sunken. This, combined with the fact skin becomes more translucent as we age, enhances the appearance of dark circles."

Poor circulation: The eye area contains a lot of blood vessels and so poor circulation can lead to changes in colour. "This will make these vascular areas more apparent under the skin and cause the appearance of dark circles," says Dr Hawkes.

Dehydration: Water’s not only great for our health, but our under-eyes. Our experts tell us that when the body’s deprived of valuable H2O, skin can begin to look dull and eyes appear sunken.

Is there a difference between dark circles & eye bags?

Although they often appear hand in hand, they aren’t the same thing. "Dark circles are darkness formed under and around the eye area," explains Dr El Muntasar. "Bags, however, are swelling under the eye. Puffy eyes can be caused by genetics and the ageing process." While separate entities, puffiness can make dark circles more noticeable.

Read our complete guide to puffy eyes to find out more about the causes and how to deflate them.

The takeaway

Genetics, hyperpigmentation and lifestyle are just some of the reasons we develop dark circles. Whether blue, brown or black, finding out they’re extremely common may be just what most of us need to know in order to accept them.

We’re all about championing choice here at Health & Beauty, though, so if you’re looking for ways to reduce them, we’ve got your back. Here’s our guide to how to improve the appearance of dark circles, from lifestyle tweaks to skincare and make-up, there’s a range of options at your fingertips.